CAPE MAY - There are plenty of good reasons my dining guest and I didn't mind waiting thirty minutes at the Blue Pig Tavern for a table on a cold, mid-winter night.
First was the cozy bar and lounge area where we sipped our glasses of wine in front of a wood-burning fireplace, in a room decorated with an eclectic array of chairs, ottomans and cushions that felt as cozy as home.
The bar itself is small, but that didn't stop folks from flocking around it to drink cocktails or sit on stools to eat. The bartenders were furiously mixing, shaking and pouring away on what they told us was an unusually busy night, especially for a weekday.
Time went quickly, and before we knew it, the maitre'd seated us in the main dining room not far from another crackling fire that kept us warm throughout the evening.
Settled in a corner of historic Congress Hall, the Blue Pig Tavern hails from a decor lineage dating from the 1700s and 1800s. White linen-covered, candlelit tables aside, the interior certainly looks like a tavern, but the unpretentious menu reflects more sophisticated fare that ranges from homemade macaroni and cheese and ale-battered local fish 'n' chips, to free-range organic chicken and grilled filet mignon, plus a daily listing of "locally famous blue plate specials." This was one instance when we truly had difficulty deciding what to order, because everything sounded appealing.
Our waitress, who was as adorable and as unobtrusive as they come, delivered sweet, swift and excellent service from beginning to end. There is a patron-server bond that develops when a server is confident and professional, which was the case here. We followed her advice after we asked her opinion about certain menu items, and she didn't let us down.
The meal began with warm, fragrant bread laced with asiago cheese and served with soft butter, a precursor to the top-notch food we suspected would follow (and we were correct).
Six oysters of the day ($18), raw Cape May salts with cocktails sauce and lemon, were smallish but perfect. My guest was amazed at how quickly they disappeared. Oyster lovers surely understand the value at three dollars a piece when they are as delicious as these were.
A stuffed tomato ($12) filled with an unusual but lovely combination of saut�ed barley with herbs and melted parmigiano reggiano came posed on a plate accompanied by braised Belgian endive and tarragon vinaigrette. Each component worked well together, and I was especially pleased to see and taste a ripe tomato in December.
An a la carte salad ($10) made with field greens, a chardonnay poached pear, bits of dried apricots, grape tomatoes, candied pecans, and creamy goat cheese was dressed with just the right amount of white balsamic vinaigrette, enough to give it flavor without overpowering the other ingredients, a rarity in my book. It was as fine as our server said it would be.
My guest's blue plate special came with soup or salad, so he chose the soup of the day: creamy carrot-ginger, which was fantastic with its piquant gingery overtone. Oftentimes carrot soups are too sweet. Not so in this case.
We had a couple of quibbles about our otherwise terrific entrees, but they didn't keep us from enjoying our meals.
The steak and cake ($34), a pairing of New York strip steak and jumbo lump crab cake, was also one of our server's recommendations. The straightforward, tender and flavorsome steak, drizzled with red wine reduction sauce, arrived charred on the outside and medium-rare within as requested. Each forkful of mildly seasoned, lightly browned crab cake yielded substantial hunks of jumbo lump crabmeat with very little filler.
Fluffy mashed potatoes and saut�ed julienne carrots would have been better had they been hot like the main dishes. Unfortunately, they were almost cold, which was a slight disappointment.
Monday's blue plate special ($22), traditional house made parpardelle pasta with sweet Italian sausage, a sprinkling of plum tomatoes, broccoli rabe, olive oil and garlic, was nice but a tad underwhelming. All of the components were cooked properly, but it needed more oomph, something to bring out the flavors and tie them together.
We were excited to learn that there is a pastry chef on premises. Typically, it means that desserts are better than most you'll find.
The two we had were marvelous as expected.
Dutch apple pie ($8), with its thin, flaky crust, fresh apples and crumb topping, came with cinnamon gelato, undoubtedly handmade as well. The bread and butternut squash pudding with bourbon sauce ($7) was even more divine. I've never had bread pudding with such moist, downy texture before. Butternut squash puree dispersed throughout added a unique quality that delighted us.
We drove home talking about how much we liked the entire experience: the ambiance, the service and the food. As a matter of fact, I was so enthralled by what I was eating, I didn't notice if there was music playing in the background.
Luckily for us, the Blue Pig Tavern is open all year. We don't have to wait until summer to return. The macaroni and cheese with stewed tomatoes is calling.
(Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Food Editor James Clark at email@example.com. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
Blue Pig Tavern
251 Beach Ave.
Hours: Breakfast, Monday through Friday 7:30 to 11 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; lunch, daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, daily 5 p.m. to closing
Web site: www.congresshall.com/
Liquor license: Yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Appetizers, $10 to $15; entrees, $14 to $34
Our bill for two: $110 plus tip