T he Reeds at Shelter Haven, a new boutique hotel in Stone Harbor, is already receiving accolades for its luxuriousness, quality of service and raising the bar at the Jersey Shore.
It won't be long before its restaurants also receive the same praise.
Sax at the Reeds, a casual, yet elegant indoor dining experience, and Water Star Grille, a super casual bayside retreat, possibly offer the best one-two dining punch in any South Jersey resort outside of Atlantic City.
Despite the beauty of both restaurants, as well as the hotel in general, the quality and creativeness of the food, paired with impeccable service, ranging from the hostesses who greet you to the friendly, knowledgeable wait staff, to the accommodating management, to even the valet parking attendants make you feel like you're somewhere special.
And both restaurants are certainly that. A good deal of credit can be paid to General Manager A. Cem Erenler and his team. Erenler, whose guest services career includes Ian Schrager Hotels and Four Seasons Hotel, as well as top resorts in Europe.
"I am trying to bring creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and merge the styles of my past experiences to offer a traditional approach to service and individualizing service and customizing it for each person just like a five-star, five-diamond hotel but also be creative at the same time," he says. "That, combined with ambiance, design and the personalities of everyone who works here offers the best of both sides."
Both restaurants are overseen by Executive Chef David Utley, who is also showing his creativity in the kitchen using local and organic products for regional American cuisine with a twist. Sax, in particular, shows Utley's love for the South, offering some Cajun influences done unlike anywhere else at the shore.
The 65-seat Sax dining room's classy, elegant design features beautiful, high-backed chairs, wooden tables, hardwoods throughout the space, modern chandeliers, a bar and a fireplace to set the tone for a peaceful summer - or even warm winter - dining experience that perfectly complements Utley's inventive, fun menu.
Must-try appetizers include oven-roasted local tomato and sugar-cured Berkshire bacon crisp ($9) with baby arugula greens and saffron white balsamic garlic vinegar; fried Blue Point oysters and blue cheese salad ($12); and the Jersey Shore Creole Midnight Snack ($12) with grilled shrimp, poached egg, stone ground mustard dressing and buttered brioche crouton.
Stellar main attractions include the Kobe beef short rib and blue crab manicotti ($28) with local tomato, ricotta cheese fondue, crispy parmesan and homemade pasta; and the 8-ounce corn-fed Dakota Angus filet mignon ($38) with port wine blue cheese butter and white truffle buttermilk mashed potatoes. Other standouts include the cornmeal-fried Long Island oysters and farm-raised shrimp ($29) with wilted kale and organic spinach, mashed potatoes, Moroccan harissa and sweet chile aioli; double-cut, all-natural pork chop ($35) with scrumptious, creamy orzo risotto and plum tomato garlic jus; and the pan-seared grouper ($32) with sesame-charred baby bok choy, udon noodles and red curry saffron broth.
"It's a very intimate food experience that is very comfortable," Erenler says. "It's a step above a casual restaurant, but it's not fine dining or pretentious. Like Water Star Grille, we are really focused on sourcing products from farmers from Vineland so on and establish not just a farm-to-table program but also for our seafood, whether it's our oysters, scallops and fish. We want to get as much Jersey Shore product as we can."
That approach means 25 to 40 percent of the menu will change seasonally at both restaurants.
"And part of that is not just about ingredients, it's about listening to our customers and what they want to eat," Erenler says. "We want to give not just our tourists what they want, but we want to listen to locals and tweak as we go."
Outside, the Water Star Grille boasts tiered deck seating, a spacious wraparound bar and even comfortable lounge seating in a grassy space right on the bay for an unbelievable dining experience with one of the best sunset views of any restaurant at the shore.
"There's not many places that offer the kind of setting we have out there," Erenler says. "People just line up and take pictures there. They make memories."
The Water Star offers everything someone would want from a Jersey Shore restaurant: great food, an awesome view and over-the-top service.
"Whether it's local sweet Jersey corn soup or Jersey watermelon, asparagus, tomatoes, peaches … you name it," Erenler says. "And we have a great lunch, and it can be a little heartier for dinner. It's about great American comfort food with a twist, but you can also eat healthy. This is a place for everyone."
Lunch highlights include chilled, smoky, garlic and roasted chile chicken salad ($16) with watercress, gala apples, dried cranberries and sherry shallot Greek yogurt dressing; 3rd Avenue Signature lobster knuckle macaroni and cheese ($18) with butter-grilled sourdough bread; yellowtail Ahi tuna fish tacos ($18) with pickled jalapeno and cucumber salad with avocado yogurt; Harissa lamb Bolognese ($18) with wide cut noodles, all-natural lamb, baby spinach, ricotta cheese and roasted garlic; and a farmhouse cheddar burger ($15) with smoked bacon mayo, Berkshire slab bacon, pickled red onion, tomato and red tip lettuce on a buttered onion brioche bun.
For dinner, Utley is preparing summer watermelon and feta cheese salad ($9) with grilled local peaches and tomato and ginger honey dressing; the Water Star chilled seafood explosion ($62) with crab claws, lobster, Ahi tuna, shrimp and oysters; garlic Atlantic shrimp and crab grits ($24) with sugar-cured bacon, triple farmhouse cheddar gratin, green onion and sweet blue crab butter; line-caught mahi ($26) with roasted Jersey corn and blue crab succotash and crispy edamame; and a 12-ounce corn-fed Dakota Angus ribeye steak ($35) with red wine roasted shallot maitre'd butter and smashed salt-roasted buttermilk potatoes.
It shouldn't be a surprise that desserts for both restaurants are made in-house, including goat cheesecake cupcakes; homemade chocolate chip cookies for two with ice cold milk; four-layer strawberry shortcake; brown butter tiramisu with mascarpone mousse; fire-grilled local peach with brie, honey and sherry berry sauce; and warm brioche and sugarcane bread pudding with honey ice cream.
"Every single dessert is homemade," Erenler says. "And they don't just taste great, but the presentation is spectacular … simple but elegant. Personally, I think the best part of our desserts is that they are more French and European than they are American because they don't have too much sugar. They are not overly sweet. They are perfect."
Erenler says diners can enjoy an amazing, boutique experience without being hit in the wallet.
"We were very careful when pricing our restaurants," he says. "We did an analysis comparing restaurants in three or four surrounding towns, and we are priced 15 to 20 percent less on average. When you go to Cape May and some other local places, it can be very expensive. We want people - and especially locals - to feel like they can come here year-round."
Sax and the Water Star Grille, like The Reeds at Shelter Haven, seemed poised for greatness.
"We want them to be the ultimate Jersey Shore restaurants," Erenler says. "And we want our guests to feel pampered and special without every feeling uncomfortable. People are loving it here and saying that it's just what the area needed. These aren't just restaurants inside our hotel They are signature, destination restaurants."