Cape May’s Washington Inn—32 years in its present incarnation, in a manor house dating to 1840—knows how to please generations of regulars while letting no culinary cobwebs form.
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Restaurants with a long history and a devoted clientele, like the Washington Inn in Cape May, have to manage change carefully. In the Washington Inn’s case, it might be called the flounder Jefferson problem. A few years after the Craig family purchased the inn in 1978, it introduced flounder Jefferson—sautéed flounder stuffed with crab imperial, served with a brandy lobster sauce. In that era of nouvelle cuisine, ultra-rich flounder Jefferson was already somewhat retro, but people loved it—like 50-to-60-orders-a-night loved it. It became the kitchen’s signature, outpacing even other longtime hits like the crabcake with roasted pepper cream sauce and the bacon-wrapped scallops.
When Mimi Wood became executive chef in 1996, she and the family decided the menu needed to evolve. Instead of serving every entrée with the same potato and vegetables, Wood started to “build each plate with what best complements what’s in the center.” Flounder Jefferson was eased into the sunset. “It’s a little bit scary when you take something off that’s an anchor like that,” says Wood. But the regulars responded well to Wood’s French-influenced New American cooking, and younger customers became loyal patrons.
Evolution has continued at the Inn, which in its quiet way has remained a standard-bearer in the ever-improving Cape May dining scene. It has managed to retain its status as a distinguished and reliable destination in a beautifully maintained 1840 manor house and yet be contemporary in its culinary presentation and, thanks to a warm and capable staff, a fun place to dine.
You don’t have to search for flavor and pleasure in Wood’s food. It has finesse, but it comes at you. A simple appetizer, such as crespelle (Italian-style crêpe) filled with caramelized onions, smothered in truffled fontina fonduta (Italian fondue), is rich and rewarding (plus “truffled fontina fonduta” is fun to say). Veal chops and racks of lamb are sumptuous, generous, and cooked precisely to order. Fish is treated with respect. A new la plancha high-heat griddle, installed over the winter, delivers moist salmon with crispy skin. A wood-burning oven, also installed off-season, adds a fine, smoky touch to steaks and to the thick slices of roasted eggplant that accompanied a tender veal chop.
The Craigs are hands-on. Over the winter, they rolled up sleeves and personally repainted the interior a pale, leafy green and replanted the indoor garden with orchids—just as, some years ago, they rented a Bobcat backhoe and dug out a wine cellar so they could expand the wine program. (If you’re one of those—enlightened, I like to think—people who enjoy Rieslings with meat and fowl as well as fish, the wine list has several enticing German and Austrian specimens from the excellent 2005 and 2001 vintage years.) The next upgrade for wine will take place in the handsome, clubby, bar room, which is on its way to becoming more of a wine bar, with tasting flights and a casual small plates menu.
When you arrive, you might want to try a tart, refreshing beach plum martini. It’s made with vodka, a bit of brandy and mint, and beach plum juice. The Craig family has five acres of beach plums planted at their Cape May Winery (they also own Lucky Bones restaurant and the Love the Cook shop, both in Cape May). Michael Craig, who is in charge of the Inn, personally squeezes the juice. The beach plum, smaller than a cherry, with a stubborn pit, exudes a vibrant red juice that turns heads as it arrives in the dining room in martini or mimosa form.
Wood grew up in Ambler, northwest of Philadelphia, wanting to be a chef. For her fourteenth birthday, her mother bought her a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Wood got herself a crépe pan and started cooking her way through the book (sound familiar?). Years later she trained with French chefs in California and worked in resorts and restaurants in St. Croix, Nantucket, and Switzerland before arriving as a line cook at the Washington Inn in 1991. “Back then, the kitchen was very masculine,” Michael Craig remembers. “They were blown away that this girl comes in and not only works the line, but shows everybody else how to work the line.”
Her salads are little bundles of joy, like a recent, novel combination of frizzy frisée and languid butterleaf lettuce with toasted hazelnuts, gorgonzola, and a Medjool date vinaigrette. A deft asparagus salad with lemon vinaigrette accompanied a plate of big, nicely seared Cape May scallops. Entrées are well composed, too. I particularly enjoyed the caramelized fennel, fingerling potatoes, and roasted pepper-saffron beurre-blanc that rounded out the crispy-skin salmon.
Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Kathleen Pastiu, are enjoyable without being attention-getters. Our favorite was an admirably restrained carrot cake (that is, resisting the common tendency toward gloppy sweetness) with a sour-cherry icing and sour-cherry preserves on the side.
801 Washington Street
CAPE MAY, 08204
Food: New American Ambience: Upscale festive Service: Friendly and fine-tuned Wine List: Good selection in a range of prices; about 20 wines by the glass