It's been a very Jersey Shore week in restaurant reviews, with Inquirer critic Craig LaBan putting out the first half of his annual shore dining guide (look for the next half this coming weekend) and other journalists skipping off to Atlantic City to check out Bart Blatstein's latest venture, T Street at The Playground.
First up, LaBan shares five dining highlights among the shore's northern reaches, including smart raw bar and craft beer selections at the Triton and simple but standout burgers and exemplary desserts at Holiday Snack Bar, both in Beach Haven. In Northfield, Valentina's BYOB impressed with Italian fare that hit more often than it missed, and the historic Oyster Creek Inn in Leeds Point satisfied when it stuck to seafood classics even if more modern additions like sushi were just "so-so." In Atlantic City, shouty celeb chef Gordon Ramsay managed to pleasantly surprise a skeptical LaBan at his new British "pub and grill" at Caesars. While not an entirely unqualified rave, it ultimately lands on the positive side, as long as you can afford the lofty price tag.
Of course, LaBan didn't luck out everywhere, and he also shared three meals he "wishes [he] could have back":
Marty Grims' revamp of Tucker's Tavern in Beach Haven (an overpriced rush job that packed a bland multicourse meal into 45 unsatisfying minutes); the Cove in Brigantine (a strange hybrid liquor store-upscale pub with a kitchen that couldn't cook a burger, let alone a $28 salmon); and the Engleside Inn (a tired Beach Haven icon for mushy pasta, mushy sushi, and flounder française drowned in an artless lemon sauce).
Back in Atlantic City, this past weekend saw the debut of T Street, the first phase of Bart Blatstein's new reboot of the former Pier Shops at Caesars, called The Playground. It's a string of music venues/bars billed by PR as "music row in Nashville, Beale Street in Memphis, and 6th Street in Austin all rolled into one street," and it netted mixed reviews from journalists who visited for the opening.
Danya Henninger, writing for Billy Penn, delivered an ultimately positive appraisal of the experience, even if "generally pretty cool, as Jersey Shore spots go" falls well short of a full-throated endorsement. Henninger appreciated the something-for-everyone vibe and the unique opportunity to bar-hop without setting down your martini, and seemed to see plenty of promise as the spaces continue to add finishing touches.
Philly Mag's Bryan Buttler, however, was less kind to the revamp, which "literally looked cheap, poorly-constructed, and geared towards the barely post-pubescent college crowd." He deemed the Monkey Bar "the best part of the experience" (which should not be read as approval of the Monkey Bar), and noted that it only went downhill from there as he checked out the variously kitschy spaces that disappointingly shared near-identical menus:
Past the Monkey Bar is a series of vaguely themed, poorly decorated, extremely strange "bars" that are retrofitted into the vacant spaces of the Pier (nothing like seeing a faux mechanical bull in an old Chico's shop). I felt like I was in a bad, low-budget high school version of Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls all at once...
· City Paper's Adam Erace got his entertainment-complex fix closer to home with a visit to South Bowl, where "nothing at a bowling alley was like [he] remembered" but the food was executed pretty well, even if it conspicuously failed to nab top billing throughout the review.