Chef Al Paris has made quite a name for himself in the Philadelphia area. Working with the Bynum brothers - Robert and Ben - they have created memorable, amazing restaurants including Heirloom, a critically-acclaimed, 44-seat American cookery in Chestnut Hill.
But Paris and the Bynums are far from done. In addition to other Philly-based restaurants including Green Soul, a sandwich and juice bar, and Paris' namesake restaurant - Paris Bistro and Jazz Cafe - that will open this fall, they quietly opened a shore restaurant recently that is quickly becoming the buzz restaurant in Cape May County despite lack of any major marketing push.
Coastal Blue Oceanside Grill, located in the new, posh Hotel Icona on Diamond Beach (see sidebar), shows Paris doing what he does best: creating simple, flavorful food, but this time in a seaside setting that boasts not only a gorgeous dining room and bar but a stunning terrace that overlooks Icona's pool and the massive Wildwood Crest beach and ocean.
"(Icona CEO) Eustace Mita was leasing us the space for Heirloom and redoing the Icona and lo and behold, he needed an operator for a new restaurant space," Paris says. "I looked at it in February, and it was an old arcade, and I just saw the raw potential in the space with the beach and ocean there. So we knocked down a few walls, the hotel came together nicely and millions of dollars later, I am in there cooking crab cakes."
Paris' whimsy can be found not only in his personality but in his dishes, particularly at Coastal Blue, where he has taken a casual approach to shore classics while adding some twists that you won't find anywhere else at the Jersey Shore.
"I just love Diamond Beach because it's like its own resort and feels like another world … more like South Beach than South Jersey," Paris says. "And I wanted the food to reflect the people that are in Diamond Beach so that it's light and approachable and that you feel really good when you walk out of there."
Like the hotel, Coastal Blue's dining room pulls the ocean theme into the restaurant with its light hardwood floors emulating sand and soft blue lighting mirroring the water that the outside terrace overlooks.
"All eyes go to the beach and there's the beautiful white sand and the white hotel and the restaurant really named itself," Paris says. "We're on the coast and we have beautiful blue water and we wanted that to be the identity of the cuisine, and the room is kind of chic to pull it all together."
The menu, executed by Chef de Cuisine Anita Schieding, features about two dozen items ranging from summer soups and salads such as the lobster bisque ($10) with chive and biscuit; and the grilled chicken Cobb salad ($11) with egg, avocado, blue cheese and bacon; to stackburgers and tacos that include the Angus burger ($13) with cheddar cheese and all the fixins with Paris' stellar bistro sauce made with tomato and horseradish; the salmon stackburger ($14) with bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and aioli; and the grilled shrimp taco ($13) with Manchego cheese and chipotle drizzle.
Standout appetizers include the key-lime honey chicken wings ($9) with firecracker applesauce; beach bonfire mussels ($11) with chorizo sausage, peppers and tomato; and the most tender yet crunvhy tempura calamari ($12) with cherry peppers, zucchini and aioli you will ever sink your teeth into. Plus, a raw bar recently debuted featuring fresh, Jersey seafood staples and more.
For entrees, popular choices include the Maine lobster roll ($19) with lime mayo on a toasted bun; blackened Caribbean tilapia ($19) with island-spiced bananas; the signature Coastal Blue crabcakes ($23) with lobster basil sauce; seafood linguini ($22) with shrimp, scallops, crab, tomato and capers; and grilled fillet mignon ($27) with Maytag blue cheese and red wine reduction.
"I think the crab cakes are extraordinary because there is no breading and no butter," he says. "We just bind them with whipped egg white and the meringue just melts away. And they are baked, not fried in any way. So there is no fat in them at all. And the tilapia is such a great fish because it offers a blank canvas. So the island-spiced banana is just unique and I don't think done anywhere before like this. It was something I played with at home and it just came out great. Tilapia has so much more character than it used to have, and it's just a great dish."
Paris' menu is something that is already resonating with diners.
"I think people really want to relax and don't want super heavy meals when they are here," Paris says. "They are physical here and even though they might not ride a bike all year, they are out in the morning riding them on the street. So our goal was keep it fresh and to overdeliver on a very simple product and make sure people feel great when they walk out of here and give them flavorful, light food with sensible portions. Plus, we're pretty aware of the price point. It would be natural to have a $60 lobster on the menu based on the location because it's so beautiful, but that's not what we wanted to do."
Of course being in a hotel means Coastal Blue offers a great breakfast.
"It's a big part of our business, but I may have been too over the top originally when we opened, offering Southern biscuits and lobster biscuits," he says.
"But people want to be adventurous at dinner and maybe not so much at night. So we shifted. They wanted eggs and bacon and waffles and pancakes, so we reacted immediately. But the way I work is that if I don't crave it, it doesn't make the menu, and I am perpetually hungry."
So Paris, who also operated the former The Sound of Philadelphia inside the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, has retained some of the items he really craves in the morning, including the crab cake Benedict ($14) and fried chicken and waffles ($14).
"But people can also just order omelets as they want them and we now have a whole section devoted to pancakes and waffles and french toast," he says. "So everyone's happy."
Recent crowds give Paris great confidence that Coastal Blue is on the right track for something that will evolve into a destination restaurant.
"We are hammering them now," he says. "It has been tremendous. Last week I don't think we had a breakfast for less than 150 people, and we are just looking to finish the summer strong and gear up for 2014."
Next year, Coastal Blue will certainly evolve as a terrace on its roof will be constructed to accommodate about 250 people for more dining space and special events such as weddings and private parties.
"And we are also planning a beach bar and we want to put a dance floor on it because it's a private beach, but we have to grow as we feel fit," Paris says. "We will go as late into the fall as we can and we want to do some things for Christmas and New Year's Eve, and then we will be back for Mother's Day. We think we have something special."
The new Hotel Icona Diamond Beach redefines the luxury hotel experience near Wildwood Crest. Totally renovated from a 1970s beach hotel by The Icona Investment Group and Achristavest, the 108-suite hotel and resort sits directly on the beach, overlooking the white sand and blue water.
Perfect for a couple looking for a romantic getaway or for a family looking for a summer escape, Hotel Icona's rooms brings the blue ocean inside with its coastal colors and modern d�cor. All rooms feature new furniture, glass-tiled walls and complete kitchens with uniquely designed sitting rooms and "the softest sheets you'll ever slip under."
"Because of our location - we're just south of The Wildwoods, and literally minutes from Cape May - the opportunities for our guests are virtually limitless," says Eustace Mita, CEO of The Icona Investment Group and Achristavest.
Achristavest, a world-renowned developer of exclusive waterfront resort experiences and private homes, also decided to offer some cool amenities you won't find in other hotels, such as Keurig coffee makers and martini shakers. Plus, the hotel's oceanside pool completes the experience.