Three Nibbles: Cardinal Bistro, ITA 101, Crave

There are lots of restaurants in South Jersey that I wish to go to at some point. So many, in fact, that I started a list.

Well, that list has become quite long. Very, very, VERY long. You wouldn’t believe how mind-numbingly long my list is. Henry David Thoreau’s writings are Twitter posts in comparison to this list.

On occasion, I get to cross one off the list. In fact, I recently got to cross TWO off. Oh happy day! Alert the local news!

And so, this week’s Three Nibbles contains two FORMER list members and a third place that’s relatively new.

Oh, and Thoreau just called and asked me to remove the odd reference to him. Then he kept going on and on and I hung up. Whatever, Walden Boy.

Cardinal Bistro – First the bad news: today is the last day that Cardinal Bistro will be serving diners who have trekked down to Ventnor to have their gastronomic minds blown. The good news? Chef Michael Brennan will be taking his skills up the road to Atlantic City for his next culinary adventure. Ventnor’s loss is Atlantic City’s gain.

Since its opening in 2016, I have followed Cardinal Bistro and have seen nothing but positive responses. And not only for the food, but for the way in which the restaurant became a part of the  local community. Good food, good citizenship.

On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I left the kids and had an adult date night down to Ventnor. The front of the house was run with charm and skill by Chef Michael’s father Thomas (and I hope that he has a similar role at the new spot). Going with the tasting menu, we were wholly impressed with all of the dishes we scarfed down. I could go on and on (just like Thoreau – never taking that call again) about the whole meal, but I want to focus on one item in particular.

We ordered one of the appetizers off the regular menu that was simply called Watermelon. The inclusion of a reduction and cacao nibs had us intrigued. And what was served to us was no ordinary watermelon slice. First off, it came out to you served in a skillet. How cheeky is that? This was a savory dish that made you believe this was a steak served rare, even down to the feel of cutting a piece off. And yet, I’m looking at this going dish saying to myself, “It’s a slice of watermelon. I can see that it’s a slice of watermelon.” And yet, the taste and mouthfeel are telling you something different. This is the kind of dish I want when going out for nice meal and willing to drop a little more coin than normal. I want the intrigue. I want the mind blown. And Cardinal Bistro did just that.

I hope for even more in Atlantic City.

 

ITA 101 – What would you like a neighborhood restaurant to be? If you’re asking me, I would like good food (duh), a smaller dining area that’s relaxed but dressed nice, attentive waitstaff that you can chat with and aren’t rushing you out the door…ok, maybe I’d like to have that at every restaurant. Located on Main Street in Medford, ITA 101 checks all the boxes and then some. A recent trip with friends in the area convinced me that all the great things being said about ITA 101 were, in fact, true.

The daily menu is small but ever-changing, and each day has a theme with special dishes. Many of the offerings we had then may not be on the menu now. But after having sampled – erm, I mean devoured – a selection of dishes, there’s an underlying level of quality that will make you willing to try something out of your comfort zone. And honestly, there’s nothing here that will overwhelm you with complexity. Italian cooking is based upon a few ingredients high in quality and prepared with skill and wisdom. The homemade pastas are an absolute delight, which is the same way I would describe the waitstaff.

ITA 101 is the Italian restaurant you want when you don’t want chicken parm and red gravy, yet still feel like you can dine and relax. And with friends and happy conversation, multiple bottles of wine will disappear into the evening.

ITA 101 – 20 S. Main Street, Medford. (609) 654-0101.

 

Crave – The building on the corner of Main and Washington in Toms River has seen quite a number of restaurants come and go over the years. Some years ago it was location of Jeffrey’s, which for a brief moment in time turned more than a few heads of the dining set in Jersey with a Zagat rating that couldn’t possibly be from a restaurant in Toms River.

Now we have Crave, a casual dining option that opened in January. Having sampled the food here on two occasions, I have liked what the restaurant is doing overall. The menu is straightforward. mainly with offerings that you would expect: burgers, wings, pasta, mozz sticks. But there are some interesting choices as well, such as a vegan section that includes mac and cheese, sausage and peppers, and the Impossible Burger. I, of course, was drawn to the Sunshine Burger. Pork roll, egg and cheese on top of a burger? Yes, please.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. Soon to be opening a couple of doors down is Battle River Brewing. We’re in New Jersey, and our microbreweries do not serve food. But, the small plates menu at Crave – to me, anyway – is just what you would want for finger food in any bar or tavern. Between the two, maybe – just maybe – the notion of downtown Toms River being a destination doesn’t sound so crazy after all.

Crave – 73 Main Street, Toms River. (732) 667-6900.

 

 

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