Revivals may do well on Broadway, but when restaurants that have been closed return for an encore, they often find their audience has moved on.
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It's a different script, however, for a new Long Valley seafood spot along the lines of a big dining hit from the 1980s and '90s, which is drawing many of the same people who previously lined up to get their crab, oysters and shrimp at the inland location.
The Chesapeake Tavern, which opened during July, has key cast members from the days when the old Chesapeake Bay Seafood Co. was a big draw in its historic building. The structure has been renovated under the watchful direction of Keith Holmes, now the owner (with his wife, Marcella) where he once served as general manager. Executive Chef Anthony Theesfeld again is taking a bow for his crab cakes, as popular as they were when he prepared them from the same recipe during Chesapeake's previous incarnation.
They're made with seasoning from the J.O. Spice Co., which Theesfeld called "a little more authentic" (at least in terms of a Maryland crab house) than Old Bay, the seasoning better known in this region. The J.O. product that he uses features celery salt, cayenne, paprika and mustard, among its other ingredients.
The crab cakes, containing only enough cracker meal to bind them, are $22.99 for a half-portion, $33.99 for a full portion. As Holmes tells patrons who comment about the price (which includes Creole remoulade, a vegetable, coleslaw and those fries), the key element is "real Maryland crab. I'm standing tall on buying Maryland crabmeat. You can't always buy food just by price, and if you do, you're probably going to be disappointed sometimes. The crab cakes are something we're not messing around with."
Chesapeake Bay crab cakes and fries at the Chesapeake Tavern.
One thing that isn't the same at the Tavern as it was at the Seafood Co. are the whole crabs that used to arrive by the bushel to land on tables covered with brown paper. We wielded little mallets to crack the shells so we could dig out the delicious meat in a messy fun ritual. Those crabs are hard to get in quantity these days, Holmes said, while noting patrons are more sensitive to noise than they used to be, so it's unlikely the hammers and brown paper will part of the scene indoors again. But he didn't rule it out for patio dining in the future.
Theesfeld started in the restaurant business 25 years ago as a dishwasher at Chesapeake, where Holmes was his boss. He worked his way up to being a line cook before attending the Culinary Institute of America and going on to such fine dining spots as Stage Left and Soho on George in New Brunswick.
He transitioned seamlessly to casual. Everything you'd expect from a seafood house is on the wide-ranging menu at Chesapeake: Peel and eat Maryland-style shrimp ($12.99), lobster at market price, Middleneck steamers ($15.99 a dozen) as well as a variety of oysters. Want a little bit of everything? A seafood sampler for four runs $109.99.
Starters include a big plate of cornmeal and Grana cheese-dusted calamari ($10.99). The cheese is used judiciously to make these squid stand out. The New England clam chowder ($4.99/cup; $6.99/bowl) gets its personality plus from double-smoked bacon. Stuffed oysters ($12.99), Theesfeld's version of oysters Florentine, are richly blended with cream, spinach and artichokes.
Fish specials, on which each fish is listed with its state of origin, are the ticket if you're looking for something off the beaten path that gives Theesfeld a chance to draw on his fine dining background. An example is pan-roasted black drum fish ($25.99), which doesn't have flavor that's too assertive. It goes well with a minted pineapple salsa and sweet and sour rice for a pleasant blend.
Whole roasted bronzino at the Chesapeake Tavern
The restaurant seats 116 and may offer that outdoor dining with another 50 to 60 seats this fall, but only when Holmes feels his team is ready to take on the extra responsibility. Holmes, who also ran Redwoods in Chester, owns St. Moritz at Lake Mohawk. The $19.99 chicken schnitzel served there is also a star among Chesapeake's non-seafood items.
The mellow key lime pie ($5.99) comes from St. Moritz, where Joel Cain is the head chef, but the rest of the desserts are made at Chesapeake. They are no afterthought. Bailey's Irish ice cream cake ($6.99) from the old Chesapeake days offers a cooling influence after a dose of spice.
There is always a shakedown period for restaurants, which can be reflected in the service. The staffer who waited on our table was exemplary, checking on anything we asked about if she wasn't knowledgeable about it and offering samples of wine to try before we ordered a glass. The busboys were trying hard, but kept delivering plates to the wrong tables. No real harm there, since they rerouted without a fuss, but I'm sure they'll get their sea legs quickly as the Chesapeake focuses on smooth sailing.
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1 West Mill Road, Long Valley. 908-867-7102. chesapeaketavernbeer-selection.com. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner: 4-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 4-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, noon-9 p.m. Sundays. 3 stars
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