CAPE MAY - A sea gull perched on the green awning overhead was screeching at the top of its lungs, something about fresh fish inside the Cape May Fish Market restaurant. Smart bird! The two things summer vacationers to the Jersey shore look forward to is swimming in the ocean and dining on some of the very same denizens of the deep that brush by our legs and nibble on our toes. In this instance, it seemed like turnabout would only be fair play.
A blackboard menu outside at the hostess stand alerted us to some specials available that evening. As we entered the dining room, we saw two stocked refrigerated cases in the takeout area where the same products served on the menu were available raw or cooked to go.
The floor staff seemed young, just as you would expect in a seasonal seafood restaurant. That didn't mean they wouldn't supply us with basic friendly service, quick as you would expect, but hardly pushing us to eat quickly to turn over the tables. The uniform of the day was a printed company T-shirt and black pants in the form of shorts, chinos or slacks.
The age difference was evident. We recognized Devo on the slightly too-loud sound system, but someone had to tell us the young crooner was a teenage kid named Justin Bieber. Who knew?
Our basket of rolls had that same wrinkled look as a vacationer dressing out of their suitcase. We sampled but passed on finishing them. Our server explained that the oysters on the half-shell appetizer ($10.99) were local oysters. We asked if that meant they were the famous eponymous Cape May Salts, and she wasn't really sure. A quick trip to the kitchen answered our question - they were.
Our half dozen were served in the classic way, on lettuce, on top of plenty of crushed ice with the traditional garnishes of lemon wedge and cocktail sauce ... all things that, to our mind, are simply guilding the lily when you have a meaty, briny, chewy mollusk on your plate. No need to accentuate the flavor with citric acid and definitely a mistake to cover up the delicate taste with ketchup and horseradish, as these bi-valves can definitely stand on their own feet.
The only mistake was that our shucker had allowed the oyster to remain anchored to the bottom shell, forcing us to do some work to free our prize before "slurping" them down au natural, one by one. A soup du jour of seafood bisque ($4.99 a cup) was basic, creamy and good. Small bits of meat made it hard to discern if there was more than crab and shrimp in the cup.
Entrees began with our Jersey shore favorite, the fried flounder platter ($19.99). Two large pieces of very fresh tasting flounder were nicely breaded, perfectly deep-fried and accompanied by a stack of crisp french fries and a monkey dish piled high with a creamy version of cole slaw. Long before vacationers gave a twit about calories or cholesterol, this was the plate to order. Well, vacations come but once a year! We balanced it out with a selection from the healthier column, broiled scallops ($23.99). Large and sweet tasting as fresh "dry pack" scallops should be, the only water these scallops ever touched was the sea water they called home.
We liked that the menu was not complicated. Who wants to have to think too much about ordering a meal on vacation? Too many restaurants try too hard to do too many things. The Cape May Fish Market stuck to the basics and did them well.
Different cooking methods allowed for some choice - grilling, deep-frying and broiling, along with a selection of cold poached platters like shrimp salad or crab salad, perfect for a warm-summer-evening meal.
The kids' menu veered away from the dock to offer things like chicken fingers, burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and macaroni and cheese, along with fried shrimp and flounder. French fries were included with each choice. Families should have little trouble choosing everyone's favorite summer meal, even for the pickiest eaters.
Some prices seemed high at first glance, but then the days of low-priced seafood are probably over, as the oil spill in the Gulf is affecting availability and seafood prices nationwide. We had hoped that this seasonal restaurant would not turn out to be too touristy and in fact, it wasn't. Fish nets, buoys and all things nautical were kept to a minimum. We did notice some old photographs of concrete ships built near the end of the war like the one sunk off of Cape May Point.
Booths were high-backed, wooden and dark, just right for a semi-private conversation, the kind best kept between families.
The primo seats, of course, are outside under that same green awning on the Washington Street Mall where the noisy sea gull was so busy alerting diners about the catch of the day. We have to admit, there is something special about people-watching while dining al fresco that adds an extra layer of enjoyment to a shore dinner.
Cape May Fish Market
408 Washington Street Mall
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Rating: 2 and 1/2 stars
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $6.99 to $21.99, entrees $19.99 to $34.99
Our bill for two: $71 plus tip