If you head to the charmingly rustic docks in Viking Village in Long Beach Island on any given morning, say hi to Christopher Sanchez, who can be spied there on a daily basis hand selecting the tile fish or tuna or skate, fluke, or whatever else is brought in off the boats from Barnegat Bay that day. Fresh scallops? He’ll grab ’em. Oysters? Why wouldn’t he?
Sanchez and wife Ashley Pellagrino own the culinary jewel of Harvey Cedars, Black Eyed Susans.
The couple admit they “didn’t have a solid plan” when they opened. For years they had been living like vagabonds. She spent her winters in Lake Tahoe working as a private chef, returning to LBI for her summer catering biz. Sanchez worked full-time at a villa in Spain but would fly back often to see Pellagrino.
Sanchez and Pellagrino, both from Central Jersey and both schooled at the Culinary Institute of America, met one summer years ago while cooking at another LBI restaurant when his family owned a house there and hers rented.
After settling down, as much as two self-described nomads can, they chose Long Beach Island as their permanent home. Soon after they discovered that the beautiful and historic 125-year-old building which had housed a popular café for three decades was now unoccupied.
From there, Black Eyed Susans “happened organically” with the same breakfast and lunch service from the café. Though people were resistant at first, Pellagrino and Sanchez quickly 86ed breakfast to add dinners.
“We wanted to add another special dining place in this community,” Pellagrino says. “We were going to all these amazing homes (from catering) and we had nurtured these great relationships. Now we wanted to try to bring people to us, instead of going to them.
“Some are still upset that they don’t have their scones,” she laughs.
A chic garden
Black Eyed Susans interior is covered with mostly cool grey walls and sofas with geometric patterns. Dozens of hanging and potted plants are strewn throughout the candlelit room where local paintings and black and white photography are scattered around. Though the restaurant is not on the water, some window seats provide a water view just beyond the awning store across the street. The overall feel is beach chic or that of a chic interior garden.
The “new American” menu comes out of a French-structured kitchen and revolves around food found on the island.
“We’re surrounded by all this great produce and fish,” Pellagrino says. “That’s our foundation here — we keep it simple and approachable.”
Sanchez won’t put a fish on the evening’s menu if it didn’t come fresh from down the road that day. Tile fish and Barnegat Bay scallops were on the menu the night we dined. You may even see the hard-to-find skate, a big hit when it arrives. Fluke’s in season so that may show up soon.
Two oysters were available during our dinner experience: the vastly different High Bar Harbors from Barnegat Bay and Acadian Pearls from New Brunswick, Canada.
Dense and crispy sourdough bread is baked fresh daily and served with both homemade butter and homemade sea salt, plus warm and luminescent black, green and red olives. Warming the olives was an unexpected and extraordinary added touch.
We labored over our appetizer decision, tempted by many starters including grilled octopus with marcona almonds and gigante beans ($18) and homemade gnocchi with lobster and broccoli rabe ($19). Had we not recently enjoyed foie gras ($21), we could have been swayed that way. But we opted for the beet and sorrel salad ($14) with Bulgarian feta, macerated strawberries in a rhubarb vinaigrette. It was the perfect choice for a warm, summer evening. Sweet and tart, the brightly colored salad with red and yellow beets and hot pink strawberries sprinkled with feta was light enough to not fill us too much for our entrées to come.
The crab cakes (MP), though not local, are one of the more popular items — “It’s the beach,” Pellagrino muses — and the cacio e pepe with homemade bucatini ($27) made our mouths water. But as they say, when in Barnegat Bay …
The local treasures we devoured were the tile fish ($37) and scallops ($39). Perfectly grilled scallops were accompanied by squash and roasted radishes, while the flavorful tile fish was paired with green tomatoes, fennel and a Moroccan carrot sauce. The portions were ample, colorful and artistically presented by an attentive but not overbearing wait staff.
Desserts are on their own menu titled “Sweet Endings.” Black Eyed Susans has both an in-house baker, Claire Murphy, and a pastry chef, Samantha Grosh, who make the breads and desserts, the exceptions being the sorbet and gelato which are brought in from The Bent Spoon in Princeton. Sweet treats include a Boardwalk Sundae with salted caramel ice cream and hot fudge popcorn, the Ginger Beer Float (Sanchez makes his own ginger beer) with a coconut sorbet, toasted coconut and lime zest, and a carrot cake with golden raisins and candied nuts iced with a cinnamon cream cheese. Enticing as they all were, we chose the bread pudding for two ($17), brioche bread with caramel, chocolate and sweet ice cream. The “for two” in the name is deceiving. The size of about three bricks, it can easily pass as dessert for a table of four. Warm, sweet and gooey, it was everything a bread pudding should be — and it’s even better dunked in hot coffee the next morning.
A culinary evolution
“We’ve watched the cuisine (on LBI) evolve since we were young,” Sanchez says. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s it was all fried fish baskets. With the internet and the industry becoming (about) TV stars and book stars … and people wanting to eat healthier ... diners are educated these days,” he continues. “Not only about where they want to eat, but they want to know what their eatery is doing. We have been able to find that niche. Our clients have eaten in the biggest cities in the world and the biggest restaurants in the world. Or maybe not. But they just want to eat local.”
Pellagrino adds that she feels a big responsibility when cooking and serving her clients.
“We’re really sensitive that they are spending a lot of money to go out to eat, so it has to be great from the moment they walk in to the moment they walk out.
“It’s that important.”