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DINING REVIEW #7: THE BLACK DUCK

The last time I ate at West Cape May’s Black Duck restaurant was at least 10 years ago. On that visit everything was fine, but not exactly impressive, and as such, I haven’t been back since. That is until this June when my brother decided he wanted to give it another try for his birthday. So, 9 of us went to dinner there on a recent Sunday night and discovered that things there had changed, and much for the better.

It is still the same chef and owner but his menu has become much more refined and his skills, while never poor, are much improved. The décor has also been freshened up and is now cleaner and more modern in appearance. We were lucky enough to be seated at a table in the rear of the restaurant in what is almost a private room surrounded by windows overlooking the garden, though all the rooms seemed enjoyable enough as we walked through. Our server was fun, knowledgeable, and also helped to make the evening a delight.

I began my meal with an order of the Southwestern Duck Confit & Goat Cheese Egg Roll which was delicious, the contents of which blended wonderfully with the sweetness provided by the surrounding ginger-plum coulis and apple plum chutney. Others at the table ordered the Blue Crab Spring Rolls which were also a treat and the Shrimp Toast with Cucumber Crab Salad, which was really the best of the 3. I think we all agreed that we could have eaten those Shrimp Toasts all day long. My parents split the Pu Pu Platter which included all of the above plus ribs and dumplings and were quite happy with everything on that very large plate as well.

Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their entrees, and the chef was very accommodating to those who have special dietary restrictions, ensuring they were able to enjoy a night out just as much as the rest of us. Patrick ordered the Honey Roast Half Duck and has declared duck one of his favorite proteins as a result. I was quite impressed with how well cooked it was, with the fat being rendered down perfectly and the meat being perfectly seasoned. The apple smoked bacon and sweet potato risotto were both nice compliments as well.

I was especially impressed with my selection however. The salmon served with lobster risotto was easily one of my favorite meals of the year. Every element was cooked flawlessly, with the salmon itself being particularly impressive. It was just the lightest bit crispy on the outside, yet so soft on the inside it practically melted in my mouth. Blended with the excellent risotto and red wine syrup each bite was exquisite, even managing to outshine the lobster, which for my tastes is no small feat.

By the end of that we were all stuffed to capacity, but had to share a dessert so we could sing “Happy Birthday”. We opted for a blueberry crumble and it was an excellent choice, deliciously fresh and light. This meal wound up being another highlight in a year that has so far been full of them, and it has sent The Black Duck straight into my Top 3 area restaurants. The next time you are in or near West Cape May, make sure to find the time to dine here, it is a truly delicious experience.

GRADE: A+

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DISTILLERY REVIEW #2: NAUTI SPIRITS

Nestled among fields in North Cape May, NJ, the new Nauti Spirits Distillery may have a few wrinkles to iron out, but is off to a pretty great start. We have visited 3 times so far, and found our experience improved with each stop. The experience really begins in the parking lot, as you find yourself looking at nicely painted, modern, warehouse-like buildings, located in the middle of some farmland. Horses sometimes peak over the fence of a neighboring property, tall grasses blow in the wind, and herbs and spices that are used in the cocktails are grown in boxes right in the lot. Entering takes you along a short, self-guided tour, providing insight into the processes required to make their vodka. Upon reaching the bar area one is immediately impressed by the design mixing modern, rustic and industrial flourishes. It feels like a cool place to be and one you would want to visit again.

As for the vodka itself, on all 3 of our visits I ordered it with club soda (and on one visit had a sip of it straight), and am very impressed. It is smooth and easy to drink, with almost no burn. Being made from sweet potatoes (which is not something I had seen before) gives it a pleasant sweetness as well. It's not overpowering, but it's just there enough to make the vodka that much more interesting and enjoyable on its own. At $30 a bottle in the gift shop, it's well worth the price.

Our experience however has been a little uneven. Our 1st trip was before their official grand opening, and it was more than a little disappointing. The young man who took care of us seemed very confused about nearly everything, put way too much bitters into one of our drinks, and overcharged us for the aforementioned vodka and club. It was good, but $11 for such a simple drink is a bit on the absurd side. We chalked it up to opening week mistakes and figured we would give it another try after things had settled down. It's a good thing we went back as the subsequent visits have been much better. On visit #2, they had a special Strawberry Rhubarb cocktail that Patrick and one of our friends visiting from Massachusetts could not stop raving about, and the price of my preferred vodka and club had come down to a much more reasonable $9. Another of our friends had a drink with bitters in it and received a better ratio to other ingredients of that as well. Visit #3 was equally pleasant, and my drink had come down further to $8, which seems about appropriate. The bartenders on 2nd and 3rd visits were also much more knowledgeable and invested in the product. Lastly, and I know some people are going to disagree with me on this, but I find their practice of crushing the ice for drinks with a mallet in a small burlap bag to be a bit much, and something that should probably be discontinued. It is moderately impressive the first time, but after that it seems like it makes the process of getting ice both too loud and too time-consuming. You can feel free to disagree with me on that though.

