New Jersey Restaurant Review
801 Washington Street
Cape May, Cape May County, New Jersey
By The Artful Diner
June 5, 2009
Although it hardly seems possible, nearly 11 years have passed since I
penned by initial review of the Washington Inn. And, from one
perspective, not a great deal has changed. The stately 1840 plantation home
still exudes a touch of Old World civility and remains a perennial favorite of
Garden State diners. The bar/lounge is as cozy as ever; and the extensive wine
cellar continues to woo dedicated oenophiles.
My misgivings with this establishment, however, have always manifested
themselves in other areas... like the cuisine, for instance. Executive Chef
Mimi Wood is the long-standing power behind the stove; and my chief criticism
of her cookery is the same as it was a decade ago: Many of her entrées are --
at least to my palate -- entirely too heavy handed.
Permit me to quote from my previous review: "If I have one criticism
with regard to Ms. Wood's creative cookery, it is that she occasionally becomes
a bit TOO creative for her own (and her patrons') good... Current recipes are a
good deal heavier in nature, as well as being infinitely more gussied up than a
number of their predecessors... I am not asking Ms. Wood to compromise her
culinary principles... I am merely suggesting that a lighter touch and slightly
more subtle approach might prove beneficial."
Judging by my recent visit, however, these suggestions evidently fell upon
deaf ears. The golden tilefish, for example, seemed a perfect choice; and the
fish itself was at the peak of good health and perfectly prepared... ditto the
seabed of creamer potatoes and garnish of haricots verts. Unfortunately,
this noble denizen of the deep was literally drowned in a less than appetizing
clam-bacon broth. The sauce was inordinately viscous -- name your favorite
thickener -- and also quite rich; I suspect that a surfeit of butter was the
culprit here. The large morsels of diced bacon were underdone and simply too assertive
for the fish's delicate constitution. Definitely not the
kitchen's finest hour.
The shrimp and spaghettini (a thinner version of spaghetti) also seemed like
a good bet. I mean, what could possibly go wrong...? A few first-rate crunchy
crustaceans, sun-dried tomatoes, and a bit of torn basil -- a culinary
no-brainer. But, once again, the sauce proved to be the dish's ultimate
undoing. It lacked a crisp, clean taste and acidity. Another case of too much
The problem, as I see it, a full decade after my initial review, is that Ms.
Wood and her minions still seem obsessed with being entirely too avant-garde:
i.e., espresso-rubbed duck teamed with cheddar-leek spoon bread &
raspberry-rhubarb coulis; organic salmon served with pea pesto and
sherry-bacon vinaigrette; etc., etc. Some of these creative combos work quite
well... but others do not. And, in all fairness, I am continually left with the
distinct impression that the kitchen's reach is exceeding its grasp.
And the anomaly here is that, while entrées often suffer from symptoms of
gastronomic overkill, appetizers clearly demonstrate that the kitchen is
undoubtedly capable of infinitely more subtlety and restraint. Take the Cape
May scallops, for example... Two moist, marvelously meaty bivalves are dusted
with Five-Spice powder, set on a pillow of sautéed spinach, and companioned by
crispy chick peas and a provocative cucumber emulsion. First-rate in every
And the very same may be said for the tri-colored beet & arugula salad.
The baby greenery is nicely trimmed, pristine & peppery, and the beets are
just the proper size and consistency. A delicate orange vinaigrette adds an
intriguing splash of flavor, while crumbled goat cheese provides a nice
Kathleen Pastiu's desserts contribute an upbeat conclusion to your evening
at table. The apple crisp with vanilla ice cream is homey and delicious, while
the chocolate mousse tower and banana walnut Napoleon add more sophisticated
notes. And the espresso and French press coffee, both rich and potent, are
In addition to the cuisine, there are two other items that deserve mention.
The first is the service. Our server was certainly efficient... So efficient, in
fact, that she seemed to be suffering from a case automatism... In other words,
our party received the distinct impression that she was so well scripted that
she found it nearly impossible to interact as one human being to others. She
was, quite literally, operating on "automatic pilot."
Having labored as a waiter (and just about every other occupation associated
with the illustrious food service industry), I am certainly aware that, when
dealing with diners, it is sometimes difficult -- if not impossible -- to
strike just the right chord between self-absorbed diffidence and assertive
détente. And while it is true that servers who attempt to be too palsy-walsy
may strike patrons as cheekily offensive, it is equally true that servers who
appear to take no personal interest in those in their charge can be equally
I freely confess that I have been an ardent admirer of the Craig Family's
other successful Cape May restaurant enterprises: the late, great upscale
Pelican Club; and their current phenom, the wildly popular, casually hip Lucky
Conversely, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to work up the same
unbridled enthusiasm for the Washington Inn. And the atmosphere that
seemed sophisticated and sedate over a decade ago, now strikes me as tired and
touristy. The height of subjectivity, I readily admit, but a feeling that has
become increasingly apparent... And the piped in muzak -- a sentimental stroll
down memory lane with dated ditties from Doris Day, for instance -- only
reinforces that impression.
There is absolutely no question in my mind that this venerable establishment
could not help but profit from a modicum of rejuvenation. And the most
auspicious place to begin, in my humble opinion, is clearly in the kitchen, as
Ms. Wood's culinary offerings would surely benefit from a lighter, somewhat
more subtle approach.
On the other hand, I'm certain that the Craig Family isn't about to lose any
sleep over this review. After all, the Washington Inn has been packing
them in for years... so why mess with success? Were I in their shoes, I
probably wouldn't either.
Cuisine: Innovative and
Hours: Open all year for dinner from 5:00 p.m. Open 7 days in season;
always call for specific days of operation in the off season.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Reservations: Recommended; essential in summer
Parking: Valet & street parking
Alcohol: License; excellent wine list
Handicapped Accessible: Yes