Bt PAMELA DOLLAK
With fish nets suspended from the ceiling, a framed fish tank on the wall, sea foam blue chairs and other decorative nautical touches, you get a serene, under-the-sea feeling at Mako’s in Sea Isle — almost as if you’re floating through your entire dining experience. However, with food as good as it is here, you leave with a happy belly so full that you’re grateful to not be in the water, or you might sink straight to the ocean floor.
Though the vibe at Mako’s may be cozy and chill-axing, the food — oh, that food! — is anything but.
“What makes us different, is that our dishes are not in any one category,” says Chef/Owner Ron Leider of his groovy, little 44-seat restaurant. “(The late food critic) Ed Hitzel described our food as ‘Floribbean’ — a combination of Florida and Caribbean kinds of food. He said this after eating our main dish, the blackened mako.”
Let me tell you a little something about this blackened mako ($24). It’s out of this world.
Usually I shy away from anything blackened. I find it often overwhelms whatever it is that it’s actually trying to enhance, and I wind up tasting only the “blackened” part.
Not the case here.
This is light and subtle and embellished with a mango chutney glaze. This combination is a delightful augmentation to the mako, which doesn’t need much augmenting at all. It’s thick and juicy with a crazy amount of flavor. This seriously delicious fish is meaty and substantial with a dense texture, yet somehow it can still be described as “light.” You can actually taste the freshness of it — and why wouldn’t you? It was just caught the day before from fishermen just down the road on Fish Alley.
“It’s a tough fish to cook. If you overcook it, it will be dry and you won’t like it,” admits Sea Isle-native Leider of this shark dish that has gained some popularity in area restaurants, but primarily only for nightly specials and not as a menu staple like it is at Mako’s. “A lot of people haven’t had it like I cook it. It’s moist, flaky and tender. And it’s a thick piece of fish. It’s one of those dishes that’s different and separates me from the others in town.
“I always tell people: eat something that can eat you.”
As amazing as this signature dish is, you may think it’s the reason for the restaurant’s name. It’s not.
Positioned high above the front door are the jaws of a mako that at one time swam in our shores. This once-373-pound giant fish was the second-biggest mako ever caught in the state of New Jersey. It was caught by Leider’s father in 2009.
“It sucks that he didn’t catch the biggest.”
Regardless, his dad was still honored by the county, which presented him with a plaque. And Leider proudly named his restaurant after his achievement.
The rest of the food
As you’d expect, apps, as well as the rest of the menu, have a distinct seafood slant, with items such as crabby bruschetta ($12), which is toasted semolina bread topped with bruschetta, parmesan and lump crab meat; sautéed mussels ($12) in a red or white wine sauce; and blackened mako medallion bites ($10) served with a cool cucumber sauce for dipping.
The standout is the blackened shrimp skewer ($11). Again, the blackened flavor takes a backseat to the plump, juicy shrimp, which are accompanied by a small salad of thinly sliced apples and red onions in a sweet and tangy mango chili dressing, a combination that creates a veritable medley of intense and wonderful flavors with many yummy musical notes.
Admittedly, the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-center bread is not homemade, but boy is it good. Especially when dipped into an herby olive oil and balsamic side. It also comes with marinara for dipping, but you won’t need it or want it after trying the lovely oil/vinegar dip.
Salad options include standards such as a wedge and a Caesar (both $9). But go for either the Garden State ($9) or the Cranberry and Spinach salad ($9). The G.S. has everything good about our home state in it: bright greens, mozzarella, grilled asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette. The latter includes leafy spinach, dried cranberries, Granny Smith apples, blue cheese crumbles and candied walnuts.
Seafood happily takes up the majority of the menu, from the colossal crab cakes with a Creole mustard aioli ($26) to the baked salmon ($25) with a sugarcane balsamic glaze to the delectable Asian ginger ahi tuna ($25) that’s seared and topped with an orange-ginger glaze.
Though the menu is heavy on seafood, there are some pasta dishes like the arrabiata rosa ($25), linguini with shrimp and crab in a spicy rosa sauce, and the mouth-watering shrimp Gorgonzola ($25). It’s linguini tossed with shrimp and spinach in a light tomato cream sauce. The clincher? A drizzle of balsamic reduction on top that bolsters its flavor profile.
Balsamic is something that Leider reeeeeally enjoys utilizing. Call it his secret weapon.
Mako’s has been dubbed “Sea Isle’s best-kept secret.” That needs to change.
Though it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily in season and weekends in the off-season, you should rid your brain of the word “diner” immediately. This is not your typical pancakes-and-sausage type of place.
Breakfast brings items like Amaretto French toast ($9) and this wowzer — cannoli-stuffed blueberry pancakes ($9). Come lunchtime, try the “Baconator” ($9), blackened chicken, melted cheddar, bacon, lettuce and tomato on a brioche bun or “The Pleasure Ave” ($8), tomato, avocado and provolone with herbed mayo on a brioche bun.
Burger options are the tried-and-true black and blue burger to the uber-pleasing — and quite a mouthful — Island Burger ($10), a 9-ounce burger with seared pineapple, a fried egg and chipotle mayo.
What would this or any restaurant be without dessert? The night we went, dessert was a “trio” of chocolate mousse, regular crème brulee and pumpkin crème brulee adorably presented in a serving tray that was akin to a bento box. Speaking as someone who recently returned from Paris, both brulees were … ooo, la, la!
‘Casual, gourmet … affordable price’
There was a time when food this good could only be found in an ultra-expensive five-star restaurant with tuxedoed waiters and a maitre d’ with a pretentious, unpronounceable name.
“Because almost every restaurant in Sea Isle is the same — pizza, pasta, seafood — I wanted to give diners a different choice with my menu by serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, and give them casual, gourmet dining at an affordable price,” says Leider, who never wanted his restaurant to be “over the top” or “too fine dining.”
“When I was young, I was very hungry — I wanted everything. I wanted to serve all three courses. I wasn’t sure which would take off. I ended up with all three. I figured — make that, I hoped — it would be successful. And it ended up working out.”