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New Jersey Restaurant Review

410 Bank Street
410 Bank Street
Cape May, Cape May County, New Jersey
(609) 884-2127

By The Artful Diner
May 23, 2005

The first thing that catches your eye as you step onto the porch at 410 Bank Street is the laminated restaurant review just to the right of the entrance. Gleaned from the pages of the New Jersey section of the New York Times, it bestows an "Excellent" upon this ever-popular Cape May eatery. Then you notice the date: 1995. Still, more recent comments have been equally effusive. Despite all the hype and hoopla that have been lavished on this establishment, however, my own critique will, unfortunately, constitute a dissenting opinion.

Although it hardly seems possible, twenty years have passed since Stephen and Janet Miller first opened their doors and Henry Sing Cheng and his cunningly creative Cajun-Creole/French/Caribbean cuisine settled comfortably into their kitchen. Needless to say, a great deal has changed on the Cape May dining scene in the past two decades and, in my humble opinion, 410 Bank Street has failed to keep pace. What was considered daringly innovative in 1985 has become, in the summer of 2005, something of a timeworn culinary cliché.

And even before you ingest your first bite, there are subtle -- and, at times, not so subtle -- hints that disappointment may be in store. The current menu, celebrating the 20th anniversary, lists a number of appetizers and entrées that were in place during the restaurant's first season of operation. A touch of nostalgia. All well and good. But then compare this bill of fare to the aforementioned 10-year-old New York Times review, and you will immediately notice that a number of the items are exactly the same, having changed not a wit.

There are, it should be noted, always daily specials, which allow the chef to give vent to his more imaginative impulses... But any restaurant with these lofty credentials, many of whose appetizers and entrées have remained the same over a ten or, perhaps, twenty year period, is a restaurant in a rut... or resting on its laurels... or both. Of course, the owners and chef could very well make the case that their loyal patrons, who return year after year, would be utterly beside themselves should some of their favorite dishes summarily be put out to pasture.

... And the clientele, in point of fact, is the real tip-off here. Discriminating diners beware; one glance will tell you: This is the grab 'n' growl, clean plate club, proof positive that America has an obesity crisis crowd. As long as the portions are ample, which, indeed, they are, heads remain in a holding pattern over their plates until every last morsel has been sucked into the void.

Which leads us, quite naturally, to the cuisine in question. Unremarkable rolls in the company of foil-wrapped butter do not constitute, in my view, a terribly auspicious beginning. Beyond this, however, my advice would be to stick with the nightly specials, as they clearly demonstrate a lighter and livelier touch than those that have taken up permanent residence on the printed bill of fare.

Case in point: that battle-scarred veteran Cajun shellfish gumbo filé ($34.95). The lobster, scallops, shrimp, and mesquite smoked sausage are all of impeccable quality... but they arrive swimming in a grayish brown morass that bears uncanny resemblance to the regurgitation of an endangered species. The accompanying rice pilaf and sugar snap peas are generic at best. Gumbo (of whatever ilk) would certainly be classified as hale 'n' hearty comfort fare; and while no one expects this menu mainstay to resemble a fashion "plate" -- if you'll pardon the pun -- the hideous appearance of the representative proffered here is enough to offend the indelicate sensibilities of a starving yak.

Finishing a close second in the dubious culinary sweepstakes department is the mesquite grilled yellow fin tuna "with Chef Sing's signature Barbadian black bean sauce" (Market Price; on the evening sampled, $32.95). Once again, the tuna is of excellent quality but is cooked beyond its requested medium rare to a nearly well done. And the overall presentation isn't particularly prepossessing. A hefty slab keeps company with the omnipresent so-so-rice pilaf and sugar snap peas and is submerged beneath an insipid and inordinately viscous black bean sauce. The Atlantic swordfish (Market Price), drowned beneath a flood of Champagne crabmeat cream sauce suffers a similar indignity.

