Last summer, during my first dinner at the preppy Blue Pig Tavern in Cape May’s historic Congress Hall Hotel, Tina Fey, a native of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, outside Philly, was dining there, too. The 30 Rock star and her entourage occupied an indoor table overlooking the restaurant’s busy, sunset-washed patio.
Clearly, Fey has good taste. The affordable Blue Pig is long on charm, but the food deserves as much credit as the scene and the occasional opportunity to stargaze. From the devilishly good blueberry caipirinha to briny Cape May salt oysters to grilled bone-in pork chops with roasted local-peach chutney, there’s much about this long and varied menu to like.
What I didn’t like was being denied an empty booth by the overwhelmed hostesses. “Oh, that’s booked for a reservation,” one explained sweetly. So my group and I stayed in the hard wooden chairs (uncomfortable for me, unbearable for two of my guests with back problems). As the evening wore on, nobody claimed the booth. We asked again, and were rebuffed. No one ever showed up to claim it.
Service was both excellent and awful. Excellent in that, both nights, my server was well-trained, knowledgeable, friendly and effusively apologetic—which brings up the awful part. Nothing arrived within a reasonable amount of time, causing my first dinner to stretch more than three hours. At least management was smart enough to comp desserts, a rich devil’s food cake layered with bittersweet chocolate mousse and a strawberry shortcake featuring vanilla pound cake and local strawberries.
Local strawberries in late July? It would raise the eyebrow of even the casual locavore. But just 1.8 miles away is 62-acre Beach Plum Farm, owned by Cape Resorts Group, which owns the Congress Hall and other properties. “When the strawberries started coming in from Beach Plum,” executive chef Jeremy Einhorn explains, “we knew we had to do strawberry shortcake. The only problem is the season is so short.
So we preserved the strawberries in sugar, and we were able to offer the dish all summer long.”
Beach Plum Farm is a big part of the appeal of eating at the Blue Pig, or any of Cape Resorts’ Cape May restaurants (which include the Ebbitt Room in the Virginia Hotel). Blue Pig has its own menu-within-the-menu of dishes crafted around the three-times-weekly Beach Plum haul. Last summer, I found pan-roasted Hawaiian butterfish served with squash blossoms and risotto streaked with basil pesto, as well as beer-battered and fried soft-shell crabs caught by a local fisherman and paired with shaved fennel, cucumbers and arugula. Strawberries appeared again—one night, as a vivid, mint-flecked salsa for seared Barnegat Light scallops; another, as a sprightly vinaigrette for a salad of Beach Plum lettuces, chevre and cinnamon-spiced pecans.
The main menu also brought hits, like a wedge salad updated with confited cherry tomatoes, shaved heirloom radish and a tangy buttermilk-blue cheese dressing, or simple steamed mussels over fresh linguine with a jungle of fresh herbs and a touch of butter. Crab cakes were meaty and blushed with smoked paprika. “I am not a big fan of putting too much Old Bay or other strong spices in the crab cakes,” says Einhorn. “Crab has such a delicate, sweet flavor, and I’d much rather use ingredients that compliment rather than cover [it] up.” He pairs crab with a tender 7-ounce filet mignon for what he calls Steak & Cake.
Poor execution plagued a few dishes. A sloppy square of vegetable lasagna sorely needed salt. Moroccan lamb stew was a thin, bland, brown broth with stringy bits of meat, while the Fisherman’s Skillet mixed scallops, shrimp and mussels over a mountain of dense, overcooked saffron-rice pilaf. (Einhorn reports it has since been switched to a lighter, trimmer seafood risotto.) Glazed in chipotle barbecue sauce, the pacu fish ribs, a favorite from Lucas Manteca, executive chef of the Ebbitt Room, lacked the crispy skin of versions I’ve had at Manteca’s Stone Harbor restaurant, Quahog’s.
These issues aside, I’ll gladly return to the Blue Pig this summer. I’ll just be sure to reserve a booth (or one of the coveted tables outside) and bring my autograph book.