Michael Beshay had a dream. It may sound like a cliche, but the owner of two Jack's Pizza locations in Somers Point and Pleasantville always wanted to own and operate his own gourmet restaurant and to "redefine" the gourmet restaurant scene in South Jersey.
"It all started when I came from Egypt when I was 18 years old," says Beshay, who turns 33 this month. "I always saw myself in a dining atmosphere where I can be the host, mingle and talk and have fun with people."
Although it is open less than a week, Kings Lounge, located inside Christi's Bar on the airport circle in Egg Harbor Township, is already impressing diners with its creative cuisine and beautiful restaurant.
"The name Kings Lounge came about because my friends call me the king because they can always come to me for advice because I have always been approachable and good at solving problems," Beshay says. "So when it came to naming the lounge, Kings Lounge sounded right because I built it for me because I am not into the club or bar scene where people are loud and knocking into you all night. It's about a place where you can sit, have a drink, eat dinner and just relax and have a great conversation with great food in a place where you feel comfortable."
If there was a checklist of necessities to make a new upscale restaurant successful, Beshay seems to have them checked off. Great chef? Check. Awesome service. Check. Amazing decor? Check. Reasonably priced? Check.
"It's about doing it right," says Beshay, who started the Kings Lounge project in August. "It takes up your whole life, but it's something I love. If I took a day off, I wouldn't know what to do with my time."
The only formidable challenge Beshay sees is to conquer the ghosts of the restaurant location's past. The restaurant space currently occupied by Kings Lounge has been home to more concepts than most people can remember, and none of them were successful nor very good.
Walk into Kings Lounge and you never really have to walk into Christi's, a neighborhood bar known more for its shot-and-beer, karaoke-singing crowd than for its food. Separated with its own entrance, the sound from the bar doesn't even bleed into the dining room. And when you walk into Kings Lounge, it's hard not to be dazzled.
The first thing guests see is an oversized perched throne covered in fabric and pillows, perfect for a nice photo opportunity. Inside, the 70-seat room bears no resemblance to its predecessors. A mix of white stone and wood walls perfectly accent the hardwood floors, leather furniture, striking corner fireplace, stunning bar area and wall accents that include a hand-crafted water treatment that lines the main restaurant's wall and leads to a beautiful tree, all designed and executed personally by Beshay.
"I did it all from the ground up by myself; I like to work alone," Beshay says. "I built nine pizzerias and am also involved in real estate. There was one home with an unfinished basement and I converted it into a three bedroom, full bath, full kitchen by myself. Even when I am carrying a big 10-foot by 4-foot piece of sheet rock, I move it myself until my muscles are too sore to move it. I take a break, then I move on."
Although Kings Lounge is certainly one of the nicest restaurants you will find outside of Atlantic City casinos, the food is what will have people coming back. And Beshay enlisted a top-notch chef in Christopher M. Cassel, a Jersey native and Florida transplant who returned to the Garden State to be with his family and to also share in Beshay's passion to change the South Jersey dining scene. (See sidebar.)
"I picked him because he shared my philosophy of redefining dining in South Jersey," Beshay says. "Even before I saw the man, we had some sort of bond. Things happen for a reason. And I know I have an amazing chef."
"It's Asian, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine - a fusion with modern sensibilities," Cassel says. "Instead of putting truffles on things, my food all works together. I don't put it in because it sounds great, it has to taste great and everything has to work together. It's about depth of flavors. When I make a sauce I build it from the bottom to the top so that you taste everything but it doesn't take over the dish. You might taste of a bit of this and a bit of that and there's a small hint of something else at the end."
"Beautiful Beginnings" include a homemade "Three Musketeers" of pan-fried cheeses ($8) - fresh Buffalo mozzarella, Monterey Jack and basil-infused ricotta with vine-ripened, oven-roasted tomato dipping sauce; hand-made chicken, pork, veal and scallion-seared dumplings ($9) with an Asian dark miso, ginger, sesame and soyaki splash; and The Kings Sriracha-spiced crab and lobster Lumpia roll ($11).
Five salads offer a great variety from a classic Caesar ($7) to the Asian chicken salad ($10) with Taiwanese dressing, cashews, baby corn, water chestnuts, onions, peppers, crispy chicken and accompanied by a warm, flaky vegetarian spring roll.
