Fine, Festive and Fabulous
Christmas is jam-packed with traditions of all kinds. Every family has their own special way of celebrating. In mine, it meant getting out the good china, putting on our best bib and tucker, and enjoying a delicious meal that my parents made together complete with a nice bottle of wine. Bing Crosby would croon in the background. The table was decked with a holiday cloth and matching napkins. Red taper candles would flank a centerpiece made of winter greens and red and white flowers. And so, to me, fine dining is synonymous with the holidays.
Celebrations start early in Cape May. In fact, the first Christmas tree (at the Physick Estate) is lit before Turkey Day! You can even have breakfast with Santa in two different locations over Thanksgiving weekend. But the unofficial start to the holiday season isn’t until the first weekend in December and is kicked off with the West Cape May Christmas parade—one of the most eclectic spectacles one could imagine. December is filled with holiday tours, concerts, readings of Christmas stories, and Santa visits. But, where and what should one eat?
By early December, some of our fine dining establishments like 410 Bank Street and Sea Salt have already closed for the season. But believe it or not, most restaurants are still open—at least on the weekends. All of them do a beautiful job decking the halls during the holidays. But if you really want to get into the spirit, check out The Ebbitt Room, Peter Shields, Provence, and Ocean 7. Speaking of decking the halls, you can also fa-la-la at the Ebbitt Room, where there is live piano music nightly. By the way, Peter Shields’ pianist has gone high-tech. He now takes requests via text, so you never have to leave your table. Simply text your request to the number provided. Not only will he serenade you with your favorite song, but he will also send you a text with a couple of songs before he plays yours so you don’t miss it.
For something truly unique, you must experience the seven fishes at Andrea Trattoria. Usually something you can only get at home if you have an Italian grandmother, this traditional dinner is lovingly prepared by Andrea himself every night during the holiday season. But be sure to make a reservation. The feast includes dishes like Fritto Misto, Baccala Salad, Linguini with crab and clams, and Bronzino with a white wine lemon caper sauce. You can also host your holiday party upstairs in their new private dining room.
If you are visiting our fair city, there is no place quite like Congress Hall to celebrate Christmas. It is truly a winter wonderland—which, in fact, is what they call it. There is no end to the sights, sounds, and activities of this Christmas spectacular. It is a delight to just go there and watch the children as they gaze upon larger-than-life toy soldiers, ride the Christmas train, and have breakfast with Santa in the Grand Ballroom. Of course, there are things for adults too. The tree at Congress Hall is like the one at Rockefeller Center—only smaller—and the festivities that precede its lighting bring us back to our fondest Christmas memories and remind us of what the season is all about. Shop for last-minute gifts under the candy cane striped tents of the vendor village or enjoy a holiday cocktail like their Candy Cane Martini or Winter Paloma. Then come inside and warm up by the fire as you dine at the Blue Pig.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, most of our fine dining restaurants are closed. As of this writing, only the Blue Pig, the Ebbitt Room, and Sapore Italiano are planning to be open. It’s a tradition here to give all the people who had to work every holiday and weekend from April to December a well-deserved break and time with their families. So, we will most likely be cooking this year!
Christmas Eve at our house means bouillabaisse. I guess it was my mother’s nod to the idea of seven fishes. Her version was more like a cioppino than authentic bouillabaisse. I still find the idea somewhat amusing: my Irish/English/German mother made a French dish in an Italian style that became a family tradition. As she grew older and I assumed the responsibility for hosting holidays, bouillabaisse (as fancy as it sounds) was the perfect Christmas Eve dinner, especially during those years when I had to work at least part of the day. Perfect, because you can prepare the broth and clean the seafood ahead of time. So, all you need to do is heat it up, add the fish, and serve it with a salad and some crusty bread. Voila!—an instant, elegant holiday meal.
I’m not really sure where her recipe originated. Knowing her, she probably compared a number of versions and concocted her own. Over the years, I have done the same, trying to get a little closer to authentic bouillabaisse, by substituting fennel for celery and reducing the tomato content. Truth be told, I have never come up with anything better than Mom’s!
- 1/3 c. vegetable or olive oil
- 1/2 c. chopped onion
- 3 cloves garlic chopped
- 1/2 c. celery, diced
- 10 oz. canned tomatoes
- 2 c. water
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 oz. Hunts tomato sauce
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 2 tsp. paprika
- 1/2 c. white wine
- Pinch of: basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano
- 2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
- Seafood of your choice: clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, lobster, crab, and a thick white fish like cod.
Sauté the onion and garlic in oil. Add the celery and cook until softened. Add remaining ingredients (except the parsley) and simmer. Remove from heat, cool, and store in the refrigerator overnight. When you are ready, heat up the broth and add the seafood—clams, and mussels first (because they take a while to cook) then the shrimp, scallops, lobster, and crab. If you decide to include a piece of flaky fish, cook it separately in some of the broth so it doesn’t break apart. Sprinkle fresh parsley right before serving.
Another Christmas tradition at our house is eggnog. No, I’m not talking about that abominable, thick, sickeningly sweet, disgusting stuff you buy at the supermarket. If you have never tasted homemade eggnog, you have never had eggnog. It’s so simple to make and so delicious.
Our family recipe is based on one originally published in the 1960s by the people who distill Four Roses Rye. As you might imagine, the original needed to be consumed in moderation, to say the least! Today, we prepare the entire batch with only one ounce of rum and serve it with your choice of elixir.
My personal favorite is brandy, but you can also enjoy it with bourbon, rye, or rum.
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1 c sugar
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 1 pint milk
- 1 pint Four Roses Rye—optional
- 1 oz. white rum
Beat egg whites with ½ cup sugar until stiff but not dry and set aside. Beat yolks with the remaining sugar just until combined. Mix in the cream, milk, rum, and egg whites. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Cheers!
Happy New Year
In preparation for New Year’s Eve, you can brush up on your knowledge of champagne at Oyster Bay. As part of their continuing series of wine events, All Things Bubbly will take place on December 14th at 6pm. This two-hour-long tasting will feature four to five varieties of bubbly and includes delicious light bites and passed appetizers. The sommelier from their sister restaurant, Tresini (in Ambler, PA), and a representative from their champagne distributor will be on hand to talk about the wines, suggest food pairings, and answer questions.
As quiet as things are here on Christmas itself, the city springs back to life just in time for one last hurrah before the year ends. There are more than a dozen options for ringing in the new year (see below). Almost all of them feature a special prix fixe menu designed specifically for the occasion.
- Andrea Trattoria
- Congress Hall
- Ebbitt Room
- Freda’s Cafe
- Grana BYOB
- Grand Hotel
- Lobster House
- Ocean 7
- Peter Shields
- Sapore Italiano
- Union Park
- Washington Inn
Peter Shields plans to augment their regular piano music with a three-piece band that will play until midnight. So, have a snack in the late afternoon and book yourself a table for their last seating so you can tap your foot to the music and enjoy a complimentary champagne toast before the clock strikes twelve.
If you are looking for an old-fashioned, no-holds-barred New Year’s Eve extravaganza, the Glitter Ball will not disappoint. I have personally danced the night away and ushered in many New Year’s at this event. Reservations can be hard to come by because priority is given to hotel guests, and rightly so. But if you want to get all gussied up and party hearty, it is where you want to be. Too bad the ballroom isn’t bigger!
Bon Appetit. See you next year!