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7908 Long Beach Boulevard
Harvey Cedars, Ocean County, New Jersey
(609) 494-8191

By The Artful Diner

The Owl Tree had always been a popular year-round LBI watering hole. In point of fact, whenever I was in the area -- usually early in the season, scouting my "Top Ten at the Jersey Shore" for that particular year -- I would often stop in for a libation before moving on. Throughout its tenure, however, the Owl Tree's food remained something of a mixed bag, never quite living up to its potential.

Plantation, on the other hand, the stylish current inhabitant of this venerable Victorian, lost absolutely no time in establishing itself as Long Beach Island's primo dining destination. Marty Grimes -- also owner of Philadelphia's Moshulu and Radnor's Passerelle -- along with partner Brian Sabarese, are the proprietors in question; Passerelle's chef, Allan Vanesko, the menu architect. And it is Jeff Alberti, the talented local power behind the stove, who continues to turn out such a marvelous array of contemporary fare with a decidedly tropical/island accent.

The bi-level interior is chic but casual, rife with rattan and reminiscences of the South Seas. Just be aware, however, that the environs are far from sedate. That is not to say inhospitable -- I have always found my sojourns here extremely pleasant and the service more than up to the mark -- merely the fact that the often boisterous, bustling atmosphere is more conducive to an easy-going evening than to an intimate tête-à-tête.

Your first stop will undoubtedly be the comfortable bar. Here you may settle in with one of the establishment's cool specialty drinks, frozen margaritas, coladas, daiquiris, tequilas, or vintage rums. And be sure to take a gander at the first-rate wine list, which also sports some very nice selections by the glass. I would personally recommend the Selaks Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and the elegant David Bruce Central Coast Pinot Noir (both $9.50).

Appetizers cut a rather wide swath. If you want to go retro, for example, there is always a first-class rendition of the classic iceberg wedge adorned with crumbled smoked bacon, diced tomato, and Maytag bleu cheese ($6.50). Traditional items include a very nice Caesar salad with Parmesan and focaccia croutons ($6.50), steamed Prince Edward Island mussels swimming in a zippy red sauce awash with sweet peppers and Maui onions ($7.75), or New England clam chowder with crispy clams and parsley oil ($7.00). All are right on target.

But Plantation is a restaurant where it pays to explore the more exotic possibilities. So why not try the incredible grilled chicken quesadilla ($7.75)? Three triangles filled with moist shredded chicken and all the usual accoutrements are accompanied by a dynamite guacamole and roasted corn and black bean salad. The crowning touch, however, is a drizzle of ancho-lime crema, sporting just the proper counterpoint of fire and ice.

Another highly recommended starter -- sampled on a cold March night, but also just right for an overly cool early summer's evening -- is the Madeira and tomato braised beef stew ($8.00). The flavors are rich and intense, the chunks of beef extraordinarily tender, the catalyst a tender pillow of parsnip purée, and the portion size just right. Utterly addictive.

Entrées also provide the diner with some equally enticing culinary surprises and subtexts. The moist and wonderfully meaty smoked and grilled center-cut pork chop is paired with herb-roasted fingerlings and collard greens (nothing particularly new here)... and then absolutely sent into orbit on the wings of a zippy Argentinean chimichurri ($23.00). The blackened Costa Rican tilapia is teamed with sweet potato steak fries, grilled zucchini and squash... and receives a new lease on life from a sensational tropical fruit chutney ($17.50).

The above presentations are typical of Mr. Alberti's proportional prowess. He engages in just enough innovative permutations to excite the eye and the palate without going over the top. And the wasabi-crusted Chilean sea bass ($26.00) is yet another example of his creative fine-tuning and restraint. The fish itself is cooked through (and this is one specimen that should not be translucent at the center) but still perfectly moist and enhanced with just enough spice to add a bit of pizzazz without setting off any alarm bells. It is then placed on a soft, sensual seabed of drop dumplings and surrounded by a crisp Asian stir-fry, splash of miso, and provocative orange-ginger vinaigrette.

Meatloaf is about as comfortingly commonplace as it gets; but the caramelized onion and BBQ version encountered here ($17.00) displays its own unique dash of the dramatic. A sun-dried tomato cream provides the proper panache, while a luscious pillow of Colby cheddar mashed potatoes and florets of buttered broccoli contribute an appropriate down-home touch. For those even more carnivorously inclined, be sure to try the benchmark pepper-grilled New York strip steak dressed in a heady blue cheese-horseradish sauce ($25.50).

Desserts, most endowed with an island accent, are also quite tempting. The Key lime pie with raspberry sauce and touch of crème anglaise ($6.50) is delightfully tangy and sports a first-rate crust, color, and texture; and the sticky toffee pudding served up with vanilla ice cream and caramel cream sauce ($7.75) is a dieter's worst nightmare -- but worth every calorie. If you really want to go native, however, I highly recommend the delicious fried bananas dusted with Hawaiian sugar and embellished with rum raisin ice cream ($7.00).

Every once in a great while a restaurant comes along that seems to break the mold, an eatery that is capable of firing the imagination as well as pleasantly placating the palate -- and Plantation is just such a place. This stylish and exciting establishment makes a wonderful addition to LBI's ever-vibrant dining scene. And the best news of all... it's open all year round!

Cuisine: Tropical/Island
Hours: Lunch: daily, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Sun - Thurs, 4:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Permitted at the bar only
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite/Valet
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: http://www.plantationrestaurant.com

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