“My food is so simple anyone can cook it,” says SeaSalt Chef Lulzim Rexhepi somewhat unbelievably. Unbelievable because Rexhepi, who goes by the affectionate nickname Chef Lu, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, with years spent cultivating his craft in the New York dining scene and experience cooking in countries spanning from France to Thailand.
But his point is well taken — the food at SeaSalt, the restaurant at the Ocean Club Hotel in Cape May, isn’t overly manipulated. The menu focuses on indigenous foods from New Jersey, with ingredients coming from nearby farms or the ocean that sits just across the street from the gorgeous restaurant.
“Food should be simple and beautiful,” Rexhepi says. “When prepared perfectly, it’s really simple to stay true to the ingredients.”
“I’m inspired by my surroundings,” he adds, “The ocean and the farms in Cape May, what’s seasonal and what’s out there. That’s what dictates the menu. Like the corn and crab soup. New Jersey corn is a favorite, so we had to come up with a fun dish using it.”
Indeed, the Jersey corn and crab soup with chives, lime crème fraiche and Tabasco ($11) is a favorite at SeaSalt, along with the scallop au poivre with cauliflower puree and balsamic reduction ($28); barbecue grilled chicken with sesame-chili dipping sauce, Asian slaw and roasted peanuts ($27); and the grilled branzino with grilled asparagus and burnt lemon ($32).
“People really love that,” Rexhepi laughs, talking about his technique of adding salt and sugar that caramelizes onto the lemon that garnishes the branzino, a clever yet simple technique.
“We’re serving very simple food inspired by the ocean,” chimes in Amy Kao, general manager at SeaSalt and wife to Chef Lu. “He’s always very adamant that it’s not fusion. There may be Asian or Mediterranean influences, but it’s not complicated. It’s good, simple American fare … (that’s) unadulterated, simply prepared with great techniques.”
When talking with Kao and Rexhepi about SeaSalt, the word “unpretentious” comes up a lot. It’s easy to see how the stunning beachside restaurant could be construed as uppity. With elegant deck seating, a modern bar area and ocean blue walls with sand-colored wooden floors to mimic the colors of the sea, it does look more cosmopolitan than Cape May’s average beach bar.
But SeaSalt snuggles somewhere in between Cape May establishments that may require a suit jacket and hole-in-the-wall greasy griddles. It occupies a strangely hard-to-find space in Cape May, one that unifies fine dining with a comfortable atmosphere. In essence — you can wear your flip-flops.
“There are other fine dining restaurants that are formal and rooted in tradition. Then there’s a casual, beach bar level. We’re in between — and we want to be there,” Kao says. “It’s not just suit and tie. We’re right on the beach. It’s whatever you’re comfortable in and whatever occasion you want it to be. You can come in with your sandy flip-fops and we’ll give you the best table, or you could be dressed to the nines for a romantic dinner.”
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This fine yet simple mentality applies to everything at SeaSalt. The kids menu is stacked with carefully prepared dishes — no frozen chicken fingers here. The fully loaded bar has an extensive wine list and craft cocktails made with freshly muddled fruits, purees and herbs. A special menu is available for people with multiple allergies, making it easy to see what ingredients are included in each dish. Two different family-style dining options give guests the chance to sample a variety of Rexhepi’s appetizers, entrees and desserts. And, speaking of desserts, all ice creams and sorbets are made fresh in-house.
SeaSalt is also open for breakfast, with options spanning from caramelized grapefruit with clover honey ($4); an assortment of baked eggs ($11 to $14); and mushroom and fines herb frittata with caramelized onions ($12).
“The breakfast is out of this world because it’s the same attention to detail on the breakfast,” Kao raves.
So, whether you’re sprinkled with salt and sand after a day at the beach or passing by during a Cape May shopping spree, Kao and Rexhepi say come on in.
“People initially thought we were trying to be too New York, based off our appearance,” Rexhepi says. “They’d say, ‘We thought you guys were really pretentious at this restaurant.’ But we have a kitchen staff and front-of-house staff that really cares that you leave happy. Good food and drinks don’t have to be pretentious.”