"I wrote the menu like a book," Cassel says. "It describes the influences. Mike and his brother want people-friendly food like mozzarella sticks, but they are unlike the ones you had anywhere else. If I was going to do them, I was going to do them with all shapes and sizes and techniques and different cheeses that people never saw before. I don't want to confuse them, but intrigue them and show them that things can be familiar and different and be even better."
The "Big Plates" and "The Kings" are even more enticing, including prosciutto and mozzarella chicken ($21) with wild mushroom risotto, grilled garden vegetables, herbed parmesan crisps and sauced with a Madeira and garlic demi; a hand-ground kobe burger ($13) served with all of the fresh trimmings and an original kobe spread and homemade sweet potato fries; pan-seared, sweet apple-smoked bacon wrapped around a center cut filet of beef ($29) and topped with grilled colossal shrimp scampi served with creamy mashed potatoes; seared crab cakes ($21) with cumin Israeli cous cous, Middle Eastern vegetable medley and cilantro-orange drizzle; and oven-roasted dill and citrus Scottish wild salmon ($19) with creamy mashed, garden veggies, and topped with a cucumber dill and sweet cream relish.
"When Mike and I sat down, the menu was very large, and we agreed that it was better to scale back and spend time on a smaller menu with quality," Cassel says. "One dish may take 40 different steps; there are a lot of components. That's because everything is made from scratch from our salad dressings to soups to salads to us butchering the meats ourselves. I received produce the other day and sent back 40 percent of it because it wasn't the quality I demand. That's what a good restaurant is all about."
Even the desserts (priced about $5) are made in house daily and will change regularly. They can include everything from homemade ice cream to a sampler of Italian homemade cannoli with apple cobbler with French vanilla ice cream and banana spring roll to a fig creme brulee made from scratch and caramelized with sugar cane and topped with a compote of Egyptian dates and fresh berries.
"All of the influences show up on every part of the menu," Cassel says. "People may not realize they like Middle Eastern cuisine, so we Americanized it a bit to make them try things like Moroccan crab cakes but not scare them away. The same goes for the desserts."
Cassel and Beshay say Kings Lounge will be the "best restaurant in South Jersey."
"And that doesn't mean expensive," Cassel says. "But it will be the best quality, best value and best education you will receive in a restaurant. It will be an experience you won't get anywhere else. It's not where we hope to go, but where we will be going"
"Anything is possible with enough time and enough effort," says Beshay, who will occasionally offer bands, DJs, belly dancers and other entertainment after dinner service. "If you told someone a couple hundred years ago that someone would land on the moon, they would say you were crazy and yet it happened. I have a vision where there will be a line of people trying to get in Kings Lounge and I will do my best to accommodate every one of them. My only challenge will be to make the place bigger."
Must-try Kings Lounge fare
Start with the eggplant and Eastern veggie spring roll ($7) with hints of tahini, coriander and cumin filled with vegetables and hummus served with a classic tzatziki sauce; or the crispy sweet chili and Asian-perfumed, freshly cut and battered Japanese calamari that is super tender. For a salad, the signature The Kings ($9) is a no-brainer with baby spinach and raspberries with red onions, tomatoes,candied walnuts and sheep's milk feta cheese tossed with a homemade healthy raspberry vinaigrette. For the main course, you won't be disappointed with the pan-seared Pacific Rim halibut ($28), glazed with sesame and served with Chinese noodles, shitake mushrooms, baby bok choy and other Asian condiments; or the grilled, imported rack of lamb ($27) cooked perfectly medium rare served with creamy mashed potatoes, grilled veggies and sauced with a shallot and Dijon demi with hints of white balsamic.
More about the executive chef
Becoming a certified executive chef in 2010, Christopher M. Cassel, 39, certainly has an impressive list of credentials that includes studying wine at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley California, and later food at Johnston & Wales in Miami. He worked everywhere including The French Laundry in Napa and Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, but really found a culinary home in Naples, Fla., where he served as Chef de Cuisine for the Ritz Carlton beach resort as well as the corporate chef for the prestigious Grey Oaks Country Club. He also was named chef of the year in 2009-'10 by the American Culinary Federation Southwest Florida Chapter, and served as chairman of the board and president for that chapter, as well as chairman of the board for the ACF's Naples chapter. He also says he is the youngest member to ever be knighted by the Chaine des Rotisseurs food and wine society.