All in all, they have managed to win us over. It's a great product, in a great location, and one you should definitely try to visit when you find yourself in the Cape May area.

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DINING REVIEW #6: PETER SHIELDS INN

Having lived most of my life near Cape May, there are very few established restaurants that I haven't visited yet, but for whatever reason, this was one of them. Last night I finally gave it a go, and I am disappointed in myself for not having eaten here sooner. Located on the ground floor of a stately, old mansion, the dining rooms are elegantly appointed and many tables have spectacular views of the ocean. The staff was very pleasant and helpful, and was more than happy to let each table enjoy their meal at their own pace. That all certainly contributes to a great evening, but what about the most important part, the food?

It could easily be described in one word: perfect. I started things off with the jumbo lump crab salad, which was served with a slice of smoked salmon and topped with mache, a wonderful blend of flavors ideal for Spring. Patrick's 1st course was the seared Hudson Valley foie gras with cherry purée, fruit compote and brioche. This was such a masterfully conceived and executed dish, it may be worth visiting this restaurant just to try it. Each ingredient played off the other so well that you were taken on a journey with each bite. Next, we each had a serving of the charred steak tartare, served with a quail egg, dijon, haricot vert and Grana Padano. This was another impressive dish, and was easily the best tartare preparation I've ever had. Perfectly seasoned and all-around delicious. Patrick's entree was the seared Yellowfin tuna, served over parsnip purée with Brussels sprouts and smoked bacon. Admittedly I haven't ever liked parsnips, but in this presentation it worked. Everything was fresh and perfectly cooked and combined to make another stunning dish. For my main, I selected the Alaskan day boat halibut, with an English pea purée, potato chive gnocchi, asparagus, morels and a truffle nage. Given that many of the ingredients included in it were among my general favorites I fully expected to be happy with this dish, and my expectations were still blown away. Every part was flawless and worked in beautiful harmony with each other, with the cook of the fish itself and the pea purée especially being highlights. Each bite of this spectacular dish brought a smile to my face. For dessert Patrick enjoyed a deliciously creamy Vanilla Crème Brûlée, and I opted for a cheese plate of Mrs. Quicke's Cheddar, Tete de Moine and Shropshire Blue served with slightly sweet toast points and diced figs. Both were exactly what we wanted and were excellent caps to an already stellar meal. 

Everything about this meal was exceptional, and we are both eager to get back and try some other items that caught our attention. Everyone who visits Cape May should make it a point to try this restaurant, as on the basis of this dinner alone, it is easily our new favorite.

GRADE: A+

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DISTILLERY REVIEW #1: CAPE MAY DISTILLERY

With the number of breweries and wineries that have sprung up these last few years in the Cape May area, one could easily avoid buying either of those products from non-local sources ever again. But what if you were after something a little harder? Enter the Cape May Distillery, which is offering rum and honey liqueur, with other products in the pipeline. Of course, just because it's local doesn't mean it's good, so is it worth paying them a visit?

Located on Route 47 in the Green Creek area in a warehouse-type building, it's a little tricky to find at first, though not really hidden either. Inside, there is a pleasant 1920's speakeasy vibe to the decor, with era-appropriate music playing, sometimes on a working hand-cranked record player. The bar was being staffed by one of the owners, who had a great personality for it, making conversation easy and natural. His passion for his product really shone through as well.

Of course all of that is moot if the product isn't any good. Luckily that was far from the case here. Upon being greeted we were immediately launched into a tasting of the liquors they currently have available, beginning with their Beach Rum. This is a clear rum, made with mixed drinks in mind. As such, it has a smooth, clean, inoffensive taste, that would blend well with pretty much any mixer you can think of. Next up was Barrel Rum, which was more traditional. Having come from wooden barrels, it has some caramel color to it, though still on the clear side, and features a richer flavor and some hints of vanilla, along with a slight warm sensation when swallowing. This was followed by Blueberry Rum. The aroma is quite potent, hitting our noses pretty much as soon as it was poured, but the flavor itself is much more mild. It was a pleasantly sweet sip that could easily produce some pretty creative cocktails. Fourth in line, and probably my favorite, was the Toasted Coconut Rum. Not as cloying as other coconut rums can be, the "toasted" part of the flavoring really made this stand out. We later had this mixed with birch beer and it was a delicious drink, perfect for sitting poolside in the Summer. The last tasting was of their Double Barrel Honey Spirits. Produced in a style similar to whiskey, but not allowed to be named as such, it is made from New Jersey honey, and unsurprisingly has a taste profile similar to mead, though far more enjoyable than any mead I've yet tasted.

