STONE HARBOR - If your life doesn't seem all black and white with little shades of gray, then you probably have never dined at the White Heron Grill in Stone Harbor. That color scheme runs from the exterior to the dining room, where a crisp and cool ambiance fills the space.
We loved the look of the room, especially the spotless crystal lined up on each white-clothed table, lighted by a tiny votive candle. One room divider alternated large black lanterns with live candles and clear glass fish with bellies full of colorful seashells.
Other dividers featured painted, twiglike
plantings growing from a stony base reminding us of many of the "lawns" in Stone Harbor. The framed artwork, too, continued the palette of black, white and gray. Serious jazz music provided the aforementioned cool.
We never had the chance last season to dine at Blackfish, the first reincarnation of the long-lived Henny's at this same address. We heard an older couple at a nearby table ordering quite specifically that their pre prandial cocktails be made with a blended whiskey only, so we figured some of the former Henny's regulars were still returning to their previous haunts for something more than just the drinks.
The White Heron Grill is also looking to attract a younger, hipper, well-heeled crowd to take over the mantle in the formal restaurant and the bistro next door that offers lighter fare.
The menu is a la carte but is broken down into a series of courses. The first course listings include salads, soups and some seafood offerings, while the second courses are all seafood selections.
Third courses are entrees with a separate section of items originating from the grill. We were lucky enough to arrive between 5 and 6 p.m., when a three-course prix fixe tasting menu is offered daily ... much nicer than calling it an early bird. The wine menu this evening also offered glasses of wine at half price.
Bread was served hot on a square ceramic plate with an indented circle for fragrant olive oil. We managed to satiate our desire for seafood in our appetizer selections.
The White Heron clam chowder ($8) was more than the smoked bacon and clams listed on the menu. It was a bowl filled with flavorful, creamy broth and plenty of chopped carrots, celery, onion, bacon and clams. If only it had been a little hotter - something the Henny's crowd would have demanded of the kitchen. Clams casino ($10) were wonderfully fresh, whole top-neck clams covered with a dice of carrot, sweet pepper, onion and a cut of bacon, and broiled together and topped with chopped green chives. Everything does taste better with bacon.
A roasted chicken breast ($25) was an airline breast, boneless with the first wing segment still attached, for what amounts to a fancier way of presenting the popular protein on the plate. Having a little handle helped to finish off every bite. Served with caramelized cippolini onions - the sweet, squat, Italian kind - melted leeks and fingerling potatoes, it was all held together by a slightly thickened natural jus. What a great way to turn a boring chicken breast into something you would actually enjoy eating.
No buzzword claims were made on the menu as to free-range or organic, or even the meaningless "all natural." The bird was perfectly cooked and as flavorful as any chicken could hope to be. A medium-rare hanger steak was sliced and laid out over top of whipped, roasted-garlic mashed potatoes, baby carrots and asparagus, with a portion of rich-tasting bearnaise sauce spooned around the plate. The steak had that crunch of salt crystals on the surface and the meaty taste and chew of a good piece of beef, and it was cooked perfectly as ordered.
The third course for the tasting menu was a warm blueberry crisp served with some whipped cream on top, making the meal a real bargain at $30. It was like getting the clam chowder and dessert for a dollar, since the hanger steak was listed at $29 on its own.
We have to admit, we are tired of service staffs dressed in head-to-toe black, but at the White Heron Grill it gave the semi-formal dining room a certain cache. Our server was top notch, professional and friendly, but not overly familiar. In fact, all of the service staff had obviously been well trained to smile, meet the customers' gaze, and acknowledge us as patrons.
Not one person called us "guys", the all purpose term that sends a shiver up our spines. The only blip was a hostess who correctly inquired as to how our meal was while walking away from our table, until she was too far away to actually hear our answer. All of the hostesses were dressed appropriately, a very professional touch, that we appreciated seeing.
We haven't heard much about the White Heron Grill this season. Our hunch is, this might be the concept that finally marries the old and new together again.
(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.)
White Heron Grill
9628 Third Ave.
Hours: Dinners 5 to 10 p.m. daily
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $8 to $15; entrees, $25 to $39
Our bill for two: $77 plus tip