Shopper’s Wharf in Bay Head has risen from Sandy’s wreckage to become Charlie’s of Bay Head, a beautiful restaurant with stunning views of Twilight Lake and the only liquor license in town. Fresh flowers, club chairs and a couch or two add to the appeal of a (sometimes deafening) bar.
The new building’s three stories of unpainted shingles and tidy, white trim are emblematic of Bay Head’s famously informal elegance. There is understated elegance in much of chef Stephen T. Johnson’s food as well.
The meaty crab cake, bound not with upscale panko bread crumbs but with crumbled Ritz crackers and butter, was surprisingly among the best of its kind. It rests on pepper slaw, fresh and crisp and sparked with hints of jalapeño. You can order a double portion as an entrée.
Johnson’s menu is offbeat for a seafood house. He adorns flatbreads with cheese steak and marinates cobia in mirin and serves it with an edamame and shiitake salad. Italian accents are evident. A slab of provolone, for example, is slapped (not for the better) onto a pork chop. Garlic abounds.
Johnson grew up in Linwood, studied at Atlantic Cape Community College, and spent 13 years as executive sous chef of Trump Marina in Atlantic City. He traces his love of cooking partly to his Italian-American mother and partly to a high school job as a restaurant dishwasher. Peeking into the kitchen, he was intrigued and decided to give cooking a try.
“Turned out,” he says, “I was pretty good at it.”
“Pretty good” understates the appeal of several of the appetizers. A creamy clam chowder exuded the smoky scent of its many chunks of bacon. The ahi tuna appetizer, bound with wasabi mayo and festooned with crunchy radishes and cucumber, was rich and complex. Best was his shrimp cocktail. He describes his method as “grill and chill.” As he grills extra-large shrimp, he bastes them with a sweet, garlicky marinade enlivened with parsley, rosemary and thyme, then chills and serves them with ribbons of warm-your-insides shaved horseradish.
Also better than pretty good were several entrées. Nicely bronzed scallops paired well with a tender wedge of pork belly to form a novel surf and turf. A slab of ahi tuna, nicely charred but still rare inside, offered all the umami pleasures of steak.
Yet there were serious flaws. A pork-chop special arrived gray and dry, its accompanying mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe unevenly heated. Salmon on Moroccan couscous was as sweet as it was weird—unpleasantly salty in spots from an ill-conceived smattering of caper berries. (It’s now served with quinoa and dried cranberries.)
Australian lamb chops of high quality were overwhelmed by garlic in the meat and in the tomato-and-bean ragù with it. Too much lemon marred an arugula salad. European-style Plugra butter, prized for its dense creaminess, was used to excess in a sauce that suppressed the delicate flavor of an otherwise lovely flounder.
These faults can be partly chalked up to a fledgling crew trying to keep up with a tidal wave of demand. Since it opened in January, Charlie’s has been besieged.
Still, I’d gladly return for the comfort and beauty of the rooms, the quality of Johnson’s best dishes and, not least, the appeal of the desserts. One of the most popular, mini doughnuts, arrived fluffy and hot, with three small squeeze vials of raspberry, caramel and Nutella sauces. Bread pudding was rich and moist. Even swathed in caramel sauce, it was not cloying.
With time and attention to detail, Johnson has a chance to make Charlie’s of Bay Head the destination restaurant the area deserves.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers and salads, $8-$19; flatbreads, burgers, lobster roll, $13-$26; entrées, $24-$50; desserts, $6-$10
Ambience:Spare, sunny, stunning
Service:First-rate, hosts less so
Wine list:Signature cocktails; 20 draft beers; 21 wines by the glass; well-priced, extensive bottle list