Stone Harbor 's Sea Salt no more, chef Lucas Manteca moves on to Cape May's Ebbitt Room.
Standing six foot, four inches tall with surfer-boy blonde hair and azure blue eyes, chef Lucas Manteca looks like he belongs in front of the camera on a Hollywood movie set, or perhaps stalking the runway of a New York City fashion event.
But make no mistake about it, the Buenos Aires-born Argentinean finds his personal stage in the less glamorous environs of a commercial kitchen.
These days, Manteca, a 2009 Atlantic City Weekly Top 40 Under 40 honoree, plies his trade at Cape May's Ebbitt Room, long one of the region's most elegant dining spaces.
Having accepted the position of executive chef there in mid-spring, Manteca and his wife Dina opted to not reopen their charming Stone Harbor bistro, Sea Salt, for a fifth season.
Admittedly, the tiny restaurant was, in Manteca's own words "always a stepping stone" in his fast-track culinary career.
The Mantecas continue to operate their second casual eatery, Quahog's Clam Shack, on 97th Street in the same posh barrier island community.
Shortly after graduating from New York's French Culinary Institute in 2004, Manteca accepted his first post with acclaimed restaurateur Alain Ducasse. He initially worked for the famed Frenchman at the Essex House, and then quickly moved to Ducasse's New American enterprise called Mix. After a year, Manteca, always in search of further edification, "decided to take some time and work through the kitchens of New York."
This led to him being employed by two of America's most gifted young chefs, David Bouley and Dan Barber.
"I was looking for my cuisine, my whole direction," he says.
By the summer of 2005, Manteca, certain of his bearings, opened Sea Salt. Although the restaurant was decidedly brief in menu, word of Manteca's dazzling gastronomic skills quickly spread. After all, how many places can get away with offering only two main courses? Yes two -- a nightly whole roasted fish and the chef's signature Argentinean mixed grill, featuring hangar steak, beef short ribs, house-made sausage and, sometimes, the gourmet delicacy sweetbreads.
Dina, a Cape May county native, ran the front of the house and together they built a golden reputation among the region's most discriminating eaters. Then, in February of this year, as they were laying the groundwork for 2009, the Ebbitt Room came calling. Making him a splendid offer that "basically changed everything," Manteca agreed and began work in May.
Their new menu, which has already undergone two separate revisions, is now totally reflective of Manteca's restless, creative spirit. Among his personal favorite items is a lobster salad appetizer. Presented on the half shell, the chunked meat is blended with mango, black beluga lentils and cucumbers. A lemongrass stock emulsion, rich and fragrant with the essences of ginger, orange and peppers permeates throughout, offering flavors that are "sunny and light."
Another notable smaller plate at the Ebbit Room is the black pepper and olive oil spaghetti with sea urchin roe-infused Matrlciana sauce and a pan-seared U-10 scallop. The sauce, a traditional Italian peasant concoction of tomatoes, bacon, onions and basil, is elevated by the prized seafood. Manteca calls it "pure ocean flavor" and promises that even those who've never enjoyed sea urchin will love the salty, oceanic twist.
Among the second courses Manteca speaks most highly of are his take on the traditional surf and turf. This one combines whole lobster poached in a lavender-scented beurre blanc sauce with red-wine braised boneless short ribs of beef.
The chef's South American roots come to the fore here as well. Malbec wine, the Chianti of Argentina, adds depth and body to the braising liquid. Even the starch here is special -- an ethereal Meyer lemon and English pea risotto.
Looking well rested and tanned one day removed from a fortnight’s sojourn to his South American homeland, chef Lucas Manteca appears to have comfortably settled into the position of executive chef at Cape May’s Ebbitt Room....
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