Visiting the distillery was a lot of fun, and we both look forward to going back again and trying the new products they have in the pipeline. Between the excellent products they're making and the unique atmosphere they are cultivating inside, you should really make sure to give it a try, whether you're a local or just visiting the area.

GRADE: A

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DINING REVIEW #5: The Eat Well

From the outside, you might not even notice this unassuming little shop near the intersection of Bayshore and Town Bank Roads in North Cape May. Several businesses have tried their hands unsuccessfully in the spot, but the Eat Well, with its promises of fresh baked breads, grilled sandwiches, soups and smoothies, might be the first to have a real shot at making it.

We have paid 2 visits to the eatery, and have been pretty impressed both times. On our initial trip we tried the Eat Well Cuban sandwich and a grilled cheese special. We were both satisfied with the quality and flavor of the fillings, and the pickled onions the chef threw in on the side were a nice touch that added a good bit of extra flavor to the next few sandwiches I made for myself over the following couple days. But it was our 2nd visit that really stood out, when we each opted for a special version of the Grilled Italiano sandwich. It normally features prosciutto, capicola, sopressata, provolone and roasted red peppers, which is a pretty winning combination in and of itself. For the special however it was served with a delicious pesto spread and on some truly phenomenal olive and rosemary bread. Everything came together to make for a truly delicious sandwich, so good that even typing this review is making me crave another. A small cup of cole slaw was served on the side, which was also a flavorful treat, if not quite the best I've ever eaten.

The hours are limited (as is the parking), so make sure to check their Facebook page (linked to below) to be sure it's open first. But this is a spot that is definitely worth seeking out for some good, fresh food. We will be looking forward to our 3rd visit and wish them all the success in the world.

GRADE: B+

VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE HERE.

They are located at 508A Town Bank Rd, North Cape May, NJ 08204, in case you want to put it into your GPS.

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BREWERY REVIEW #3: Slack Tide Brewing Company

We have been meaning to get up to visit Slack Tide Brewing Company outside of Avalon for some time now, but unfortunately their hours generally don’t match up with our schedules. Luckily, as a result of something else being cancelled, yesterday we finally were able to make the short trip up the Parkway to try it out. The tasting room is perhaps the smallest of those we’ve seen yet, but it’s roomy enough and nicely decorated, with the wooden planks nailed to the ceiling being a particularly pleasant touch. Unlike other area breweries, the mandatory pre-tasting tour is actually guided by one of the proprietors, though we would imagine increasing business will eventually cause a change to this policy.

We opted to each get a flight of 4 beers to get a good idea of what was on offer, and found all of them to be quite tasty. First up was the Stone Harbor Wheat. This one had a strong bitterness about it, but still was pleasantly refreshing and imminently drinkable, winding up perhaps being my 2nd favorite of the 4. Next we gave the Bucktail a try, and found it to have enjoyably strong chocolate flavors. 3rd, and my favorite, was Bell Buoy, which had the classic beer flavor everyone comes to expect, with hints of vanilla. Lastly was Treble Hook, the strongest beer on offer at 10.5% alcohol, which tasted similar to the Bell Buoy, only less sweet.  There was something about it that I couldn’t quite place, but which reminded me vaguely of cheddar cheese, and made me think they would make a perfect pairing.

All in all we found everything we tried to be pretty delicious. The atmosphere was fun, relaxed and comfortable and the staff was both knowledgeable and very eager to help. It was a great experience that we wholeheartedly recommend you try. Slack Tide is a worthy addition to the local brewery scene and we look forward to drinking some more of their beer soon.

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DINING REVIEW #3: RIO STATION

After a recent day of visiting breweries, we found ourselves starving in Rio Grande, a town with very limited options for anything beyond fast food (and with only one bar!). As such we headed to the Rio Station for dinner and more drinks. I’ve previously enjoyed lunches there but can’t recall the last time I ate dinner in the establishment, and as such I was curious as to how it would be.

Upon entering we were promptly greeted and sat in a comfortable booth under a metal train station awning. The railroad themed décor gives the Rio Station a sense of fun without being overbearing or tacky and we all quite enjoyed it. The menu is designed like a newspaper, which we also thought was a cute touch, even if it initially confused us slightly (we had been drinking beer for a while prior to arrival after all). Our server, Jim, arrived shortly thereafter and got us our drinks in a timely manner. The selection of wines by the glass is a bit more robust than many fancier restaurants, with some impressive options and remarkably reasonable prices. The pinot noir our friend Deb ordered was very well-received, and I loved the pinot grigio.

