CAPE MAY - When Lucas Manteca closed Sea Salt in Stone Harbor to become executive chef at The Ebbitt Room, some of us wondered if he would be able to produce, on a larger scale, the same intricate, delicious cuisine that he became known for while cooking at his own small-but-sophisticated restaurant.

Indeed, he has done it. I've had several meals at The Ebbitt Room over the years, and this one was undoubtedly the best, thanks to Manteca.

Of course, as always, the ambience is as elegant as you'll find anywhere. Housed in the historic Virginia Hotel (established in 1879), the dining room is the perfect setting for a romantic dinner or otherwise. The d�cor combines golden chandelier lighting, white-cloth tables and red-plush carpeting paired with a quiet jazz soundtrack that adds just the right amount of suitable background music.

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If it's only a cocktail you're looking for, the lounge and bar areas are as chic and comfortable as they come, with a fireplace burning real wood and a baby grand tucked in the corner for the pianist who plays it on the weekends.

On the night that we dined, the service staff - simply and stately dressed in long-sleeved white shirts, black slacks and aprons - couldn't have been better. From the young woman who took our order, to the server who delivered every dish to the busser who wiped crumbs from the table, nothing was left undone and all was executed with congeniality and finesse.

No matter how beautiful a restaurant may be, the key to its success, however, is the food. Although you must be ready to pay more than you would at an average eatery, Manteca triumphs in this department, and it is worth the extra expense.

A contemporary menu with Mediterranean and French influences is divided into three sections: first course, second course and main course. All items are available a la carte, or you have the option to choose one from each group plus a dessert for a four-course prix-fixe menu priced at $75, which is what I decided to have. My guest opted to order a la carte.

We started with a basket of assorted rustic rolls served with chilled sweet butter that melted into the soothing, warm bread. My guest and I quickly devoured three rolls between the two of us. When our server asked if we wanted more, we both said yes at the same time. Normally we would pass, but we couldn't resist.

My prix-fixe meal began with a cylinder-shaped mound of minced steak tartare (raw beef) with a quail egg yolk perched on top. The plate came dotted with chimichurri and horseradish sauces. Teeny homemade croutons gave the tender meat a smidgen of crunchiness. Together, all of the ingredients created a true study in texture and flavor.

As a second course, the calamari proved to be one of the finest we've had. Served in a tight cluster, crowned with organic micro greens and drizzled with a pleasant lime-ginger aioli, the lightly breaded ringlets and tentacles practically melted in the mouth, a feat for squid that is often rubbery if not cooked properly.

My entr�e, a dinner special of the evening, was ideal for a chilly autumn night. Manteca's cassoulet (classic French bean "farmer's" stew cooked in a casserole) was an aromatic, earthy combination of white beans, garlic sausage, pork belly, chicken, green beans and baby turnips brewed in red wine and chicken stock. It exploded with taste and tradition. We loved it.

An a la carte lettuce salad ($13) consisted of fresh spring greens, shaved carrots, orange slices, strawberries and blueberries carefully tossed with a subtle vinaigrette, which enhanced the natural juices of the fruit and berries that gave this pretty salad its core flavors.

The whole-roasted bronzino ($36) arrived partially de-boned, and was stuffed with braised escarole and blanketed with yogurt sauce studded with green grapes. It was also accompanied by roasted eggplant and sweet, almost-caramelized onions. The delicate fish easily fell from the bone and worked well with the yogurt sauce. I had difficulty fully enjoying the somewhat-undercooked eggplant, the one quibble I had with this dish.

There is no doubt that desserts are painstakingly made in house. I'm sure that Manteca would have it no other way. The pumpkin flan topped with Italian meringue and caramel sauce (included in the cost of my prix-fixe dinner) was creamy and luscious, and my dining partner's homemade chocolate ice cream ($8) was excellent, as was the La Colombe coffee ($3), roasted in Philadelphia.

The eggplant issue aside, our experience was top notch. Bringing Manteca to the table was a brilliant move. He has certainly made The Ebbitt Room his new home away from home.

(Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Food Editor James Clark at Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)

The Ebbitt Room

The Virginia Hotel

25 Jackson St.

Cape May

Phone: 609-884-5700

Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday


Liquor license: Yes

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Appetizers, $12 to $22; entrees, $30 to $39; four-course prix-fixe menu

Our bill for two: $135 plus tip


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