Under the direction of chef Lucas Manteca, Cape May's Ebbitt Room is serving a hearty bill of fare pared down for winter.
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.
Approaching his two-year anniversary in this post, the 34-year-old — a 2009 Atlantic City Weekly Top 40 Under 40 honoree — and his worldly sensibilities now permeate throughout Cape May’s Virginia Hotel-based restaurant.
The bill of fare, pared down for winter, still tilts heavily toward legacy ingredients — hearts of palm, plantain chips and a Puerto Rican mojo clinging to ahi tuna tartare, coconut sweet potato puree adorning crab cakes and a chili/red wine poached pear alongside New York strip — while showing admirable signs of restraint.
Like our first offering, stone crab salad speckled by shards of avocado, star fruit and herbs tossed gently with a tricky smoked curry chili vinaigrette. Carefully ladled, the intense, auburn-hued liquid added contrast and complexity without overwhelming Florida’s favorite sustainable seafood.
Our dining partner’s fennel, apple and celery root salad was generously portioned on a long, narrow plate. Shaved slices of those three elements, each in varying shades of green arranged atop peppery arugula, robust Roquefort and roasted hazelnuts finished with a blood orange dressing.
That kind of attention to detail has always been the hallmark of Manteca’s franchises. Beginning in 2005 at Sea Salt, his seminal Stone Harbor BYOB, the blonde Argentinean, like a sort of culinary Icarus, has never been shy about flying perilously close to the sun.
This kind of risk-taking we can live with, especially when it results in items like our middle courses, seared scallops and calamari. Those pedestrian descriptions do no justice to the level of skill and finesse demonstrated.
The calamari included cool, uneven shapes indicating use of fresh-cut, not processed, squid. Lightly fried and striped with a lime-ginger aioli, these nearly naked mollusks reminded us that when working with superior seafood, less really is often more.
As for the scallops, two of day boat size and quality were seared and lounged between a roasted cauliflower puree and orange endive compote. A toss of pistachios and mache added crunch and color. Today, Manteca, along with wife Deanna and chef Carlos Barroz, continues to operate seasonal eateries Quahog’s Seafood Shack and it’s accompanying Taco Shop in Stone Harbor. The most recent addition to their portfolio is Philly’s Hoof & Fin, open in the Queens Village neighborhood since last spring.
Don’t allow that to distract from the fact that the Ebbitt Room remains the crowning jewel in Manteca’s mantle. Commenting on the difficulty he faced replacing another well-respected local chef, Andrew Carty, he allows, “In this business you cannot make everyone happy, but you have to be willing to try.”
That effort has earned him responsibility for two other facilities owned by Cape Resorts Group here in America’s original seashore town, Congress Hall’s Blue Pig Tavern and casual eatery The Rusty Nail.
Our entrees were both fish, one Arctic char filet and the other a whole Branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass. The char, a pale pink square served skin up, rested above this evening’s most glamorous creation, risotto nero. Nutty carnaroli rice, doused with black squid ink and diced braised pork belly. The indigo blend resembled caviar on the fork and exploded with vivid, wildly inventive flavors when consumed.
The char itself was, like calamari, presented mid-rare. We liked this show of appreciation for the subtle nature of the world’s most northern-dwelling freshwater species. Its flesh, soft and yielding, tasted sparkling clean, no doubt a reflection of habitat. The Branzino, perhaps a pound and half in size, had been stuffed with fennel and thyme then pan-roasted. Served alongside was a domed shape of orzo salad, studded with chunks of feta and olives, the twin elements fashioning a well-composed plate, authentic in geography.
An evening’s special dessert – recommended by a knowledgeable friend who had dined earlier – sticky toffee pudding with dates and walnuts was expertly prepared.
The rich, caramel cake was light in composition, but layered with textures, delivered warm and glossy.
E-mail Frank Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ebbitt Room
Where: 25 Jackson St., Cape May
On the Web: virginiahotel.com
The 2009 Top 40 Under 40
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 ...
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