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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Washington Inn
801 Washington Street
Cape May, Cape May County, New Jersey
(609) 884-5697

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 superfluous thickener.

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 respect.

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 textural contrast.

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 perfect accompaniments.

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 off-putting.

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 Bones.

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 Contemporary American
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
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.washingtoninn.com

The Artful Diner Diner is an independent, freelance food writer . His latest review can be seen on his weblog at http://www.artfuldinerblog.com. An archive of past reviews for nj.com as well as reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this Web site at http://www.artfuldiner.com/reviews .

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