Marie Nicole's offers upscale dining for affordable price in Wildwood

Rack of lamb, oysters on the half shell, seared ahi tuna and a lobster martini are favorites at Marie Nicole’s in Wildwood Crest.

When Jim Barnabei opened Marie Nicole's in 2000, no one thought of Wildwood as being on the cutting edge of dining.

Most of the nicer restaurants at the time were Italian. Places such as Luigi's, La Piazza and Piro's were the most popular restaurants of the day. Even when Barnabei's own friends would come down the shore to visit, they would end up dining at one of the fancier restaurants in Cape May.

"Why should you have to go over the bridge to Cape May for a good meal?" Barnabei says.

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Marie Nicole's has been a Wine Spectator Award winner since 2005. Barnabei describes the wine list as being heavily into California and Italy, with a smattering of wines from France and Argentina.

A great martinis-n-ritas list includes the new "Marie Nicole," with Grey Goose pear, Canton and ginger puree ($14); the cucumber martini ($12) made with your choice of premium ginor vodka and fresh cucumber; or the Marie Nicole Rita ($16) with Patron, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, agave ... and the rest is a secret.

Dessert martinis include the berry milkshake ($14) made with blackberry-flavored Stolichnaya, ice cream, berry sauce, cream and whipped cream rim; or the cheese quake ($15) with Stolichnaya vanilla, slice of cheesecake, cream, and berry sauce.

Born in Camden and raised in Pennsauken, Barnabei's parents bought a place in Wildwood while he was attending college.

"Wildwood was the place to be," Barnabei says.

Barnabei's family had a package store downtown and Barnebei still owns two liquor stores in Wildwood.

His first run-in with the food business was when he and a cousin partnered to open the Concord Cafe in Avalon in 1989.

"Concord is more old school," Barnabei says.

For Barnabei, old school means the traditional Italian-American dishes that everybody recognizes, loves and comes back for again and again. Serving lunch and dinner, the menu at Concord Cafe offers Philly steak sandwiches, roast pork with broccoli rabe and provolone, build-your-own burgers, gourmet pizza, salads and assorted pasta entrees.

Barnabei now operates three restaurants. In addition to Marie Nicole's and the Concord Cafe, Barnabei's newest restaurant, North End American Grill in North Wildwood, also is casual dining but a little more up to date and a little more eclectic, with a crab cake B.L.T., pulled pork sliders with mango, tuna bites with seaweed salad, chopped salads, and dinners including stuffed flounder, chicken parmesan and spaghetti and clams in a family-oriented and casual setting.

The city of Wildwood is bookended by two bedroom communities, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, populated by homeowners who can afford to go out to dinner. The demographics are constantly changing, and people with more discretionary income have moved into the entire area, known collectively as the Wildwoods.

Technically located in Diamond Beach, Barnabei was able to move a liquor license from a business in the Villas. Neighbors at first were up in arms, thinking another bar was coming into the area. Barnabei proved there was a market for a more upscale restaurant in the area, and Marie Nicole's neatly filled that niche.

In the summer, there is a big influx of people from New York who have summer places in the larger Diamond Beach developments.

"These people are used to going out and there needs to be a place for them to dine," Barnabei says.

The menu at Marie Nicole's offers a raw bar, featuring a lobster and crab martini with avocado relish and mango aioli ($18), Ahi tuna tartare with a spicy sesame dressing ($14), colossal shrimp cocktail ($15) and scallops ceviche ($12). This season, Barnabei has included one of his latest interests, oysters, which rotate weekly as they are shipped from different places along the coast.

Marie Nicole's menu is heavy on meat and seafood, prepared the way their customers demand it. A 10-ounce black Angus filet mignon ($38) is cooked to order with a merlot wine reduction. A 16-ounce New York strip steak ($42) has a dry spice rub and a roasted shallot demi-glace.

The restaurant also offers a grilled New Zealand rack of lamb ($39), with sun-dried tomato pesto, sauteed broccoli rabe and scalloped potatoes. A wasabi and sesame-encrusted Ahi tuna ($32) is accompanied by a soba noodle salad, vegetable stir-fry and a ginger-soy dipping sauce.

Barnabei offers a dish named after his son-in-law, called filet del Monte, with loads of crab meat in a cream sauce served over filet mignon.

The menu also offers a complete section "from the sea," including a pan-seared salmon ($26) served with sweet pea risotto, roasted asparagus and lemon vinaigrette; and jumbo lump crab cakes ($26) with whipped potatoes, roasted asparagus and a spicy remoulade sauce.

Marie Nicole's always has a daily seafood special.

Barnabei says there is one dish on the menu that he has been trying to take off for 10 years, the horseradish-encrusted swordfish. No matter how creatively they try changing the dish, his customers constantly ask for it made the same way.

Veal Milanese, seafood risotto and steak and cake are all listed under house specialties on the menu.

Veal Milanese ($44) is a Frenched, butterflied veal chop, served with an arugula salad, a light lemon vinaigrette and parmesan curls.

Seafood risotto ($34) is comprised of fresh lobster, jumbo lump crab meat, shrimp, clams and andouille sausage, with fresh herbs, white wine and garlic.

"We tried to get away from the lobster tail, which makes the surf and turf so expensive, instead going with a filet and crab cake," Barnabei says.

Barnabei shakes his head over customer stories of paying a $100 for lobster tails at other restaurants.

Barnabei does have one regret, that the bar originally installed as a service bar isn't bigger.

"People like to eat at the bar," Barnabei says. "Times have changed over the last 10, 12 years to more casual, upscale dining," which he prefers to the term "fine dining."

Many customers prefer to come in and eat at the bar, have a martini, have an appetizer and a dessert. Many people are coming in later to sit on the patio after dinner to enjoy a dessert, an espresso or an after-dinner drink. They like to sit outside on a summer night, Barnabei says.

"We used to stop dinner at 10, now we serve until midnight," Barnabei says.

Vacationers today stay on the beach later, take a nap, then get dressed to go out to eat later than they used to.

"Personally, I don't like to eat when it's hot," Barnabei says. "I don't want to eat until it's dark, when it cools off and you feel better eating with a drink. Wildwood is what it is."

He still believes it is the place to be, and that more people are finding out all the area has to offer. Many more upscale restaurants have opened recently.

"Ten years ago Cape May was the dining mecca. Now you don't have to travel," Barnabei says.

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