The most praiseworthy presentation is a special starter of wontons filled with diced shrimp and scallions surrounded by a ginger-sesame-nut sauce ($12.95). The three poached Chinese dumplings are both beautifully textured and properly proportioned. And while many of the sauces are entirely too heavy handed, the one encountered here is right on the money: delicate of disposition yet delightfully assertive. The five wild mushroom sauté -- shiitake, oyster, porcini, portobello, and enoki -- served in a heady Marsala demi-glace ($8.95) is another first-rate appetizer... although a puff pastry cornet inexplicably replaces the promised toasted peasant bread.

A special entrée of slightly blackened pan-seared salmon ($32.95) is another excellent choice. Perfectly prepared moist and tender filets surround an epicenter of herbed mashed potatoes and recline on a mélange of Mediterranean vegetables. Once again, the portion size is just right; and the colors, tastes, and textures are nicely balanced without overwhelming either the eye or the palate.

These are, without doubt, the pick of the litter; other options, while not as problematic as those noted several paragraphs above, still fall short of the mark... Among the preludes, for example, the special tuna beignets ($12.95) are mixed with capers and a touch of spice, then breaded and sautéed à la crab cakes. But they are on the dry side and taste slightly "fishy"; a situation that is only partially ameliorated through the ministrations of a very nice tropical fruit salsa. The fresh Jersey asparagus amandine (misspelled as "almondine" on the printed menu) cozying up to a puff pastry cornet ($11.95) is good -- the asparagus are crisp yet tender -- albeit rather one-dimensional. And an unsightly pile (rather than a judicious smattering) of almonds mars what would otherwise be a rather attractive presentation.

The other entrée sampled was the 410 steak ($34.50), with filet mignon standing in for the AWOL New York strip. The filet was ordered medium rare (characterized by a bright red center in my book); what materialized, however -- after an inordinately long interval -- was a very rare, bleeding-on-the-waiter's-socks specimen accompanied by "volcano" mashed potatoes that weren't very volcanic at all, and, you guessed it, the ubiquitous sugar snap peas. The beef was baptized with a slightly gluey-textured barbecue sauce that cooled down to the consistency of molasses. Not the kitchen's finest hour.

Desserts, courtesy of Chef Sing's wife, contain a goodly number of "buts." The "slightly frozen" Key lime pie ($7.95), for example, isn't bad at all, just the right color and consistency... "but" it is garnished with whipped cream fresh from an aerosol can. The bread pudding with whiskey sauce ($8.50) has a great deal to recommend it... "but" the lofty price tag successfully belies its gastronomic credibility. The white chocolate cheesecake ($7.95) also might be considered acceptable... "but" it swims in a pale and insipid pool of chocolate sauce. No espresso here... "but" coffee goes for a hefty $3.00 a pop.

One final word... Compare the current menu with last season's and you realize that prices on a number of items have taken major league jumps: Chilean sea bass Creole, $31.95 - $35.95; Cajun shellfish gumbo filé, $31.50 - $34.95; New Orleans voodoo shrimp, $29.95 - $32.50; baby rack of lamb, $32.95 - $35.95; mesquite grilled veal chop, $30.95 - $36.95. There is no question that dining in Cape May can be an expensive proposition; but this establishment pushes the pecuniary envelope above and beyond. Given the current state of the cuisine, not even the first-rate service and quaint and cozy surroundings can justify this monetary madness.

While 410 Bank Street will undoubtedly continue to appeal to the seasonally swelling ranks of omnivorous culinary tourists, it is, in my estimation, overrated, over-sauced, and overpriced. More sophisticated diners would do well to consider the superior and, in many cases, more reasonably priced options available in this lovely Victorian community.

Cuisine: New Orleans/French/Caribbean
Hours: May - October, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. daily; call for exact hours early and late in the season
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Essential
Parking: Nearby parking lot
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Two step up to one dining room; restrooms not accessible

Web Site: http://www.capemaytimes.com/Restaurants/cape-may/410bank.htm

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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