The oysters on the half shell at Scola, a New American BYO that opened in Cape May Court House last March, arrived at the table in a shallow bowl smoking with liquid nitrogen.
Whether you think, How cool! or How 2002, the fog effect was less important than the condition of the oysters. I ordered them on two occasions. One night, they were riddled with shell shrapnel. The other, they were warm—not room temperature, warm. Both times, none of the oysters had been cleanly separated from the shell.
Scola is the newest entry in the Karapanagiotis family’s Kara Restaurant Group, which includes the popular Cape May restaurants George’s Place and YB. Scola is run by executive chef Ben Scola and his new bride, pastry chef Jacklyn Scola, who are not members of the family.
It’s true you can feel a culinary striving at Scola. The amuse-bouche soups were poured tableside from pretty hammered-copper pots, and the complimentary intermezzo of goat cheese with bacon bits and balsamic was served in a miniature ice cream cone. I liked both soups (a mushroom and a potato-leek), but who wants to kick-off a meal with piping-hot purées on a sticky late-summer night, especially in a narrow brick dining room with insufficient air conditioning? At a third visit in early fall, butternut squash soup was good and felt more in step with the season.
As for the pinkie-sized cones, the dense, room-temperature chevre amounted to creamy paste in a gush of syrupy vinegar and smoky bacon—a palate blowout. Another gift from the kitchen, a spoon of sangria “caviar,” tasted like watery Hawaiian Punch. Other failures included dry, stringy duck confit; an overcooked tuna steak whose iron-y bloodline hadn’t been butchered out; watery butternut squash sauce for thick lobster ravioli; parched mac and cheese; and shriveled clams casino.
But the kitchen had its successes. Creole-spiced shrimp crackled with delicious heat, and halibut “tacos” (wonton tostadas would be a more accurate name) featured pristine fish pleasingly dressed with avocado cream and soy. A tasty, roasted portobello mushroom cap was loaded with an engaging mélange of crabmeat, ground andouille sausage, cream cheese and cheddar. Crab cakes were crisp and golden, with barely any filler. A meaty fillet of drum arrived under a burnished lemon-Gorgonzola crust, unusual and delicious, and seared swordfish sang over roasted red-pepper purée. Salmon en croute with dill beurre blanc was exquisite, with flaky pastry and moist fish—no easy feat. In fact, aside from the overcooked tuna, the fish dishes were well executed. Mains came with perfectly cooked vegetables.
Meats were uneven. A tender, full-flavored pork rib eye was lashed with a terrific sweet-and-sour cranberry chutney. Yet filet mignon wrapped in bacon was underseasoned and overcooked.
Desserts generally cushioned the landing. Crème brûlée, silky under its crisp veil of torched sugar, was textbook perfect. Bittersweet chocolate cake baked in a shallow copper pan was dense, in a good way. A stenciled dusting of powdered sugar spelled out SCOLA. Pastry chef Scola might want to get a new stencil with her own name.
On my first visit, the service was so gregarious and gracious—they couldn’t do enough to accommodate a guest in my party in a wheelchair—I left with a positive impression, even though the food was so-so. Second time around, blasé service couldn’t do the heavy lifting for food that seemed to have gotten shakier in the month that had passed. Third trip? Warm, friendly service again.
I appreciate Scola’s effort to create an adventurous, contemporary restaurant, but it too often feels like you’re paying for experiments—ones that fail as often as they succeed.
- Cuisine Type:American
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $4-$14; entrées, $24-$32; desserts, $9-$12
- Ambience:Cozy, candlelit
- Service:Inconsistent, from blasé to gracious
- Wine list:BYO