Growing up at the shore, I never vacationed to the famous Jersey beach towns that so many flock to in the summer months like Wildwood, Seaside and Long Beach Island. I was a mile from the beach so getting a hotel room in another beach town, just miles down the road, would be a bit silly. Instead, during the summer months we vacationed and explored the lakes and coastlines of New England states like Maine and New Hampshire.
Now that I no longer live at the beach, taking vacations at “the shore” seems a little more justified. My boyfriend’s family had booked a week in LBI and I was excited to see what all the hype was about.
The family friendly beach town is filled with nautical and surf inspired shops, ice cream and fudge parlors (As far as the eye can see), and seafaring restaurants. Unlike many of the other tourist ridden coastal towns, LBI has a safe, community feel to it. Although there are many weekly visitors, many of the houses are occupied with season long residents. Kids can be seen in packs biking, beaching, and just generally enjoying the outdoors (who would have thought in this day and age!).
But enough about my island observations, as always I found time to look into the local food culture around the isle. Seafood and Italian seem to be the overriding theme (unless you’re counting all those ice cream and fudge stops) up and down the 18 mile coast. While I tried a handful of seafood eateries during my visit, my favorite dining experience came based on a recommendation and a little internet research. We were directed to try Mud City Crab House which is located just off the island in Manahawkin, NJ (There is also a Forked River location). We wanted to stay local and heard that their sister restaurant, The Black Whale Bar and Fish House was of similar caliber. It was an easy decision to give this restaurant a try.
The Black Whale Bar and Fish House was right in our little beach neighborhood of Beach Haven. While exploring the island, my boyfriend and decided to walk in to make our evening reservation. We were informed that reservations would not be accepted (it was Labor Day night) but we could call ahead to find out the wait. Instead, someone went later on to check us in for a table and then come pick up the rest of the family on the 40 minute wait. When we arrived we only waited for 10 more minutes until our name was called. We made our way past the crowds of families patiently waiting their turns into the small dining room.
Once seated, our waiter scrolled his name on the brown paper that lined our tabletop. A metal fishing pail of oversized oyster crackers was already at the table and had all of our hands in it within seconds (We won’t think about the germs that were pointed out to me about recycling crackers from table to table…I happily enjoyed without giving too much thought to this). Our waiter gave an alarmingly honest opinion on my drink reccomnedation question. After some doubts of my second choice I went with the Ginger Whale, a house specialty of ginger vodka, lemonade, and agave.
We scanned the menus and decided that rather than settle on large platter meals (We learned the hard way at our last dinner outing that chowder and fried fare will quickly fill you!) we opted for multiple small plates each for our dinners. Raw bar variety platters and my steamed littlenecks were among the first round. The clams were tiny but sweet. A dozen went too quickly and I wished I had ordered more!
A house salad was given family style in between the appetizers. Although my starter styled meal did not come with one I shared with my boyfriend. I could not pass up trying their two house-made dressings. The balsamic was syrupy and had some tang and the garlic ranch was sharp but addictive.
The next round of food included crab cakes, fried oysters, scallops, flounder, garlic mussels, and my own hand battered soft shell crab. The crab was delicate with a savory outer crunch. I cherished every last bite, only hesitantly sharing a few morsels with the table. The oysters rivaled those we had enjoyed up in New Hampshire earlier this summer. They were buttery inside with just the right amount of crispy exterior. Potentially one of my favorite dishes I tried of the night was the garlic mussels. They were so tiny, tender and fresh. The garlic butter dipping sauce was like a liquid italian garlic bread smothering the sweet sea treasures.
I had to admit that my tiny clams and 1 soft shell crab was not enough to fill me up. So desserts were happily invited to the table. I went for the Elephant Ear Sandwich. It was homemade thin, flakey, cinnamon graham crackers that had sandwiched a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The key lime pie, which was also housemade and claimed to be better than key west was very tart (in a good way) and the crust was thin but buttery.
We reveled in our experience so much that we returned for lunch the next day. In retrospect, I wish I had left this pleasant memory alone. While a second helping of the garlic mussels were exactly as remembered, our new sampling of the clam strips was not as impressive. The clams were overly breaded and while the outside was crispy the interior was soggy and cakey. It was hard to even taste the clam through all the dough. I’d like to chock the clams up to a bad batch, a fluke of an experience, considering the dining pleasures I had the evening before. I know it won’t stop me from coming back in summers to come but the clams will not be amongst my order.
If you want to learn more about The Black Whale or see their menu for yourself stop in here: http://www.blackwhalebar.com/index.html
…all for the love of the dish