It seems like when you have a Shore restaurant that’s all blue and nautical,” says Tomatoe’s owner Carmen Rone, “it tends to only be good for summer, but we have nine other months down here.” Unlike many Shore restaurants, Tomatoe’s in Margate not only stays open those nine other months, it stays busy. Ocean breezes blow a few blocks from the bayside restaurant, but you wouldn’t know it from inside.
Tinted screens and awnings shroud the views from the picture windows. In place of barnacle-encrusted buoys and seagull prints, the décor—by Rone’s wife and partner, Karen Sherman—veers toward urban chic: peach walls, mirrors in wavy frames, warm wood accents, and Warhol-like pop-art paintings. Even the menu eschews local references, with its California focus and sprinkling of Mexican, Italian, and Pacific Rim dishes.
Staying busy is no mean feat for a 290-seat restaurant. On weekend nights in the summer, the 15-year-old bastion (nine years in its present location) can serve more than 600 dinners. Dedicated Tomatoe’s clientele come here for consistently excellent food as well as the lively scene. As soon as you cross the threshold you enter the gravitational field of the massive, four-sided, oak-and-copper bar, beside which a live band or DJ keeps things pulsating until 3:45 am on many weekends.
If your goal is one of the three dining rooms in the rear, you’ll make your way to the hostess station tucked behind the main bar. Those who choose to sit at the sushi bar have to contend with the music and with being jostled by people at the main bar or those waiting for tables. All in all, it’s kind of a zoo, but the denizens of the front room don’t seem to mind.
Once you have run this gauntlet, however, you can settle into a pleasurable dining experience somewhat removed from the front-room hubbub. The friendly and accommodating waitstaff sets the tone, helping to shrink the restaurant’s 11,000-square-foot space. It’s not unusual to find yourself chatting with those at the next table—this happened with us on both our visits. On advice of a fellow diner, I ordered a fine appetizer of crispy artichoke hearts, the disc-like shape halved, delicately fried, and served with olive tapenade aioli and marinara sauce. Salt-and-pepper fried calamari came with an equally light flour coating, enhanced by a Thai chili glaze, giving the traditional starter a subtle extra zing. Crab guacamole lightly but satisfyingly mixed lump crabmeat with chunks of avocado, lime dressing, and fried wontons.
Rone, 50, began his career cooking at Carmen’s in Ventnor in 1982. He opened a second Carmen’s in Voorhees not long after; then, with his wife, opened Crazy Cooks catering in Margate and Northfield. The original Tomatoe’s was a 100-seat restaurant three blocks from the current location; it soon developed a following for its sushi bar, one of the first at the Shore. Rone initially served as Tomatoe’s chef, but today mostly supervises its two lead cooks, Javier DePerez and Marcial Montes, in executing his recipes.
Our best starter was Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in a Thai curry cream sauce. The result was so delicious we slurped up the liquid like soup long after the mussels were gone. From the extensive sushi menu we tried shrimp tempura roll, eight sizable pieces stuffed (for a pleasing textural contrast) with crisp tempura shrimp and avocado. On Mondays and Wednesdays, some sushi is half price from 9 pm to midnight.
Among seafood entrées sampled, Chilean sea bass was a hit, a block of buttery-rich fish bathed in a lobster, soy, and lemongrass sauce and served with littleneck clams and stir-fried French green beans. (Rone’s Chilean sea bass, from Samuels & Sons in Philadelphia, is Marine Stewardship Council certified.) Sushi-grade tuna was pan-seared to a warm pink interior, given an appetizing horseradish-and-panko crust, and served with broccolini and mashed boniato, a sweet Caribbean root vegetable. Softshell crabs were dusted with flour and deep-fried. Ours, overly browned, tasted like they had been left in the fryer a little too long.
Meat and poultry dishes we tried were all winners. New Zealand rack of lamb comprised eight tender, pink chops in a crunchy pecan-and-mustard crust. A thick, 12-ounce Cuban pork chop burst with flavor, both from the cinnamon, anise, and cumin spice rub and the diced mango and cinnamon brown butter. The big surprise was Euro chicken breast, juicy and succulent, served in a delectable cippolini onion-pancetta ragout. The breast comes with a sublime macaroni and cheese that uses Gruyère and Fontina and is finished with truffle oil. We tried the risotto of the day—a mushroom version made with shiitakes, porcinis, Portobellos, and a nice helping of lump crabmeat.
While entrées are not inexpensive, portions are generous. Leave room for dessert, even if it means taking home leftovers. There are about fifteen selections, including several homemade pies and cakes—most created by Rone’s wife. The Key lime and coconut cream pies were light and creamy, heady with their signature ingredients, and not overly sweet. Surprisingly restrained, too, was the peanut butter pie, an especially fluffy mousse in a crunchy chocolate crust that managed to avoid the cloying sweetness of many peanut butter desserts. Moist banana cake with cream cheese frosting came with a welcome filling of mashed and sliced fresh bananas. But my favorite was “killer chocolate,” warm, dense fudge filled with chunky raspberry purée and coated in dark-chocolate ganache.
Like some other diners who finished their meal about the same time we did, we crossed the street and strolled along the bayside docks, enjoying the bracing salt air. It reminded us that Tomatoe’s is, quite literally, a Shore restaurant, though one for all seasons.Click here to leave a comment