AVALON - It's time to acknowledge the fact that Avalon has pulled up next to, if not surpassed, Cape May in the race for best restaurant city in South Jersey. One new notable addition to the local scene is The Diving Horse, a tres moderne, very handsome boite that we struggled to locate due to a neighboring hardware store that had its beach-chair selection strewn across their common lawn, causing the two businesses to blend together.
The only sign outside is a picture of a diving horse. Situated at the corner of the block, the large deck might also give it away when filled with happy diners, given a modicum of privacy by a wall of greenery running around the perimeter. The open lightbulbs strung overhead gave it the feel of a village gathering in some tiny hilltop town in Europe.
Inside, the decor was simple and straightforward, with the expectation that the food would do the talking. One room only, white tablecloths coexisted with thick wooden tables and shiny glassware preset at each space. Tables are close enough that you have to say hello to the diners next to you when you sit down or wish them a good meal on your way out. One wall was composed of faux distressed wood and a framed diving horse, proudly sporting a striped warm-up blanket.
A server used a pair of tongs to offer bread tableside, baguette or sourdough - something that must be a difficult trick during a busy summer-dinner service. Maybe no more difficult than getting a horse to jump off of a diving board into a tiny pool of water.
We began with a selection of East Coast cheeses ($12). A small wooden cutting board offered a cheddar-type slice and a mound of soft, fresh goat cheese with a drizzle of honey and a smear of fig jam, something we loved as a starter but could easily see doing double duty as a dessert course.
Rich, creamy and sweet enough, it was served with baguette crisps in a little galvanized bucket. Fried oysters ($13) was composed of four breaded oysters served on their own shells with a dollop of pancetta remoulade and topped with a tiny nasturtium leaf. Unlike the menu that called for a smashed golden potato salad, these oysters seemed to rest on a bed of seasoned breadcrumbs.
Char ($27) as in Arctic char, was a salmon-colored fillet with a perfectly crisp skin served over a lovely beluga lentil and vegetable salad, barely wet with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. Vegetables included a brunoise of carrots, slices of asparagus and kernels of fresh corn. Light, flavorful and absolutely delicious - perfect summer eating. We also sampled a pasta special ($30) made with rock shrimp and bay scallops tossed in a pesto sauce. Our server told us the type of pasta several times and even attempted to spell it, but the room was just too loud to hear. Good but pricey, we thought.
We saved enough room for some housemade desserts. Coconut tres leches cake ($9) was a sponge cake with a sweet cream sauce, caramel sauce and toasted bits of coconut that was just right. A crisp ($9) tasted like strawberries and fresh peaches, no surprise, since peaches are in season and the menu-listed rhubarb may be out. Coffee to finish was a must and both regular and decaf were freshly made.
The service person came to our table wearing a blue Diving Horse T-shirt and a dark striped apron, and proceeded to go through the list of specials, enumerating each and every ingredient that might cause us to reject a dish or serve up an "ah-ha" moment. Our perky young server was so exuberant that we could barely understand the rapid-fire vocalization. We asked to repeat several times and still couldn't quite get it. The many wooden surfaces in the room added to the clatter, and we had a hard time hearing anything over the din.
The kitchen staff was obviously well trained, and it showed in the quality of the plated food. What we liked about the menu was it didn't over-reach. The menu offered only five entrees plus one "weekly plate" special geared to the day of the week, allowing for a smaller, fresher inventory and also as a reminder to the diner that if it is Tuesday, it must be escargot night at The Diving Horse.
While many modern restaurants have open kitchens, a place where customers can watch the comings and goings of the kitchen staff, The Diving Horse also has large kitchen windows facing a side street. As we walked back to our car, with a shopping bag of dinner remnants in hand, we could see the young kitchen staff hustling around to turn out more meals.
Several of them stopped long enough to wave goodbye. Nice to see a happy bunch of cooks at work. They should be happy, as they turned out a really fine meal.
(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.)
The Diving Horse
2109 Dune Drive
Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $8 to $18, entrees $26 to $38
Our bill for two: $119 plus tip
Web site: www.the