TUCKERTON - 217 East Main is the name - and the address - of a very special little getaway here.
That doesn't mean it's easy to locate. We had seen a picture beforehand, but brushed by the property as we searched out the declining numbers on the passing buildings.
Finally, we settled in the back lot behind the Victorian village that also houses a tea room and gift shop. We wouldn't have been surprised to see a blanket of fog surrounding the place or a widow watching the sea from a perch high above.
Inside the main hallway, we were greeted by our hostess, who took our coats and seated us in the warmest room in the house. Each tiny dining room of this Victorian jewel box sported a different color.
The red room/library had a wall filled with bookshelves with a collection of teapots and an assortment of hats interspersed throughout the stacks of books. Another room, painted sea mist with white trim, featured photos of sailing ships, with mainsails billowing in the breeze. Tuckerton Seaport sits conveniently just a few blocks away.
We tucked into some assorted warm breads, lovingly wrapped in a cloth napkin and bundled in a basket.
Because the restaurant does not have a liquor license, we asked for a bottle of sparkling water. Our server brought us two fresh glasses and a decorative bowl filled with ice cubes, along with a service spoon, and asked if we cared for a slice of lemon with the mineral water. How civilized.
Both our server and hostess stopped by our table from time to time just to check on us or to chat, but never overstayed their welcome. Service was just what we wanted - efficient and friendly, with no wasted hovering nearby.
We loved the many thoughtful details in the spotlessly clean rooms, decorated so pleasingly to the eye with plenty of pleasant music to add to the enjoyment of the meal. We didn't even let the young man at the next table who wore his baseball cap throughout ruin it for us.
Matzoh-ball soup ($4 a cup) arrived in a glass bowl with a lid shaped like a rose; the perfect way to keep the soup hot until we were ready. A mild chicken broth was loaded with chunks of chicken, while diced celery, carrots and onions added color, along with some chopped parsley. Ping-pong-ball-sized matzoh balls were as tender as they could be.
Escargot ($8) with sauteed garlic and onions was served over a grilled toast crostini in a sauce slightly sweetened by the residual sugar from some Sambuca, and a mild licorice taste from the star anise used as a flavoring in the same liquor. Our house salad was composed of mixed greens with sliced cucumbers and strawberries, then served with a berry-flavored vinaigrette.
When most of the greens on the plate went back to the kitchen, our server said the chef had asked if everything had been all right. While we had hoped for crisper greens, the amount of salad served was simply more than we could finish. It's comforting to know the chef is keeping an eye on things when they come back to the kitchen.
Considering that 217 East Main is only open a few days each week, we thought the menu offered just enough variation for the customer while also keeping the inventory down to a minimum to keep everything fresh, cleverly using the same ingredients in several dishes. We could have easily been happy with several of the offerings including the Fisherman Pan Roast and the Jamaican jerk-marinated mako shark, something that all menus fail to achieve.
Salmon ($24) was warm, poached, Scottish organic salmon over a bed of spinach and mushroom salad that had been tossed in a tomato vinaigrette. Tiny calabaza squash fritters, made from a member of the gourd family, gave a little texture to a fillet of salmon poached so perfectly that my dining partner described it as tasting like "butter."
My choice of Teriyaki pork and clams ($22) arrived in a tear-shaped porcelain bowl and seemed like an Asian-fusion take on the Portuguese habit of mixing seafood and pork in the same dish. We thought the thin slices of pork, though tender, should have been trimmed of all fat. At first, we were alarmed by the plating of the clams in their shells, with the pork and sliced zucchini in teriyaki sauce over top of the wasabi fries. Later, we realized how often we had sampled french fries with brown gravy, and the pairing made more sense. The wasabi taste was very mild, and the clams were local Parsons specials.
Our server remembered that the chocolate bundt cake was homemade, and a large slice served with vanilla ice cream with whipped cream seemed the perfect ending to our meal.
Who said romance is dead? 217 East Main is the perfect place for a first date or a romantic dinner for two longtime lovebirds.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)