SOMERS POINT - The more things change ...
The latest restaurant concept installed in the space formerly occupied by Stumpo's restaurant on Maryland Avenue here is called Hibiscus Island Bar and Grill. The menu features many island touches. Pizza, for example, can be made Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, Polynesian and more.
Starters and entrees also reflect the use of island ingredients, from coconut to pineapple, while Asian influences like teriyaki are incorporated into each dish. Nice to know there is a warm, sheltering cove we can seek out when our weather turns colder.
In the dining room, the interior of Hibiscus seems exactly like Stumpo's, as best we could remember. Gold, textured walls and colorful window treatments are the same, while a lonely service bar sits quietly underutilized, chairs removed, with its pretty granite top empty and beer taps still in place. We couldn't recollect if the mint-green tablecloths over white had been there the last time we dined.
The bar and booth side of the restaurant is still the busier and more lively place to be. Our hostess offered us a choice of which room we preferred. We chose the quiet dining room, since the menu served was the same throughout the restaurant.
While we were being seated, we asked about the employee's favorites from the menu. The reply - about always eating before coming to work - gave us pause. Wrong answer.
The assortment of bread was the steamy, soft type, some plain and some sprinkled with poppy seeds.
Clam strips ($6), described on the menu as lightly breaded in seasoned flour and bread crumbs, had been the victims of a heavy-handed fry cook. Left in the fryolator too long, they were crispy but overcooked and dry. A lighter coating of crumbs would have been better, too, allowing us to taste more clam than breading.
An order of classic crab poppers ($8), which were homemade, according to the menu, proved to be correctly deep-fried but were mostly bread filler with little crab meat found inside. Flavorful sides of fresh tartar sauce and cocktail sauce could not save the day.
Entrees were served with a choice of soup or salad. The house salad seemed weary, with lettuce past its prime and tasteless wedges of tomato. The only saving grace was a bright orange-colored mango vinaigrette with enough acid bite to liven up such a sad salad. A cup of black-bean soup served with a large dollop of sour cream was spicy, with the taste of cumin and mildly hot. While some beans were left whole and some mashed, it had texture and taste and gave us renewed hope for the rest of the meal.
Hibiscus penne a la vodka ($24) was composed of sauteed jumbo shrimp and large chunks of crab meat, fresh spinach, tomato pieces and sliced mushrooms, and was served in a creamy garlic-vodka sauce. That was how the menu described it. We thought it was a large pasta-bowl portion of good penne pasta, a rich and creamy pink-blush sauce with plenty of fresh seafood and assorted vegetables for color. This was more like it.
Phil's Famous baby-back ribs (half-rack $15) also delivered. Marinated and glazed with a sweet sauce and served with tasty red-bliss garlic mashed potatoes and an assortment of sauteed vegetables - mostly julienne-cut, like squash, zucchini, carrots and peppers, along with some broccoli florets for good measure - the half-rack portion was just the right size.
Since our server confided that all of the desserts were made off premises, we passed.
My dining companion was aghast when Spam was spotted on the menu as a topping with pineapple on the Hawaiian pizza. We knew that Hawaii has the largest Spam consumption per capita, so we weren't surprised at all. Many people are fans. We were surprised that so many items on the menu were described as being "perfect" in some sense - perfectly aged, perfectly grilled, and perfectly seasoned. We didn't find that description to be perfectly correct. While Hibiscus offers a large and varied menu, we thought the descriptions needed more island energy.
Our server was attentive in her yellow Hibiscus sport shirt, refilling our waters more than a half-dozen times. She was on the spot when we needed her and disappeared when we didn't, busily taking care of other tables in the room. The service was definitely the most attractive feature of Hibiscus.
Several other larger parties in the dining room boisterously attacked their meals and seemed happy enough. Thankfully, we had been seated far enough away that we could share the room with a crowd but still enjoy our meal in private, island-style.
(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.)
Bar and Grill
101 E. Maryland Ave.
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $6 to $9; entrees $16 to $33
Our bill for two: $66 plus tip