We were all quite happy with our meals as well. I ordered the “Stuffed Under the Sea”, an assortment of shrimp, scallops, and flounder, all filled with their signature crab mix. Everything was well-cooked and nicely seasoned and their crab was tasty enough to be worthy of the praise they give it throughout the menu. Our friend Deb opted for the “Local Black’N Scallops” which were both plentiful and thoroughly enjoyed, while Patrick and our other guest, Ed, opted for choices from the “Small Plates” menu, neither of which seemed especially small on arrival. Ed started with the French Onion soup and was very happy with it, and then enjoyed the Chicken Francaise. Patrick was also very satisfied with his plate of “I’m Back Chicken Parm”. The only real complaint was that the baked potatoes that 3 of us ordered were not especially hot when received, though were still quite tasty.

The service was excellent. Jim was very attentive and quick to get us whatever we needed. His personality was charmingly quirky and won all of us over, and he rather impressively remembered Patrick and I from a lunch visit that had to have been nearly a year ago now. The food isn’t overly fancy and full of things you’ve never heard of or seen attempted before, but one doesn’t always need that. For a simple meal done well, in a fun, casual atmosphere, this is one of the better choices in the area. And I think our next visit will be sooner than another year from now.

GRADE: B+

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DINING REVIEW #2: SHAMONE

Immediately upon hearing of this new restaurant’s concept, I was intrigued. For $30 per person, you are given 15 “courses” of the chef’s choosing. Having a curated dinner experience with all the decision making left in the hands of the kitchen is a unique experience, and one I was eager to have for myself. So it was, that Brett, Patrick and I excitedly made this our next dining destination.

The first “course” was a homemade herbed butter and bread, which was very good but did feel vaguely like cheating, since complimentary bread is somewhat expected wherever one goes. Things got more interesting immediately after that. You may note that I have been putting the word course in quotations. This is because each round is really more of a taste than a full course as we Americans have come to imagine it, and because in some cases, multiple “courses” were presented simultaneously. I in no way mean that as a complaint however, as when all was said and done, we were all quite full, and every time more than one dish arrived at the same time, there was a clear logic to presenting them together.

I absolutely loved every bite presented to me, with the standouts being the sausage soup shooter, pork pâté, the charcuterie courses, and a chicken wing that was cooked perfectly and served with a delicious Asian-influenced sauce. The salad was also a delight, consisting of radishes, onions, cucumbers, and soft bread croutons that soaked up the dressing, providing bursts of flavor each time I bit into one.

The service was very pleasant and knowledgeable, always providing a thorough description of each item presented. The chef even makes it a point to come out and talk to each group, which adds a pleasantly personal touch to the whole evening. The décor is unlike anything I’ve seen in any other local restaurant and gives the place a special, quirky charm. Between the quality of the food and the manner it’s presented, I feel like I now know what it must be like to be a judge on “Top Chef” on a day when all the contestants are really on point. This was a dining experience I won’t soon forget and one I hope to replicate again soon.

GRADE: A

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BREWERY REVIEW #2: Cold Spring Brewery

Historic Cold Spring Village here in Cape May County, accurately billed as a "living museum", might initially seem like an odd place to find a microbrewery, but it turns out to be a perfect fit. Upon entering, one feels like you've wandered into an old roadside tavern after parking your horse outside (or like you've entered one of the inns in Skyrim). There is a good amount of room to sit and enjoy one of the 4 beers they have on hand at opening. Just look at those bar stools!

For this first visit I tried the Cold Spring Red, and I have to say I loved it. It had a complex flavor that started out smooth and fruity and ended on a pleasantly bitter note. At 6% alcohol/volume it isn't an exceptionally strong brew, though it did leave me feeling pretty happy, so it does seem to pack an outsize punch. Patrick had the Hildreth German Wheat and said it had a nice tartness and bitterness to it. A staff member even introduced us to a beer rating app called Untappd which we immediately signed up for to rate the beer.

Here is a picture of the bar top which is absolutely beautiful and a picture of the footrest.

Cold Spring Brewery BartopFootrest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since we were there during Celtic Festival this weekend we just had to take a picture of the Scotsman in a kilt and what I presumed to be a claymore. (Reminds me of a Black Adder episode.)

Scotsman

Between the atmosphere, incredibly friendly staff and the beer, I can easily see this becoming another of my favorite area hangouts and one I will definitely be visiting again, probably later today!

Note: Patrick and I both contributed to this post.

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Seaside Cheese Company - Cape May, NJ

A few weeks ago we visited the Seaside Cheese Company in Cape May and purchased a few cheeses. I was looking for a cheese that paired well with Syrah and I certainly found it.

I chose the Smoked Gouda and when we arrived at our destination later that day the Syrah was opened and the snacking began. The smokiness of the Gouda, on pretzel chips, really paired well with the Syrah and I found myself eating more and more.

While I was very pleased with the Gouda and the couple of other cheeses we purchased, Seaside Cheese also operates Cafe Fromage with a number of interesting sounding offerings with the star of the show being, you guessed it, cheese! So, if you are in the Cape May area stop in at the Seaside Cheese Company and find that next cheese to pair with your favorite wine.

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