CAPE MAY - We arrived at SeaSalt in Cape May a few minutes early for our reservation, and just caught the tail end of the staff meeting.
The restaurant, located inside the Ocean Club Hotel, is nicely appointed with wood plank floors and plenty of imaginative flourishes, from the brush-stroke painted walls to the white columns studded with river rocks. A large granite topped bar area is separate from the main dining room. Ceilings are painted as black as the server's uniforms.
When we asked about specials, we were surprised to hear none were available. No worries. The menu itself had plenty of interesting offerings listed under both appetizers and entrees.
Bread arrived in the form of mysteriously undercooked onion-topped Parker House rolls, bunched in fours, missing the dark brown top one would expect. Served in a bowl rather than a basket, a tiny dish of olive oil for dipping came alongside.
Beef tenderloin tartare ($14) was a paper-thin slice of red meat topped with just enough garnish to make it interesting, but nothing so intense on its own that you would lose the taste of the main ingredient. The acid from the buttermilk was a good thing; the horseradish flavor was barely there. Finely grated hard-cooked eggs provided richness and the spring leaves from the center of the celery stalk finished the plate. A few well-seasoned taco chips provided some spice, heat, and a bit of texture to the lovely dish.
Our default dish is fried calamari. That's not because of a lack of other interesting choices, but because we like to see what the kitchen can do with an ingredient that provides more texture than flavor. Resting on a crisp white napkin in a white bowl, Sea Salt's version had a seasoned coating that barely clung to the rings of squid. The tempura-like batter uses extra liquid to create craters of crispy pockets on the surface. This allows the ingredients to hang on to the sauce the same way ridges hold the sauce on a piece of pasta. A smooth, spicy, garlic mayonnaise called aioli was served in a little ramekin and the squid was dotted with salty caper buds and a confit of Meyer lemon.
Entrees began with a skate Milanese with heirloom tomato salad ($25). Even many fishermen don't know the wing of the skate is edible, choosing instead to throw the fish back after accidentally hooking one. That is a big mistake. Skate, like some other species, love to eat shellfish, and that gives their tender flesh the kind of sweetness we associate with other seafood like diver's scallops. The texture is more like strands of meat rather than flakes. Perfectly pan-fried with a crisp, seasoned coating, we easily can anoint this skate the best piece of fish we have ever eaten.
There was nothing special about the tomato used in the salad served with it. It was distracting rather than adding value, like serving a Caprese salad when the tomatoes just can't carry their own weight. A very non-Italian touch of grated cheese over the fish actually suited it well.
A pan seared red snapper ($27) served as a few small fillets didn't fare as well. Cooked a l'unilateral, on one side only, the idea is to let the carry-over heat finish off the cooking process. A too hot pan made the skin bitter, the flesh overcooked. It was served with a few spoonfuls of an English pea risotto that couldn't save this lapse in technique.
We wondered how it is possible for the same kitchen to turn out a piece of skate cooked impeccably and an order of red snapper so overcooked, it had no right to come swimming out of the kitchen. We observed an order of red snapper served to a nearby table and could see that one was correct.
Sea Salt's menu is a la carte; a side order of pencil-thin asparagus ($6) tasted carbonized in spots.
Desserts made a good impression. Our server proudly told us the restaurant has its own pastry chef. A strawberry lemongrass torte with a lavender sabayon ($7) was a sweet and refreshing take on strawberry shortcake. A thin layer of white cake punched into rounds was layered with a strawberry gel and macerated strawberries, a tiny whipped cream dome, reduced strawberry cooking syrup, and a flavorful, pourable egg custard sauce. From several choices of homemade ice creams and sorbets ($6), we chose one scoop each of coconut, pineapple, and strawberry-tarragon. Each showed hints of their assigned flavors and were very well done.
Our server mentioned the pastry chef is so busy, they purchase the dough for the rolls, and bake it to order. Mystery solved.
One of the problems with a young attractive staff is their energy often gets dissipated in the wrong way. Except for our server, who stayed focused on us throughout the meal, most of the rest of the staff seemed more attentive to each other than to the customers. Our server was friendly, not snooty.
SeaSalt is among the new wave of restaurants in a town steeped in culinary history. Cape May has long been the place to go for interesting, quirky, creative and even classic cuisine. SeaSalt is the kind of restaurant that critics love to love, especially after eating plenty of so-so meals. The food that was prepared and presented with care went beyond our expectations. The rest might be written off to freshmen mistakes.
The food at SeaSalt has four-star potential. This time, it just didn't rise to those heights.
C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Taste Editor Felicia Compian at email@example.com. Ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.
1035 Beach Ave., Cape May
Hours: Dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $9 to $16, entrees $25 to $38
Our bill for two: $124 plus tip
Web site: capemayoceanclubhotel.com/seasalt.php