With its small size, seasonally restricted hours and cash-only policy, Black Eyed Susans Café could pose a bit of a challenge for the would-be diner. But it is a challenge well worth taking, with the payoff being a meal filled with local products expertly prepared, served by a highly professional staff in a comfortable, thoroughly inviting setting.
Painted emerald green and white, this gem of a restaurant in Harvey Cedars has mostly remained the well-guarded secret of locals and summer visitors on the northern end of Long Beach Island, who have followed the careers of owners Christopher Sanchez and Ashley Pellagrino from the many local kitchens in which the two have cooked to the private parties they’ve catered up and down the island. Since summering on Long Beach Island as kids, Sanchez and Pellagrino had been operating on parallel paths for years, graduating from the CIA in close proximity and finally meeting in the kitchen of Yellow Fin in Surf City in the late 1990s.
Soon after, they each opened their own catering businesses on the island; Pellagrino’s Small Potatoes is still operating, while Sanchez closed his, the Chef’s Table, to cook abroad but eventually came back to cook at Small Potatoes. All along, Sanchez says, he had his eye on a two-story, 100-year-old building in Harvey Cedars’ tiny downtown. Last year, the building, which originally served as Kinsey General Store and more recently as two deli markets, became available. Sanchez and Pellagrino, by now married, jumped at it.
“The owner wanted to make sure the place was in good hands, to give something back to the community,” says Sanchez, 36. “And we were ready to see if what we’d been doing for 18 years was feasible to do on our own.”
On July 1 last year, Black Eyed Susans launched. Originally conceived as a breakfast and lunch place, the restaurant added dinner by late July. This summer, the main focus is on dinner, with a beefed-up kitchen staff, an expanded and changing menu, and plans to stay open seven nights a week (early in the season, they were open only on weekends). Meanwhile, the café’s daytime offerings are more continental: pastries from Eli’s Bread in New York, homemade cookies, scones, granola, La Colombe coffee, fresh smoothies and cooked-to-order burritos.
The casual atmosphere is transformed in the evening—with the help of white tablecloths and candlelight—to something more fitting the high level of cooking. The 48-seat restaurant’s blond wood floors are soothing, and the walls are fetchingly adorned with photos and paintings by local artists, including Sanchez’s brother, Antonio. If you arrive at the right hour, the setting sun pours through the picture windows that face Barnegat Bay—just a block away on this narrow northern end of the island. If you sit outdoors, you can also enjoy the garden’s profusion of—what else?—black-eyed Susans.
Leaning heavily on produce from New Jersey and Pennsylvania farms, local seafood and meat from area organic farms, Sanchez describes his style of cooking as “clean” and his philosophy as “three steps to the plate.”
“I like taking ingredients for what they are—from the garden, the ocean, pastures—and not messing with them too much before they get to the table,” he says. “I let the food do the talking.”
Menu choices are limited to about a half dozen dishes in each category, but the preparations and ingredients change with the season. Courtesy of a new sous chef from New Orleans, an outstanding shrimp and grits has been added to the appetizers. Four grilled jumbo shrimp were served in a creole sauce studded with paprika sausage atop a mound of creamy yellow grits. PEI mussels were served in a white wine-seafood broth enhanced by herbs snipped from the garden just outside the kitchen door.
Oven-roasted beets, sweet and tender, had a slightly crisped edge and contrasted nicely with homemade ricotta drizzled with a white balsamic vinaigrette.
The most ambitious appetizer was the crisp pork belly, a three-day production that includes one day of salt curing, followed by seven hours of braising, then pan searing to crisp the skin, and finally plating with a white-bean purée and caramelized grapefruit and cumin seeds. Even with all that effort, the pork was overly fatty, and I found myself wishing the pan searing had lasted a bit longer.
While each of the entrées we sampled was excellent, the winner would have to be the crab cakes, two big plump discs filled with fresh jumbo lump crab, lightly sautéed and served with parsley potatoes, greens and a caper remoulade. Pan-seared scallops, straight from the docks of Viking Village at Barnegat Light, also were outstanding, caramelized and served with rainbow carrots, asparagus, mushrooms and peas.
Hailing from Alaska, perfectly grilled wild sockeye salmon was worth breaking the mostly local rule for. Ditto pan-seared grouper from Mexico or North Carolina; nicely crusty, it remained soft and flaky inside, though its fresh tomato and chick pea sauce was a bit watery. The grouper often alternates with local tilefish in the same preparation.
The generous grass-fed New York strip steak from Simply Grazin’ in Skillman was another favorite. Coated in paprika and cayenne before grilling, the meat was tender and delicious, especially with its chimichurri topping and crispy yucca fries. Even chicken breast was a hit, baked in a spicy chermoula paste and served with black and golden quinoa.
On the dessert front, if you are a chocoholic, pot au crème made with Ecuadoran bittersweet chocolate hit the bull’s-eye. It came topped with Sambucca-infused whipped cream. Also excellent was the light and eggy brioche bread pudding coated with drizzled caramel, almonds and chocolate chips. Earlier in the season, satisfying strawberry-rhubarb crisp was laced with large pieces of rhubarb and topped with a crunchy oatmeal crumble. My favorite dessert was listed as a special, but one that appears most nights: upside-down apple tart. The thinly sliced, caramelized apples topped with pastry cream, puff pastry and Ciao Bella’s vanilla ice cream was my idea of heaven.