When day dips toward dusk, Ventnor’s skies become a study in pastel, pinks giving way to violets. Driving down the main drag, it’s the ideal time to admire the deep salmon-hued exterior of Water Dog Smoked Fish, which opened its permanent digs here this fall after several successful years on the farmers’ market circuit.
This is very much a win for the local dining community. Though the set-up is modern casual, anchored by deli cases and a creative menu of sandwiches, poke bowls, and salads, the food evokes the owners’ fascination with the art of smoking meat.
The playful use of orange in the space offers a nod to the company’s origins. Owners Dan Greenberg and Steve Marchel came to the smoker as a hobby, which also happens to be how they became friends. “Dan used to come over my house when I lived in Longport, and I had this huge smoker in the back,” Marchel explains. “We would just smoke all day and drink beer. It defined what we were doing even before we had a business plan drawn.”
Inspired by his experience on the national competitive barbecue circuit, Greenberg became a fixture on the local food scene, selling barbecue. “The population in the area was really clamoring for smoked salmon,” he says. “We started doing it and Steve and I saw that there was a huge response. Smoking is something we really don’t get around here.” Recognizing that opportunity, the pair turned their attention to crafting super fresh smoked salmon without preservatives, coloring or nitrates.
“Our goal was to come in with a fresher, cleaner product that was less expensive than the stuff that people were used to,” Marchel says, likening their salmon to a Scottish style product, marked by freshness. “The smoked fish that people buy in our stores are literally smoked that week. When Dan and I started this business, we identified a huge gap in the market. Most of the smoked salmon that people consume has been smoked weeks or months before.”
Water Dog—named in memory of Steve’s Portuguese Water Dog Betty, who had a taste for salmon—merges freshness and creativity, offering styles from pastrami-spiced nova to beet-cured salmon. Yet to limit one’s dining to (delicious) smoked fish at Water Dog is to miss out on a creative menu that showcases a creative evolution since then. (Also don’t miss out on their Instagram feed, on which customers’ dogs are often guest stars.)
Borrowing a term bestowed by a fellow local restaurateur, Marchel dubs their brick-and-mortar as a modern riff on a deli. “We try to give the cleanest product with creativity in both what we offer and how we prepare it,” he explains. That includes the poke bar—though the way he sees it, there’s ample opportunity for generations to unite around food. “We want to appeal to the 75-year-old who wants an old-time pastrami sandwich, and then the 25-year-old who wants an incredible clean poke experience. Yet we’d also love to introduce the 75-year-old to poke.”
The menu, Greenberg’s main focus, has fun with that polarity. Diners find everything from New York-style bagel sandwiches with house-smoked kippered salmon to a smoked and grilled Beyond Meat burger on brioche. In some ways, Greenberg says, the barbecue circuit trained him for this next culinary chapter. “Both take an incredible amount of time,” he reflects. “The other parallel is a love of food and sharing with people.”
Response has been strong, which is notable given a seasonal community. Looking ahead, the pair sees room for grown and expansion. For now, however, they are focused on building their foundation in Ventnor and continuing their wholesale business, which ships an array of smoked salmon options nationwide. (Packaged salmon products are Kosher certified, and plans are in place to add several items in the next year on the wholesale side.)
“We’re basically just two guys who love smoke,” Marchel muses. “Here we are a couple of years later selling to on the wholesale side to casinos and specialty food places like DiBruno Bros. in Philadelphia.” If this first retail shop is any indicator, we will be hearing much more from them in the future.
Water Dog Smoked Fish, 7319 Ventnor Avenue, Ventnor City; 609-727-0603; Open daily, 7am – 6pm.Click here to leave a comment