Fasten your seatbelt if you love this Cape May juggernaut, because it will be a bumpy ride. Early in its 28-year history, this seasonal BYO won accolades for the inspired food of chef Henry Sing Cheng and for its charming, higgledy-piggledy spaces in a Victorian coach house tucked behind a romantic canopy of trees and shrubs. Over the years, raves, fans and awards have continued to accrue.
Sadly, the space has become a warren of tightly packed, worn, uncomfortable and mostly bland rooms (the garden room being the one exception). The menu, imaginative and exciting in 1984—with its seafood focus and its crazy quilt of Caribbean, New Orleans, classical French and then-new California cooking—has barely budged.
Some restaurants thrive exactly because they resist change. 410 Bank Street appears to be one of them. But the kitchen is no longer at the top of its game. The seafood in Bayou oyster stew, lobster bisque, escargot bourguignonne and Cajun shellfish gumbo were all overpowered by heavy-handed roux or sauces and murky spice blends reminiscent of dank cellars. Lump crab terrine was so wan in flavor it resembled baby food. Of a special appetizer featuring five different wild mushrooms in Burgundy sauce, one companion bemoaned, “There are no woodsy, earthy flavors here.”
The quality of the base proteins, especially fin fish, remains unassailable, best appreciated in simply prepared dishes such as a grilled shrimp starter or an entrée of seared Cape May yellowfin tuna. Desserts are solid, if unadventurous. Key lime pie shined thanks to a tasty, semi-frozen filling.
Good, bad or indifferent, expect to pay top dollar. As an entrée, seafood gumbo cost $38.50. (On the plus side, it included a small, delicious lobster tail and a petite whole crab; on the minus side, the scallops were gritty.) The seared tuna was market price, which in our case meant $35. It came with dense, flavorless mashed potatoes and boring green beans. The New York strip steak ($40.95), a good piece of meat, cooked as ordered, was fine, if nothing special.
I noticed that many prices charged at the restaurant are higher by as much as a dollar (for the strip steak, $3) than those displayed on the website for the same dishes. Could this be deliberate? Or just a failure to keep the website up to date? A lot of website menus are out of date, especially of restaurants that frequently change their menus. 410 Bank Street doesn’t have that excuse. A related problem is trumpeting out-of-date reviews or rankings. To quote the website: “Zagat ranks 410 one of the top ten restaurants in NJ.” Perhaps at one time. But the highest it has ranked since the 2006-7 edition is 31st.
All this would go down easier if the service were gracious. When four of six of us arrived on time for our reservation, we were told to take seats on the porch, a pretty spot overlooking the garden and covered by a bower of wisteria. Then the staff began to literally pull the chairs out from under us—they were needed at tables, we were told. Thankfully, our quartet was soon escorted to our table. I was shocked. Six places had been set, but the table was small, clearly meant for four. And it was squished into a corner.
Thinking the last couple might be delayed, we decided to order a few appetizers. Nothing doing. Our server informed us that there were many specials and he did not intend to recite them twice. Okay, we’ll just choose from those on the menu. No, he insisted, we’d have to wait. Luckily, our friends arrived minutes later.
Things went downhill from there. The server duly took note when one of my companions told him she was allergic to shellfish. But after the third or fourth command of, “Do not touch any plate until you clear it with me!” this woman began to feel like a scolded child.
There is more: dry grilled chicken; overpowering noise; overly bright lights in the main dining room. As he examined the tab, my spouse and longtime review companion said, “I’m baffled. To think of all the restaurants we’ve dined at that had better food and lower prices, yet failed.”