Few siren songs are as irresistible as the Shore’s each summer. We fight hours of traffic, hunt for parking and book dinner reservations far in advance, all for a luxurious day or two with our toes in sand and surf.
Like many people, Dan Clark wanted to find a way to spend more of his summer at the Shore—in his case, in Avalon, where he has a summer home. As co-owner of Philly’s smashingly popular Pub & Kitchen, with partner Ed Hackett, Clark had a way: open a restaurant in Avalon.
“Dan knew something like this was needed in Avalon,” says Jonathan Adams, chef of both Diving Horse and Pub & Kitchen, which stays open all year. “A seafood-focused, polished-yet-casual BYO. We thought it would be fun, and the fact that it’s seasonal [late May through October] allowed us to do it logistically.”
The blue bloods of Seven Mile Island (the barrier island that includes Avalon) turned out in print-and-pastel droves last summer. On one of my visits, the place was so packed the air conditioning broke down. I sweltered through a beautiful ballotine of quail stuffed with cornbread and sausage; creamy Sewansecott oysters fried and posed over smashed red-bliss potatoes with bacon mayo; and tequila-cured wild salmon with local peaches. One upside to the heat: The roasted-tomato butter with juniper salt—good enough to eat with a spoon—was all the smoother for spreading on the French batards and cute pretzel rolls.
Hudson Bakery makes Diving Horse’s bread, but they don’t deliver to Avalon. So, says Adams, “we meet them in Atlantic City every day. We send a waiter or a cook or whoever’s off. We want the best product here, even if it requires an extra eight hours of work.”
That commitment and attention to detail is evident on the Diving Horse menu, which focuses on seasonal produce, just-caught fish and sustainable meats. It’s citified cooking run through a seaside filter. Care for detail is also evident in the restaurant’s airy design, a salvager’s special featuring antique yellow-pine floors, giant blackboards, old locker-room doors and a vintage armoire turned into wine storage for regular guests. There’s a mobile, makeshift general store in the front of the space, selling Mast Brothers chocolates from Brooklyn, cocktail paraphernalia and bags of Adams’s own Rival Bros. coffee.
It’s easy to appreciate the chef’s light, summery cooking, from a two-pound bowl of impeccable mussels steamed simply with tomato and corn, to a duo of seared yellowfin tuna and braised pork belly served over lemony artichoke purée, one of my favorite dishes of last season. A second visit featured pickled Hammonton blueberries tangled with goat cheese, toasted almonds, baby lettuces and cherry vinaigrette, followed by plump Barnegat scallops served with crunchy toasted fregola sparked with preserved lemon and a creamed reduction of vermouthy shellfish nage.
A few dishes, like a watery watermelon gazpacho and oil-poached tuna with Nicoise elements, were downright bores, seemingly aimed at timid palates and the beach-bod conscious. I say bring on Diving Horse’s excellent cone of boardwalk fries, showered in sea salt and served with malt-vinegar mayo for dipping. Other sides I loved were the roasted mixed mushrooms—oyster, cremini, hen-of-the-woods—and the asparagus in tarragon vinaigrette, showered with Grana Padano cheese.
Adams sometimes presents fish daintily (fluke with sweet pea-and-piquillo pepper succotash), sometimes pedal-to-the-metal (a meaty mahi-mahi steak with confit potatoes, house pancetta and sautéed kale). Some of his best efforts (lemon-and-beer-brined roast chicken with brown-buttered potato purée) were some of the most straightforward. But he also can breathe new life into staid standards. Take the iceberg lettuce wedge. He cuts his crosswise for a steak-like-shape and tops it with fine herbs, sliced red onions, crabmeat and house-made Seven Mile Island dressing scented with Old Bay.
The Diving Horse is easily Avalon’s best restaurant and one of the better specimens at the Shore. Expect to pay for it, though. The 12-ounce Butcher’s Wife steak, for example, is an alarming $44 (albeit very delicious), and both my final checks at this BYO neared the $90-per-person range after tacking on side dishes, playful desserts (the chocolate-and-crisp peanut butter “Kit Kat”; Key lime panna cotta; a neo banana split) and tip.
It doesn’t seem to bother the regulars, who make reservations far in advance—always held by credit card, a house policy to discourage no-shows and last-minute cancellations. I’m okay with that, and so, it seems, is Avalon. “I go on Open Table and I see people who have been here 37 times over the past two summers,” says Adams. “That’s amazing.”
Amazing indeed. I don’t know about reaching 37, but I’ll definitely be clocking visit number 3 this summer.