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Top Ten Jersey Shore Dining 2005
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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

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This year's top ten features two old favorites and eight distinguished newcomers. So whatever your gastronomic and fiscal preferences and predilections on a given evening -- flamboyant or frugal, fancy or funky -- you're bound to discover a number of interesting eateries to placate your palate.

7 Atlantic Avenue
Sandpiper Inn
Spring Lake, NJ
(732) 449-4700
Cuisine: Creative American

Sequestered beneath the Sandpiper Inn, the Black Trumpet inhabits a clubby, romantic setting. Chef/proprietor Mark Mikolajczyk - who cooked up a storm at Whispers just a few blocks away - may have changed venues, but it is quite evident that his sumptuous American fare is as congenially creative as ever. And since he is joined in the kitchen by his long-time sous-chef and now partner, David McCleery, you may rest assured that your discriminating palate is in extremely capable hands. You can't go wrong with the chef's "Panache of Appetizers" - an extraordinarily creamy jumbo lump crab cake sharing the spotlight with a duet of perfectly grilled shrimp - or his homemade pasta of the day. When it comes to entrées, be sure to try Mr. Mikolajczyk's signature dish, day-boat filet of fluke finished with an exquisite brown butter, or his benchmark domestic rack of lamb brushed with Dijon mustard and coated with panko breadcrumbs. And, of course, it goes without saying that desserts, courtesy of chef David McCleery, are worth saving room for. Highly recommended on all counts. BYOB.

1245 Route 109 South
Cape May, NJ
(609) 898-0354
Cuisine: Eclectic

Don't be fooled by the natural weathered wood exterior a unique and stylish décor lurks just across the threshold. Here you find hardwood floors, strikingly handmade white leather swivel boat chairs, copper-colored napery adorning bare wooden tables, and a variety of urbane Asian accents. And executive chef Ross Morrell's cuisine is equally cosmopolitan. My advice would be to start things off with the incomparably delicious Mexican-style smoked tuna pizza, which is most suitable for sharing. Dressed with chunks of smoked tuna, jack and Colby cheeses, pico de gallo salsa, and sprinkling of lime sour cream, it is the absolute sine qua non among the appetizers. It is terribly difficult, however, to pass up the Latin ribs - tender baby backs grilled with a sweet apricot habañero barbecue sauce - or the grilled shrimp and scallop margarita. Among the entrées, the marvelously moist center-cut boneless mojo pork reclines on a pillow of mashed yams and is finished with an exotic orange rum beurre blanc. Highly recommended as are the peanut curry chicken and benchmark shellfish paella. And be sure to conclude your evening with the luscious rum-banana cheesecake. BYOB.

816 Arnold Avenue
Point Pleasant Beach, NJ
(732) 295-0466
Cuisine: Creative American

The restaurant's décor may strike some as starkly minimalist. And its location - domiciled in a small strip of storefronts - merely mundane... But the food is incomparable. And you would expect nothing less from Dennis Foy, whose critical accolades have included the Garden State's Tarragon Tree and Townsquare and NYC's Mondrian and EC. A man of enormous talent and creative energy - artistic as well as gastronomic - Mr. Foy may often be seen engaged in spirited conversations with his customers or residing self-confidently in the open kitchen, sending forth an array of presentations that are utterly profound in their apparent simplicity. Early in the season, for example, he may charm his patrons with a spring pea soup possessing a flavor and texture so supernal it simply beguiles the palate with its mellifluous ministrations. On the other hand, the homemade gnocchi awash with mushrooms and sprinkling of sage is equally ethereal, as is the incredibly creamy goat cheese tart counterpoised by a substratum of chopped tomatoes and hint of thyme. Entrée-wise, beautifully seared diver scallops recline on a sensuous seabed of cauliflower purée, while wild King salmon finds its perfect partner on a velvety pillow of creamed spinach. And confirmed carnivores may indulge their cravings with a superlatively seared sirloin kissed by béarnaise. Desserts - including the most exquisite crème brûlée it has ever been my pleasure to ingest - are every bit the equal of their predecessors. A superb dining experience! BYOB.

