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Ebbitt Room
Virginia Hotel
25 Jackson Street
Cape May, Cape May County, New Jersey
(609) 884-5700

By The Artful Diner
Special to NJ.Com
December 15, 2008

Printable Copy of this Review

I eyed the tomato-goat cheese "Napoleon" on the menu. Along with a carrot & fennel salad and aged balsamic vinegar, it also promised "Jersey vine ripened tomato." But since it was early October, I was somewhat skeptical.

"It's rather late in the season... are you sure these are Jersey tomatoes?" I inquired.

Quoth the waiter: "They look like Jersey tomatoes to me!"

It would have been entirely appropriate, of course, if he had offered to amble on back to the kitchen and sound it out with the chef first hand... especially since he didn't appear to be terribly pressed for time. Only one other occupied table in the entire dining room and that was being attended to by another server -- I mean, how busy could he be??? Given his otherwise "folksy" approach to his duties, however, perhaps this was too much to expect.

And this carelessly casual attitude struck me as rather oxymoronic in such sophisticated environs, in an establishment that always seemed to take pride in its upscale approach to matters culinary. In point of fact, through the years, I have continually praised the Ebbitt Room as a class operation; and I have also highly recommended it as an appropriate venue for both romantic and holiday dining... But this most recent sojourn proved somewhat disappointing on two major fronts.

The service, as noted, left a bit to be desired. However, it was ultimately the cuisine that proved the most significant letdown. It wasn't disastrous, by any means; on the other hand, it wasn't memorable either. But in these swanky surroundings -- and at these equally swanky prices -- memorable is precisely what one has every right to expect.

Take the aforementioned tomato and goat cheese Napoleon, for example... Tomato slices were tightly interspersed with creamy goat cheese, faintly reminiscent of a layer cake. The slices were then cut into quarters, set slightly apart, topped with the carrot-fennel salad, and circumscribed by a thread of balsamic vinegar.

And, despite our waiter's enthusiastic assurance, the tomatoes were slightly anemic of countenance and lacked the marvelously fleshy texture and delightful tang of the Garden State's finest. Ultimately, however, this probably mattered little, as the surfeit of goat cheese clearly dominated the scene. Overall, the presentation was pleasant enough, but I wouldn't go out of my way to ask for an instant replay.

The calamari was a slightly different story... Golden brown rings were formed into an attractive orb and topped with and surrounded by a lime-ginger aïoli. No question, the aïoli was extraordinarily addictive... but it still wasn't enough to rescue the calamari, which suffered from an unusual anomalous malady. Squid's Achilles' heel, of course, its often chewy quality... so tenderness in such matters is a highly sought after characteristic. But the problem here was that the squid rings were beyond tender... way beyond... they were actually mushy. Totally bizarre.

Your safest -- and also least expensive -- option is to start things off with a relatively simple salad. On our most recent visit, this consisted of a mixture of red romaine, frisée, and endive teamed with crumbles of Black River Blue Cheese, spiced walnuts, dried cherries, and walnut aïoli.

Entrées are also, in my opinion, something of a mixed bag. The Alaskan halibut was utterly exquisite, moist and flaky. And its sensuous seabed of chanterelle mushrooms and curry creamed spinach proved a marvel of culinary restraint. There was just enough cream to soothe... just enough spice to tantalize... a perfect point/counterpoint. The only negative in an otherwise praiseworthy presentation: a potato crust that was so incredibly salty as to be inedible.

But the pan-roasted salmon was another matter entirely. The fish itself -- though far from benchmark -- was certainly acceptable. The accompanying mélange of Atlantic shellfish, however, was beneath contempt. Rubbery scallops, inordinately chewy shrimp, and mussels & clams that had obviously seen better days arrived swimming in an innocuous tomato-clam broth. The fingerling potatoes were fine... but the promised andouille sausage was conspicuous by its absence. In short... an unmitigated disaster.

At this juncture at least, it seems to me that the Ebbitt Room is one of those restaurants where meat and fowl fair infinitely better than seafood -- and the simpler the better. So I'd go with the 28-day dry-aged sirloin for two with pommes frites, the bacon wrapped pork tenderloin sided by roasted garlic potato purée, or the roasted free-range chicken breast finished with a first-rate roasted shallot jus.

Desserts, like entrées, prompt a good deal of ambivalence. I'd probably cast my lot with the homey steamed sticky toffee pudding or the tangy lemon tart with fresh berries and strawberry sorbet. The triple-creamed cheesecake was VERY creamy and quite good... but the crust tasted like it had spent entirely too much time languishing in the fridge.

The cookie sampler -- chocolate chip, oatmeal-raisin, peanut butter, a single brownie, and biscotti surrounding a ramekin of espresso cream -- was pleasing to the eye but didn't do a great deal for the palate. The brownie drew the most raves, but the other constituents were ho-hum at best.

The Bottom Line: I'm not certain whether executive chef Andrew Carthy's departure has had any significant influence on the Ebbitt Room's apparent doldrums -- he left at the beginning of the summer (2008) and was replaced by his former sous chef, Carl Messick -- or whether the kitchen is simply in the midst of an inexplicable blasé blue funk. I do know, however, that the cuisine lacks the same quality, the same consistency, and the same spot-on attention to detail that was so apparent during previous visits.

Cuisine: New American
Hours: Dinner: Open 7 days in season until December 31st; Open Fridays & Saturdays & Holiday Sundays from January 1st through the middle of February or 1st of March; Always call for hours in the off season.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Street parking
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes Website: http://www.virginiahotel.com/ebbitt.html

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