In April, when Sandy and John Vizzone opened Jardin, the restaurant at their Cape May inn, the Hugh, they knew at least one thing about the food they would serve. As Sandy told me with a laugh, Cape May did not need “another freaking crab cake.” They wanted to offer “a menu different from anything available here.” Cape May does not lack for good dining choices, but under chef Michael Schultz, Jardin’s ambitious, French-influenced tasting menu has quickly earned a place among the best of them.
In both my visits (one may dine without staying at the inn), the amuse-bouche made a statement visually and on the palate. In the first visit, two carefully constructed bites came nestled between leafy twigs harvested from the backyard. One was a kind of bonbon combining the flavors of green olive and smoked butterscotch. The other was a chip of carrot leather topped with spiced almond gel, ginger and a fermented blackberry. They wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow as a pre-dessert, but as starters, they represented a bit of a high-wire act that mostly worked.
A few weeks later, on my second visit, the fermented blackberry reappeared as a cap for a beet pâté de fruit. This amuse, novel like the others, was accompanied by half a fresh strawberry from local Beach Plum Farm, the cavity filled with kelp “caviar” dusted with dehydrated strawberry blended with black pepper. This made a perfect opener, the innate sweetness of beet and berry offset with compelling chords of salt, acid and spice.
Schultz is a Cape May native who previously cooked at the Ebbitt Room and the Lobster House, both in Cape May, as well as in Philadelphia under famed restaurateurs Georges Perrier and Stephen Starr. He was recommended to the Vizzones by a mutual friend. They themselves are relative newcomers to Cape May, having moved there after selling their house in Montclair in 2018.
[RELATED: 12 Farms Reviewed: Fare with Flair in Hightstown]
On my first visit, I started with a delightful “faux” gras pâté made from mushrooms, lentils and walnuts. It was garnished with roasted beets, pear butter and pine pollen. Next came jewel-like local scallops, seared and arranged amidst a savory granola of seeds and lentils. Dessert was an enormous dark chocolate tart dusted with rose powder—a stop-in-your-tracks, cocoa-floral flavor combination I hadn’t had before.
Two technical missteps held the meal back. Everything intended to be served hot was tepid. And in the final savory course, one diner in my party of four received two dry, scrawny slivers of roasted chicken (with figs, shallots and lavender), when the rest of us got chicken nicely moist and crisp skinned. I think these issues can be explained by Jardin’s single-seating format: All the food for a given course is plated at once for the entire dining room—a total of 14 seats. That means the food is sitting on a prep table, without benefit of heat lamps, while Candace Carpio (a veteran hospitality pro in town) runs the dishes out two at a time. At my second meal, the food on each plate was at the right temperature.
At my first meal, Bang Island mussels from Maine were served with fennel, preserved lemon and fines herbs. Poached in butter, they were so sweet and tender beneath a lemony froth of shellfish stock, I was more than happy to order them again on my second visit. An entrée of sweet Cape May scallops, lightly seared, was appealingly paired with dried fruit and a captivating “sand” made of mushrooms and nuts, with snappy sea beans and fermented blueberry sauce. I also loved the thick, tender slice of Moroccan-spiced, medium-rare duck breast with cherries, figs, hazelnuts, orange and verjus-spiked parsnip purée. It was a busy plate, but the sweet-and-savory elements harmonized.
For all that, my favorite course at both meals was cheese. In addition to dairy cheeses, Schultz uses True Blue, an outstanding Canadian cashew-based cheese that he weaves into wreaths of wine grapes, torn pieces of walnut toast, gastriques, jellies and pickles. There haven’t been a lot of fancy cheese courses during the pandemic. This one was a delight.
It was also a delight to have such warm, competent service. Caprio was a pro, from spritzing our hands on arrival with a mist of fruit-and-flower water to waving goodbye. The Vizzones embody hospitality as well, stopping by the tables for a chat or to join in a Happy birthday song.
“We’re risk takers,” says John. “We’re willing to say, ‘This is who we are.’” Who are they? The owners of Cape May’s most interesting new restaurant in years.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:French - New American
- Price Range:Very Expensive
- Price Details:10 courses, $115 per person prix fixe
- Ambience:Intimate, dinner-party atmosphere
- Service:Warm, personable
- Wine list:BYO, with wines available from Hawk Haven winery in Rio Grande