954 Ocean Drive
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-5444
Cuisine: Seafood Plus

Harbor View's tastefully appointed second floor dining room provides a beautiful panorama of the marina below... but this restaurant has infinitely more going for it than just a scintillating seascape. Whether settling in for breakfast, lunch or dinner, opting for the view, cozying up to the bar or docking and chowing down on the spacious outdoor deck, chef Matt Kane's culinary offerings are certain to please. The bill of fare features a diverse number of veal, beef, chicken, and pasta dishes; but seafood, in my opinion, is clearly the way to go here. If you stop by for lunch, for example, be sure to try the excellent crab cake sandwich or spicy fish filet sandwich, both accompanied by a zesty tartar sauce and fabulous battered fries... And don't forget to add a side of the delectable homemade coleslaw. For dinner, the flounder stuffed with imperial crab and baked in a white wine butter sauce is quintessential Jersey Shore fare ditto the crab cakes adorned with hollandaise. Should you have difficulty making up your mind, cast your lot with the seafood sampler - broiled or fried shrimp, scallops, flounder, and crab cake - served with a rice pilaf and vegetable of the day. For casual, unpretentious, reasonably priced dining in the Cape May area, Harbor View Restaurant is hard to beat.

Wharfside Plaza
Route 9 & Hollywood Boulevard
Forked River, NJ
(609) 971-7699
Cuisine: Italian

Cozying right up to the river and blessed with a variety of lovely views, Il Giardino Sul Mare has long been considered one of the Garden State's finest Italian restaurants. Here you may dine on a tempting array of traditional fare or elect one of the establishment's more innovative offerings. Among the antipasti, be sure to set your sights on the classic terrine de melanzane, incorporating layers of grilled eggplant smoked mozzarella, fresh spinach, and roasted red peppers served with crostini or the carpaccio di manzo alla arrugola, wafer-thin raw filet mignon adorned with shredded provolone, capers, and basil purée topped with arugula tossed with balsamic and extra virgin olive oil. Among the entrées, the homemade potato gnocchi is an ethereal indulgence, and the veal dishes are benchmark And I still have fond memories of the halibut faffarano sampled several years ago - a perfectly broiled filet swimming in a delicate tomato saffron broth - which is but one sterling example of the kitchen's significant piscatorial prowess. Originally a BYOB establishment, Il Giardino Sul Mare now sports a very nice wine list to complement your meal.

708 River Road
Belmar, NJ
(732) 681-1177
Cuisine: Seafood Plus

Now in its 76th year as a family owned and operated concern, Klein's has something for everyone: "dock and dine" waterfront café replete with a scenic view of the Shark River Basin; cozy grillroom; sushi and raw bars; Sunday brunch; plethora of early-bird specials; popular takeout service; and bustling fish market for those who wish to prepare their finny fare at home. If you decide to chow down on the premises, however, start things off with the "drunken clams" - pristinely plump bivalves steamed in wine, garlic, and fresh herbs - mussels marinara, fried shrimp, or right-on-the-money Manhattan clam chowder. Your main course? Go for the simply grilled fresh fish - swordfish, grouper, tuna, salmon, mahi-mahi - all perfectly prepared and adorned with copious amounts of seasoned rice or fabulous waffle fries, fresh vegetables, and ramekin of creamy coleslaw. On the other hand, should you stop in for lunch, be sure to sample the crab cake, succulent chunks of sweet crabmeat embraced by just the proper amount of filler, or one of the establishment's excellent seafood sandwich specialties. For dessert, nothing beats a slice of cool and refreshing Key lime pie. Serves wine & beer.

1743 Boardwalk (at Indiana Avenue)
Atlantic City, NJ
(609) 344-0094
Cuisine: American Bistro/Mediterranean

In Atlantic City, the odds are stacked against you. And not just at the gaming tables... at the dining tables as well. In this land of high rollers, overrated superstar chefs, highly overrated superstar cuisine and astronomical superstar prices, the chances of finding a good meal at less than wallet-busting tariffs are about the same as striking it rich in one of the casinos. The Opa Bar & Grille - now making a well-deserved second guest appearance on my top ten list - continues to buck the odds; and the establishment's many loyal patrons still come away winners. And that is because its colorful, breezy décor, lively bar scene, bustling open kitchen, and first-rate moderately priced American bistro fare with Mediterranean flair provide a welcome alternative to the costly celebrity dining dens. So feel free to stop in for lunch, dinner, or an afternoon or late night snack. Start things off with saganaki - kasseri cheese fired with Ouzo - or, perhaps, plump and succulent Olympic baked clams. Delicious wraps and burgers abound, and "George's Greek Salad" - romaine and assorted lettuces, cucumbers, red onions, peppers, kalamata olives, and ripe juicy tomatoes tossed with a tangy oregano vinaigrette and topped with huge strips of feta cheese - is a winner among the greenery. Entrées include pan-seared Atlantic salmon, blackened red snapper, porterhouse steak, BBQ baby back ribs, and piediekia, an outstanding presentation of baby lamb chops. As I noted last year and certainly it bears repeating: Opa Bar & Grille is an incredible find in a town populated by overpriced and overrated eateries.

