It was a mistake,” admits chef Charles “Chip” Roman, speaking of the Meyer lemon spritz atop the raw oysters from British Columbia. “My brother, who works for me, loaded the dispenser with CO2 instead of nitrogen.” The result: sprightly, citrusy bubbles instead of dense foam. The error proved felicitous for his Stone Harbor bistro, Blackfish. The bivalves, decked with diced jewels of watermelon and the lemon bubbles, sparkle on the palate. At $13 for four, they’d better.
Foie gras, too, was pricey ($19) but full of panache: sautéed, served over brioche, accented with dynamic sweet-and-sour rhubarb mostarda, candied ginger, and grains of an exotic dried African pepper.
But restaurants cannot live on foie gras and oysters alone, no matter how vibrant. While most everything else I ate was pleasurable, few dishes reached the level of those two first tastes.
High expectations are warranted, considering Roman’s résumé (Vetri, Le Bec-Fin) and the continuing acclaim for the original Blackfish, half an hour outside Philly in Conshohocken. Roman shuttles between the two but these days seems to spend more time in Stone Harbor. He opened an Avalon sequel in summer 2008, and last year transferred it to Stone Harbor at the address occupied by Henny’s crab shack for 78 years.
“We have history here,” says Roman of the Shore. “My wife, Amanda, and I met at Shenanigans in Sea Isle when we were 21. She waited tables at Henny’s that summer.” These days, the couple and their two children split time between Conshohocken and a summer home in Ocean City.
Blackfish’s Stone Harbor incarnation seats 200 in style. In the adjacent bar and lounge, cover bands jam on weekends, and a Stone Harbor Who’s Who rub elbows with tanned shoobees and local lifeguards. During dinner one night, Roman sat at the bar with a beer, a burger, and his wife. Later, in the dining room, he appeared in a smart linen blazer meeting and greeting guests, while chef de cuisine (and fellow Le Bec vet) Dave Yanisko helmed the kitchen as usual.
I missed Roman’s enlivening personal touch in dishes like the flawless but flavorless mahi-mahi smeared with a strangely vapid lemongrass emulsion; a clichéd Asian tuna tartare glossed with an improbably lackluster kimchi dressing; a pretty but pallid lemon tart; and a flourless chocolate cake missing Roman’s customary malt-powder accent.
It’s a problem when the most interesting thing on the scallops and short-rib surf and turf is a silken parsnip purée; when a gorgeous 14-ounce ribeye and fresh-cut frites suffer undersalting. The Beach Burger benefited from a perfectly cooked, cheddar-crowned Angus patty, but the dry Kaiser roll was the wrong choice. At least it cost only $9. Both the ribeye and the surf and turf were over $30.
But Blackfish is still new, and Roman is a more mature chef than his 30 years suggest. “I’m always tweaking things,” he says, which means the Kaiser has already been switched, thankfully, to a soft round potato roll from Conshohocken Bakery.
Aside from the burger, the lounge menu brought a succession of casual seafood treats that were far more consistent than the dining room’s offerings. I’m thinking of the clams casino, a masterful revival of the classic, baked with finely chopped celery, onions, carrots, and peppers sautéed in bacon fat; and the arancini, golden fried risotto balls enriched with Grana Padano cheese and lump crabmeat. The Henny’s Plate updated fish and chips with rich, oily mahi-mahi cocooned in what was perhaps the airiest tempura I’ve ever eaten.
In the dining room, best bets included a bright, crushed-tomato gazpacho poured tableside over avocado and baby opal basil. The Blackfish Bouillabaisse, too, charmed—not just for its trove of mussels, cockles, shrimp, mahi-mahi, halibut, and skate; the broth, made from skate stock and vermouth, haunted me with notes of saffron, pistou (French pesto), and Pernod.
Beignets starred in Stone Harbor too. Rolled in cinnamon and sugar and served with crème anglaise and vivid raspberry sauce, the round, airy doughnuts earned favorable comparisons to Café du Monde’s legendary New Orleans fritters.
Oysters, foie gras, and beignets would make a transcendent meal here. But more consistency is needed for Roman’s seaside branch to be worthy of his Philly original.Click here to leave a comment