Cape May is a beach town, but you’re never far from a farm. Just two miles from downtown, Beach Plum Farm, owned by Cape Resorts, grows produce and raises animals for the company’s several restaurants, including the venerable Ebbitt Room in the Virginia Hotel. Visit the 62-acre farm and you’ll see chickens, sheep, pigs, and likely Matt Crist, the Ebbitt Room’s new chef.
“I go to the farm at least four, five times a week,” Crist told me in a phone interview after my visits. Indeed, the bounty that Beach Plum provides helped persuade the Pennsylvania native to relocate from Wilmington, Delaware, to replace chef Anthony Micari last spring. “It’s so cool to have all that locally grown product at my disposal,” Crist said.
Up to 60 percent of the Ebbitt Room’s produce comes from the farm during spring, summer and fall. Like most smart chefs, Crist knows that when you start with great product, you don’t need to do much to it. I do wish, though, that he would be more adventurous with what he has, in the spirit of his two most recent predecessors, Micari (now executive sous chef of the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu) and Lucas Manteca (now chef/owner of Red Store in Cape May Point, one of NJM’s Top 25 restaurants of 2014).
Crist’s seasonal menu (which he modifies almost daily) is loaded with predictable people-pleasers: oysters Rockefeller, truffled lobster Caesar, roast chicken, steak frites, crab cakes. Combined with a recent renovation that traded seaside sophistication for country charm (seats upholstered in plaid, antique china on the walls), the Ebbitt Room is looking more like its Cape Resorts cousin, the Blue Pig Tavern, a block away in the Congress Hall Hotel, than the bastion of luxurious dining it’s always been. The prices, however, remain high.
Crist’s kitchen does deserve kudos. No matter what meat I ordered, it arrived perfectly cooked. That included a pepper-crusted, medium-rare lamb sirloin; a juicy grilled rib-cap whose intense richness was offset by a tangy tomatillo salsa verde; and a thick seared pork chop from the Beach Plum pigs, glazed in a sweet, smoky elixir of bourbon and blackberries and perched on creamy blue cheese-and-cheddar grits. Juicy roast chicken came with crisp skin as shiny as gold leaf. Equally impressive were the accompanying vegetables: roasted eggplant and Grana Padano cheese fried into salty croquettes with the lamb; silky potato purée and gem-like radishes roasted till tender with the steak; and zucchini, squash and tomatoes baked into a delicious companion for the chicken.
Crist proved adept with seafood as well. His cool, firm poached shrimp came with summery pineapple-tomatillo salsa; lush strips of house-cured salmon were draped over irresistible deviled eggs. Crist’s fine oysters Rockefeller reclined in herb butter under caps of browned breadcrumbs that tasted of intensely smoky bacon. The pair of petite seared crab cakes mated well with a lightly spiced avocado sauce and pepper relish.
Not everything reached that level. The seasonal vegetable entrée came with a comet-streak of chipotle cream so spicy it all but blotted out the subtle flavors of the vegetables. House-made twists of strozzapreti pasta needed something more substantial than olive oil to tie together the melange of spinach, cherry tomatoes and crisp bits of duck bacon. The lobster Caesar was skimpy on lobster. For dessert, the cinnamon-sugared ricotta donuts were overly sweet.
Service in the dining room also fell short. I expected more wine knowledge from the veteran staff, and better timing—a bottle of Gewürztraminer ordered to pair with entrées didn’t arrive until the entrées were half eaten. On a different night, I ate at the bar, where bartender Helen Linney keeps things seamlessly humming along, but cultivates an atmosphere much looser and friendlier than in the dining room.
Weather excluded, some things at the Shore improve when the summer crush abates. Chefs at year-round hotels like Congress Hall and the Virginia get a chance to fine-tune, experiment and generally raise their game. I’m eager to see what Crist does with the storied Ebbitt Room.Click here to leave a comment
The Ebbitt Room25 Jackson St
Cape May, NJ 08204
Hours:Dining Room: Sun-Thurs: 5pm-9:30pm, Fri-Sat: 5pm-10pm; Bar and Lounge: Open Daily from 4pm (Serving Small Plates Starting at 5pm); Live Piano: Thurs-Sun 6:30pm-10:30pm; Happy Hour: Mon-Fri 4:00pm-6:00pm - Half off beer and wine by the glass; Early Seating Menu: Sun-Fri: 5:00pm-6:30pm - 3-course dinner