After 16 years in Wildwood Crest, where it set the standard for white-tablecloth dining, Marie Nicole’s Grill relocated last June to nearby Avalon on the ground floor of a loftily named motel called the Desert Sand Resort. It’s an odd fit: the Barnabei family’s romantically lit dining room and the drab vestibule behind the hostess stand, where kids pad around in dripping bathing suits on their way to the indoor pool. In the restaurant, a winding staircase leads to a shabby mezzanine, where the restaurant shares restrooms with the motel.
On my first visit, all the appetizers had flaws. A Caesar salad was bland; a special salad combined under-ripe peaches, “heirloom” tomatoes that seemed to be basic cherry types, and burrata that was cold and firm, not soft and lush as it should be. Crab bisque was overly thick and sloppily served, so that soup splattered the rim of the bowl. Steamed mussels came with fries—not on the side, but mounded over the mussels. They quickly lost their crispness in the garlicky beer-and-cream broth.
A sweet but poorly trained server could not identify anything on the cheese and charcuterie board. After a quick trip to the kitchen, she returned, pointing. “That’s a Gouda, that’s a blue,” she said. “I know that’s prosciutto in the middle, and I think that’s pepperoni.” Oof.
Entrées fared better, though their prices dimmed their appeal. Mint-rosemary pesto accented tender lamb porterhouse with buttery roasted fingerlings ($38). The huge, bone-in veal Milanese ($42) was terrifically crunchy under a lemony arugula salad. Sweet lump crabmeat and cavatelli luxuriated in a tangy Gorgonzola cream sauce ($28). Horseradish cream sauce nicely enlivened golden, softly bound crab cakes ($33).
On my second visit, appetizers improved: huge grilled shrimp swaddled in prosciutto and drizzled with balsamic; briny, pristine oysters on the half-shell; and vibrant squash, zucchini and tomatoes on a crisp flatbread layered with fontina.
Among entrées, a $40 barramundi special featured moist, tasty fish, but its accompanying blob of guacamole and wilting salad of greens, grapes, berries and melon cubes was downright strange. The best entrée by far was also the most expensive, a $59, dry-aged, 16-ounce strip-steak special. I figured I’d take half home, but it was so good I ate the whole thing.
Marie Nicole’s wine list (winner of Wine Spectator awards) is bloated with prestige reds. If you want to drop more than $100 on a Napa cab, great. By the bottle, reds outnumber whites 3-to-1. There was just one Riesling—a popular and multidimensional category. The dynamism of wine today—emerging regions and varietals, the biodynamic movement—is nowhere evident on the list.
Servers seem poorly versed in wine. They must recite the by-the-glass list, because the only place it is written is on a chalkboard behind the bar. One night, my server listed the options by grape only: “We have a cabernet, a pinot noir, a pinot grigio….” A second night, a more astute staffer at least told us the names and countries of the wineries, but when pressed for more, she had to go “check with the bartender.” There’s no sommelier on staff.
Instead, I suggest you avail yourself of the very good cocktails. I’d happily return to Marie Nicole’s bar for the DeWalt, their smooth take on a bourbon Manhattan, or for the You’re No Saint, a gin-and-St. Germain spritzer blushed with grapefruit juice.
Desserts were uneven in quality: a light and creamy cheesecake; a berry crumble, bitter and nearly burned.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Fusion/Eclectic
Price Details:Appetizers, $11-$16; entrées, $22-$42; desserts, $5-$10
Ambience:Well-mannered clientele chatting in romantically lit, high-ceilinged dining room.
Service:Warm, but not well versed in menu
Wine list:Award-winning wine list stacked with pricey reds, light on whites; beer and cocktails