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JP Prime Steakhouse
Chestnut & Olde New Jersey Avenues
North Wildwood, Cape May County, New Jersey
(609) 729-4141

By The Artful Diner
October 20, 2008

North Wildwood appears to be a highly unlikely location for an upscale steakhouse; after all, the area's most notable claim to culinary fame is Claude's, an island of excellent French bistro cookery in an otherwise tempestuous sea of rowdy Irish bars. But make no mistake about it, JP Prime is undeniably upscale... A number of prices border upon the breathtaking. Most steakhouses charge extra for side dishes. JP Prime, on the other hand, also charges extra for sauces... with lobster béarnaise topping out at a whopping $11.00. This is a restaurant that is clearly not for the faint of pocketbook.

But there are compensations... Proprietor Jon Paul Paxton -- also the owner of Wildwood's Café Jon Paul and Juan Pablo's Margarita Bar -- has created a setting that is stylish and sophisticated but that still manages to put patrons at ease with its relaxed, decidedly unstuffy casual air. The interior is done up in a kind of contemporary-retro package, replete with orange and blue globe lamps and exceedingly comfortable banquettes decked out in an arresting array of bold stripes. The most striking feature, however, is the wine tower, which dominates the center of the dining area; and this is quite in keeping with the restaurant's strong oenological emphasis, as it was just the recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. There is even a dance floor and a fully screened and covered deck for al fresco dining in warmer weather.

But regardless of the eye-pleasing ambiance, the food is still the chief drawing card. Yes, it is steakhouse fare, but executive chef James Wasilewski -- also the power behind the stove at Café Jon Paul -- has added a number of innovative wrinkles.

An additional plus is that portion sizes -- especially with regard to salads -- are extremely generous. The Caesar salad, for example, is a classic rendition: crisp torn leaves of romaine embellished with a rich, creamy dressing, crunchy croutons, and shavings of Parmesan cheese -- and it is big enough to feed three... ditto the baby arugula tossed with goat cheese, slices of Asian pear, candied pistachios, and a lemon-honey dressing. And the retro iceberg wedge accompanied by all the usual suspects -- diced tomatoes, crumbled bacon, and blue cheese dressing -- is simply gargantuan.

The calamari seasoned with herbs & spices and served up with a sweet & sour pepper sauce is mountainous. And the "Shrimp WAZZ" (named after the chef) -- comprised of jumbo fried shrimp stuffed with cauliflower and garlic, wrapped in prosciutto, and finished with saffron aïoli and basil oil -- is equally generous. And given the hefty $24.00 price tag, it had better be. Conversely, the beer-battered, crispy-fried morsels of popcorn lobster are delicate, judiciously proportioned, and accompanied by lovely concentric swirls of sherry wine sauce.

When it comes to steak entrées, there are numerous choices. In ascending price order: chipotle hanger steak, $23.00; 10-ounce junior New York strip, $29.00; 32-ounce porterhouse for two, $65.00; 16-ounce New York Black Angus strip, $39.00; "Kansas City" 21-day dry-aged 14-ounce bone-in strip steak $44.00; and 12-ounce filet mignon steak au poivre, $44.00.

What was a bit off-putting, however, was the fact that waiters constantly pushed the most expensive steak on the menu, the "Kansas City" 21-day dry-aged 14-ounce bone-in filet mignon, which rocks the culinary Richter scale at a whopping $47.00 (only the stuffed veal chop, $48.00, is more costly). They also did their best to hawk the most exorbitant sauce to accompany it, the $11.00 lobster béarnaise. This steak, which I eventually ordered, was undeniably excellent -- extraordinarily tender, bursting with flavor, and prepared to a perfect medium (precisely as requested) -- as was the blue cheese sauce ($6.00) that I chose to accompany it. Under the competent direction of general manager Michael King, the service, apart from this minor faux pas, was otherwise first-rate in every respect... But servers should definitely lighten up on the "hard sell" approach, which will only succeed in turning people off rather than on.

To paraphrase St. Ambrose: When in Rome, it is always a wise foreign policy to do as the Romans do. Similarly, within restaurant precincts, it is usually a safe & shrewd dining stratagem to order what the house purports to do best. In the case of JP Prime, of course, red meat is the name of the game... as non-steak items do not acquit themselves with quite the same distinction.

And the summer pork chop is clearly a case in point. It is lightly breaded and delightfully moist and succulent... but it also suffers from a variety of misinformation. The menu, for example, unequivocally states that it is served "over" an arugula salad. In point of fact, a spirited game of hide-and-seek is clearly called for, as the chop arrives "under" the aforementioned greenery. Secondly, when the pork is eventually discovered, the unsuspecting diner is in for a surprise: a thick slathering of goat cheese -- never mentioned in the menu description -- which completely overwhelms any other possible nuances of flavor.

Side dishes ($7.00), on the other hand, are a definitive high point... and certainly generous enough to satisfy two. The creamed spinach is benchmark, and the au gratin potatoes are pure decadence and completely addictive. Other complementary possibilities include jumbo panko-encrusted onion rings, sautéed mushrooms, and mounds of creamy mashed potatoes.

Desserts... if you could still possibly find room after all you've ingested... include a variety of cheesecakes, chocolate mousse, and homemade ice creams... But for the confirmed chocoholic, there is really only one choice: the chocolate tower, an immensely impressive, monstrous wedge of absolutely fresh dark chocolate layer cake. It comes with a whopping $14.00 price tag; but because it will probably feed four, it is a comparative bargain. And be sure to wash down every moist morsel with jolts of rich, potent espresso.

Given the hefty tariffs here, you're not likely to drop in for a spur-of-the-moment mid-week repast... although, if you order judiciously -- sharing a salad, going for one of the more moderately priced entrées, skipping dessert, and settling for a glass of wine each -- a couple could probably come away (relatively) monetarily unscathed.

Still... unless you're positively rolling in dough, this is the type of restaurant where one should come for that special evening. It is clearly a place to save your pennies and splurge. And it is also, I would hasten to add, a restaurant where, for the most part, the cuisine is worth the price.

Cuisine: Steak plus
Hours: Open all year for dinner. Summer: Open daily; gradually curtailing hours after Labor Day; open weekends only in winter. Be sure to call for exact hours in the off season.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Reservations: Recommended during the summer and on weekends in the off season
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; award-winning wine list; lively bar scene
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: http://www.jpprime.com/menu.html

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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