The Reeds at Shelter Haven, a boutique hotel in Stone Harbor that opened in 2013, has four restaurants, of which Sax is the swank signature. Its design is pleasing and memorable, a bright, high-ceilinged room with elegant woodwork and furnishings that are substantial but just casual enough to call to mind the beach a few blocks away.
The menu covers all bases, from burgers, flatbreads, salads, fried calamari and truffled mac ’n’ cheese to a $40 filet mignon and a $40 cioppino (seafood stew).
“I knew I wanted an eclectic menu with many different flavor profiles to appeal to both hotel and local guests,” says chef Juan Hernandez, who grew up cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen in Puerto Rico before earning his spurs in Las Vegas and Atlantic City restaurants.
He brings elegance and precision to several dishes, such as seared scallops with green pea-tinted risotto or lemony roast chicken with succotash and cheddar grits. His corn chowder, thinned with chardonnay, was the best of many corn chowders I ate last summer.
Tender hanger steak came with a tangy tomato relish. Braised short ribs fairly melted into a sumptuously buttery potato purée. Nuggets of Spanish chorizo gave oomph to a bowl of mussels in a white wine broth.
So why the ho-hum rating? You can make a meal of apps and salads, but dinner for two, with three courses, cocktails, tax and tip can set you back $200. For that tab, customers are entitled to more creativity, more consistent execution and more polished service than Sax delivers.
The beet salad with goat cheese was tiny at $14, and its orange vinaigrette lackluster. Last summer’s watermelon salad was also tiny and dull, its cilantro, frisée and pumpkin seeds seeming no more composed than something I’d throw together and take to the beach. The $14 Gruyère fondue came with bland strips of chicken breast, grapes of varying freshness, slices of ordinary apples and pieces of mediocre bread.
The ground beef in my burger was fine, if undercooked, but the spongy brioche bun soaked up juices and couldn’t hold the burger together. Result: a mess. Crab linguine was short on crabmeat in its soupy sauce, which did offer the welcome surprise of freshly cracked coriander.
One night we had a friendly, efficient server. On a second visit, our entrées took too long to arrive. That is often the kitchen’s fault, not the server’s. But then the server, who had taken our orders, did not know who got what. That should never happen.
There was more. I was halfway through an excellent cocktail when that same server brought me a second one, unbidden.
That cocktail, the 96th Street Sunset, a vodka martini perked up with fresh citrus juices and bittersweet, orangey Aperol, was well crafted. Several of Sax’s cocktails sound enticing, but the bar can’t be trusted to get them right. I ordered the tequila-grapefruit Paloma infused with kaffir lime and received a different one, from a different menu, flavored with ginger.
A different kind of mistake: A proper Pimm’s Cup gets a lot of its flavor and fun from herbs and slices of cucumber, orange and strawberry that you gleefully mash into the cup with your straw. Sax’s Pimm’s Cup arrived naked.
Most chefs by now have outgrown the rage for deconstructing various dishes into their component parts. But for dessert, here was a deconstructed banana cream pie consisting of banana Chantilly cream, caramelized banana slices, a brûléed marshmallow and a toasted graham cracker. Why segregate elements that are meant to be savored in a single bite? Ultimately it didn’t matter, because these elements were all too sweet.
A sticky toffee pudding with housemade brown-butter pecan ice cream seemed another invitation to excess, but proved pleasing and restrained.
My advice? Go unconventional. End with a side dish: the warm, subtly sweet cornbread, which comes with its perfect foil, chili pepper butter. The combination is so good, I concluded both my meals with it and would gladly do so again.
Price Details:Appetizers, $7-$19; entrées, $19-$40; desserts, $8-$10
Ambience:Intriguing mix of formal architecture and casual, chic decor infused with light.
Wine list:Full bar; cocktails not consistently well executed; large, varied wine and beer lists
SAX at The Reeds9601 3rd Ave
Stone Harbor, NJ 08247
Hours:Monday 7:00 – 11:00 am, 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
Tuesday 7:00 – 11:00 am, 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
Wednesday 7:00 – 11:00 am, 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
Thursday 7:00 – 11:00 am, 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
Friday 7:00 – 11:00 am, 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
Saturday 7:00 – 11:00 am, 5:00 – 10:00 pm;
Sunday 5:00 – 10:00 pm