Near the corner of Beach Avenue and Howard Street in Cape May is a wide and inviting staircase that leads to the charming lobby of the Hotel Macomber. The boutique hotel, complete with crystal chandeliers and beautiful antique furniture, is the “largest frame structure for its time east of the Mississippi River.” This historic, 102-year-old building — a one-time private mansion — is also presently home to a gift shop, a bagel-and-coffee shop and a preppy women’s clothing and accessories boutique. But the crown jewel of this establishment is, by far, the award-winning Union Park Restaurant.
For the past 14 years, Union Park has been the “main part of life” for business partners Chef John Schatz and Bojidar “Bob” Dimitrov, who run the kitchen and front-of-house respectively.
Union Park was already a well-established restaurant when the two took over the large, classically elegant dining room, now designed with more chandeliers, old-fashioned portraits and paintings and light-colored, full-length chintz curtains. It was previously helmed by Chef Chris Hubert, who now owns the amazing Black Duck on Sunset in West Cape May.
Schatz, a self-taught chef, climbed the ranks at various restaurants in Philadelphia, as well as the former Cape May hot spot Maureen’s Restaurant. But after years of working for others, he longed to break out on his own.
“When you work 85 to 100 hours a week for someone else, you tend to think, ‘Hey, if you’re going to work that much, you might as well work for yourself,’” he says. “Then you only answer to yourself, and mistakes are only your fault.”
Mistakes today seem few and far between — if at all. Schatz considers his new American menu “a melting pot” of French and Asian influences with some Latino flavors mixed in. He stresses, though, that, “We keep it traditional and stay away from too much flair.”
Tradition is also key when it comes to what’s offered on the menu.
“Some people say we don’t change it (the menu) enough. But people come for the same thing each year … so it’s tough to change,” Schatz says. “It’s nice to change things and bring in exotic flavors — which we do for specials. But we keep what we’re known for.”
One of the items that Union Park is perhaps best known for is its foie gras ($24) appetizer, a staple for several years. Once scarcely seen on menus, Schatz says that he’s starting to notice it a bit more frequently these days, but still believes that many places “are scared” of it.
Seared and served on an almond apple “cake” with a bourbon maple glaze, the light foie gras was just light enough to appease a summer palate, but combined with the delicate flavors of apples and almond, it proved to be just enough of an intro to the upcoming fall season.
Schatz claims that return diners look for his crab cake appetizer ($16), which he describes as, “Light and airy with no filler whatsoever.” In the same breath he adds, “It’s rich, too. It’s pretty decadent.”
Richness and decadence are major players here. Take the seared short ribs ($35) covered in a chocolate porter glace and smoked bacon marmalade, and served atop mashed Yukon potatoes and a carrot-ginger mash. Lush and tender, no knife is required. This entrée should not be missed.
Schatz says that he is well-known for his Duck Duet ($35), a seared breast with duck confit farro hash, an arugula and pear salad and shaved foie gras finished with a ginger-chili glaze and Pedro Ximenez reduction.
The St. Laurent salmon ($30) is a somewhat lighter choice, but still decadent. The salmon, topped with a brightly colored tomato and crab salad, sits lovingly on a bed of apple and goat cheese quinoa, offering a medley of flavors. To the side was sauce verte, a green French sauce that proved to be a delightful, herbaceous dipping accompaniment.
It may come as a surprise to see a burger on a menu such as Schatz’s. But the Kobe burger ($24) with bourbon onions, dolce gorgonzola, chipotle ketchup and a side of frites, is actually one of the more popular selections among guests. “I love burgers,” Schatz admits, “and this is just messy and good.”
Desserts ($12 each) run the gamut from sweet to sinful, from the seasonal fruit tart, a flaky phyllo dough crust with a variety of fruits and vanilla custard piled on top, to the chocolate brownie, a flourless chocolate-kalhua brownie with chocolate ganache, a dollop of vanilla ricotta, cocoa “dust” and a cookie garnish.
While the past 14 years have been a “constant evolving building process” for Schatz and Dimitrov, Schatz takes it all in stride.
“It’s healthy. It’s how we learn.”
Both Schatz and Union Park menu have numerous awards and accolades under their belts including, but not limited to: Diner’s Choice Winner in New Jersey, Open Table (2010-2017); Certificate of Excellence, Trip Advisor (2010-2017); and Zagat Top Rated, Excellent, Zagat Dining Guide (2005-2017).
However, if you ask Schatz which of his many awards means the most to him, he humbly replies: “Every night when the customer says, ‘Thank you — I had a wonderful evening.’ That’s the only one that counts.”