SOMERS POINT - For years, we have been fascinated by the red brick and wood structure located at 800 Bay Ave. in Somers Point. Something about the building with its many interesting architectural details demands your immediate attention. Maybe its the wrap-around porch that leads to the comfortable foyer, or maybe the sweeping vistas extending out to the barrier islands, but the building definitely has a personality all its own. Several restaurateurs have tried and eventually failed at making a go of it in this very same spot. Hard to believe, since the location has so much going for it. Restaurant concepts are much more fleeting than sturdy structures. Through several semi-successful concepts, the now simply named 800 Bay Restaurant & Bar, may prove to be the one that finally succeeds.
Inside, the carpet was a swirl of autumn leaves in burgundy, sage and gold, a seasonal touch that made us hope the menu would be seasonal, too.
Early enough to order the early-bird special, a very affordable $25 for three courses, the entrees included Chicken Marsala, Flounder Francaise, and Orecchiette pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe, we opted for the regular menu.
We liked that the menu wasn't too big. It gave us hope that in a slow season, everything would still be fresh. We purposely shied away from items such as the tomato carpaccio, probably better left for a late summer menu than for late fall. But the rest of the menu had plenty to offer, including raw bar selections, starters and a half-dozen side dishes for the truly hungry diner.
Our bread basket was a modern piece of artwork in metal with three very good breads; a seeded loaf, walnut and dried fruits and a plain loaf served with butter and a pesto laced olive oil for dipping.
Crispy polenta ($10) was like an open-faced sandwich of Parmesan cheese flavored slices stacked then topped with a sauteed oyster and button mushrooms and a creamy herb sauce that was unbelievably good.
The onion soup gratin ($7) was even better. It could have been the falling temperatures that made it such a good choice or maybe the perfectly caramelized slices of onion in a meaty broth with plenty of bread and loads of melted Gruyere cheese on top. It was served in a porcelain lion's head tureen, the kind you expect to see in an authentic French bistro.
Espresso crusted lamb chops ($29) were cooked medium-rare and lined up in a row like soldiers standing on a base of excellent smashed potatoes and an anise flavored sambuca lamb jus. The only thing we didn't care for was the undercooked green asparagus with no flavor and no seasoning to speak of. A plate of day-boat scallops ($28) with butter-roasted spaghetti squash, confit tomatoes and aged balsamic and basil oil was a wonderful combination of fresh seafood, colorful ingredients and plenty of textures. The seared scallops, while perfectly cooked, may be slightly too rare for the typical diner, as they were for my dining companion. Could we possibly sample desserts?
The Roasted Baby Bananas ($8) with vanilla-bean ice cream, chopped hazelnuts and chocolate was without a doubt the best banana split we have ever had. Bananas sliced lengthwise, had a caramel crisp skin on the cut surface and a drizzle of chocolate sauce that complemented the mounds of rich vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and nuts. How would we ever finish it? We did!
A portion of seasonal berries ($7) were served marinated in Grand Marnier and topped with a torched meringue. Centered on a raspberry sauce bull's-eye, the strawberries, blueberries and raspberries were very sweet with a light touch of the orange-flavored alcohol, although we could hardly call them seasonal around these parts.
Good coffee was served from a square cup, with a bowl of rock candy sugar crystals and a creamer made of tin in the shape of a tiny milk carton. We weren't surprised when our server said they had to replace them many times over the course of a very busy summer.
As good as the food was, service failed to reach the same plateau. A mostly young and inexperienced crew needs to be taught the finer points of service and hospitality. Our hostess never cracked a smile and bussers need to learn to say "hello" before attending to your needs. Also, we do not appreciate being addressed as "guys," casual dining concept or not.
Silverware was not cleared in a timely fashion and dropped at times, dirty plates were unceremoniously dumped into a half-empty bread basket before being cleared from our table. Our server forgot to mention the available daily specials that were explained in some detail to a neighboring table. While the dining room succeeded admirably with a casual atmosphere, we felt the pricing structure dictated a bit more formality in the service.
The view of the Ocean City skyline from our table was punctuated by construction cranes jutting into the air, that disappeared into the dark night, only to be replaced by a string of headlights coming and going across the darkened causeway. We wondered how the restaurant would look in some holiday lighting from the other side of the bay.
Music was seriously Frank and friends singing standards that were by no means standard. A serious dark wood and mirrored bar area looked as though it was just the right place for a warm winter repast.
Any local restaurateur can advise you of the many pitfalls of opening a restaurant in a seasonal city and of the challenge it can be to make it through a long, cold New Jersey winter without losing your shirt.
Eight-hundred Bay is one of those restaurants you pray will survive.
C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Features Editor Steve Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.
800 Bay Restaurant & Bar
800 Bay Ave.
Hours: Dinners from
4 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Closed Mondays.
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $8 to $14, entrees $25 to $34
Our bill for two: $108 plus tip