Press Restaurant Critic
WILDWOOD - Good restaurants, such as The Wharf Restaurant in Wildwood, let the quality of their food speak for itself. Seafood, especially when fresh, doesn't need a lot of fancy additions to help sell it.
The Wharf begins its meal service with a loaf of Italian bread served on a wooden cutting board with a serrated knife and a ramekin of whipped, salted butter. It wasn't one of those fresh-out-of-the-oven loaves with the crisp crust, warm enough to melt the butter. But it brought back a flood of memories.
The roasted corn and crab chowder ($5) had enough crab meat, golden corn, celery and onions to make it thick. It was lightly creamed but the kitchen used a heavy hand with the Chesapeake bay seasoning. Still, it's hard to complain about seasoning since when many dishes we sample taste underseasoned for the masses. This version had personality plus.
The coconut shrimp appetizer ($9) was a small portion of small shrimp panko crusted and overcooked. Seafood takes so little time to cook just right. The sauce was a sweet, creamy concoction with mango and the plate was garnished with diced of mango, shredded coconut, and parsley.
The house salad was composed of mixed greens, grape tomatoes, sliced cucumber and red onion rings with a citrus and herb vinaigrette. It was definitely in a class above the typical iceberg lettuce salad.
The Wharf showed its mettle with the entrees. Salmon Oscar ($24) was a filet of fresh salmon, broiled and topped with asparagus, sauteed jumbo lump crab meat and Hollandaise sauce. The salmon was perfectly cooked, the crab meat was free of shells and the Hollandaise was buttery and rich enough to pull it all together. It was served with garlic mashed red bliss potatoes and fresh chives. What we liked most was everything on the plate had been seasoned individually, making the whole dish better than the sum of its parts.
If there is one classic dish that used to separate the chefs from the cooks, it was crab Imperial. The Wharf's stuffed flounder ($27) was made the old fashioned way, with a filet of flounder on the bottom, a gob of crab Imperial on top, then another filet of flounder on top of that, with a little slit to allow the crab filling to peak through as it baked. The portion of shell-free crab meat stuffed inside - barely bound with a rich sauce and absolutely no fillers, not even a dice of red or green pepper to conflict with the fresh taste of the seafood - was generous. Of course it had paprika on the top, that's just the way it always was done. Baked in a white wine and butter sauce, the asparagus seemed undercooked and crunchy - read flavorless. We haven't seen krinkle kut French fries on a platter since the late 50's but these could have been crisper.
And get this, the garnish was a wedge of lemon and chopped parsley - be still my beating heart.
The Wharf can be seen when you cross the bridge at Rio Grande avenue. We noticed the worn wood building with the big "W" on it for years but never knew what was inside.
The restaurant is it the very dead end of Burk Avenue, the street on the south side of Otten's Harbor, an area under gentrification for several years. Established in 1982, it has been there longer than we imagined.
The staff moved around the room in black uniforms with monogrammed red "W"s in varying sizes, possibly signifying their position as server or bus person. Service was friendly but not intrusive; the way we like it. We didn't need to know our server's name or their likes and dislikes on the menu. Or that we were somehow psychic for ordering what they would have ordered from the menu.
The Wharf has an outside bar and deck with live music from time to time, all listed on its Web site. A young man with guitar in hand, wearing flip-flops and a beach hat provided music - that day, a steady stream of tunes to make any Parrothead sit up on his perch. We saw waverunners pull up to the dock and boats were welcome, too.
Inside, there are lots of wooden surfaces, from the bar to the laminated flooring. Tables were dressed in white with black napkins. A little glass holding sand, stones, and a votive candle provided the ambiance. Flat screens are everywhere, wall decorations are few and far between. That's probably because two of the dining room walls are mostly windows looking out towards the Rio Grande Avenue Bridge and the back bay. Why look at a painting of the sea when you can see the real thing.
We did notice one Caribbean style pleated cloth ceiling fan, complete with tears, overhead that was out of service long enough to garner some cobwebs and some rusty fixtures in the restrooms that are showing their age.
Three cloth beach umbrellas were opened over the dining area; no one seemed to be overly concerned about a change in their luck. We knew that this was our lucky day.
The Wharf Restaurant
708 West Burk Avenue, Wildwood
Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 11 a.m. to midnight Saturdays and Sundays
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $9 to $14.50, entrees $18 to $36
Our bill for two: $73 plus tip
Web site: thewharfnj.com