7908 Long Beach Boulevard
Harvey Cedars, NJ
(609) 494-8191
Cuisine: Island/Tropical

The Owl Tree always provided a pleasant venue to enjoy a late afternoon or early evening libation - the food, however, never set off any bells or whistles. Plantation, on the other hand, the current inhabitant of this venerable Victorian structure, lost absolutely no time in establishing itself as LBI's primo dining destination. Marty Grims - also owner of Philadelphia's Moshulu and Radnor's Passerelle - and partner Brian Sabarese are the proprietors in question; Passerelle's chef, Allan Vanesko, the menu czar; and Jeff Alberti the talented power behind the stove. And the intriguing tropical fare pushes all the right buttons. The grilled chicken quesadilla with roasted corn-black bean salad, guacamole, and drizzle of ancho-lime crema is nothing short of phenomenal And the very same may be said of the Madeira- and tomato-braised beef stew on a pillow of parsnip purée and the flash-fried calamari with Vietnamese dipping sauce. For your main course, be sure to try the wasabi-crusted Chilean sea bass, blackened Costa Rican tilapia with sweet potato steak fries, or the perfect companion on a chilly evening, the caramelized onion and BBQ meatloaf with luscious Colby cheddar mashed potatoes. The first-rate wine list is commensurate with the quality of the cuisine, as is the selection of cool cocktails and vintage rums.

800 Bay Avenue
Somers Point, NJ
(609) 927-3100
Cuisine: Steak & Seafood with an Italian accent

Ensconced in one of the oldest and most historic waterfront sites at the Jersey Shore, the former Grand View Hotel, the lovingly restored Tucker's Steak & Seafood House has a great deal to offer both summer visitors and year-round residents. The interior boasts Dijon mustard yellow walls, dark green patterned carpeting, cozy bar area, and breathtaking view of Great Egg Harbor Inlet. In contrast to the easy-going, elegant décor, Chef Joseph Tucker's cuisine headlines hearty steak and seafood offerings embellished with spirited Italian accents. Lusty possibilities include such stalwarts as "Joy's Meatballs" - a mixture of ground beef, veal & pork served with tomato sauce - veal Gorgonzola, tuna sambuca, filet mignon topped with lump crabmeat, and shrimp scampi. But Mr. Tucker also knows how to treat piscatorial presentations with the light and delicate touch they so richly deserve. Recent luncheon samplings, for example, yielded a lovely tilapia francese and beautifully sautéed filet of striped bass accompanied by fresh Jersey asparagus and addictively crispy potato wedges. The homemade desserts are positively sinful but worth every last calorie.

56 Shrewsbury Avenue
Highlands, NJ
(732) 872-2266
Cuisine: Contemporary American/Seafood

This is the second year that I have included Windansea as part of my top ten - and for a very good reason While there are numerous restaurants in the area serving up fancier food in fancier surroundings (at fancier prices), this casual, bustling eatery is quintessential Jersey Shore and offers something for just about everyone. You may dock and dine al fresco in warmer weather or just watch the sun go down while sipping a cold one at the outdoor bar. The second-floor dining room/bar boasts a spectacular view of Sandy Hook and live entertainment to boot. Whether dining à deux or with friends and progeny, you're certain to feel at home the moment you cross the threshold. And chef/proprietor Rob Higgins' contemporary American cuisine is certainly commensurate with the easy-going surroundings: decidedly unfussy but with a subtle note of sophistication. There are numerous options from which to choose, but the pristinely fresh seafood selections are particularly recommended. So start things off with the golden brown mini crab balls, plump steamed littlenecks, or excellent Manhattan clam chowder; then move on to such piscatorial pleasures as grilled salmon sauced with shallots, capers, and grain mustard, broiled flounder stuffed with shrimp & crabmeat, or tender tilapia filet gently sautéed in white wine, lemon & butter, and dressed with diced tomatoes and parsley. While you're at it, be sure to check out the solid, reasonably-priced wine list.

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