Just for Starters
Appetizers are my favorite part of a meal. I think it’s because I often find them to be better than the main event. Chefs seem to put some of their most creative ideas on small plates. Maybe that’s because the combination of flavors is often so complicated, we wouldn’t really enjoy a full portion of the dish. Ordering an appetizer gives you an opportunity to try new things and see what a chef is all about without making a big investment, in terms of money and risk. Occasionally, I find myself so intrigued by these mouth-watering imaginative delights that I order one as a first course and two more in lieu of an entrée. Apparently, I am not alone in this thinking. People love them so much that there are restaurants devoted entirely to tapas!
Before we begin, I would like to express my disappointment and offer my apologies to the wonderful restaurants who have found it necessary to charge for bread and include it as an appetizer on their menus. In my humble opinion, bread is not an appetizer – with one exception. Provence sometimes includes a bread course as part of its prix fixe menu (which changes monthly). If you are lucky enough to visit when they are serving it, you will not be disappointed no matter how it is prepared that evening.
As you might expect, Cape May’s restaurants are brimming with appetizers from the sea—everything from shrimp cocktail and crab cakes to calamari and clams oreganata. But true to form, the culinary mecca that is Cape May has many surprises in store for you, too.
If you love oysters, this is the place. Our own Cape May Salts are plump and succulent. Enjoy them on the half shell or as Oysters Rockefeller at the Blue Pig, the Lobster House, Oyster Bay (of course), and the Washington Inn. If you love raw tuna, head over to Yozu and sample their excellent sushi or try the tartare at Grana BYOB (with cucumber and mango), Union Park (with seaweed salad and pineapple relish), or the Washington Inn (tuna and salmon with cucumber, apple, and avocado mousse). Ceviche can be found at both Peter Shields (salmon) and Union Park (bay scallops). Every one of these delectable creations is worth the trip and the investment.
Speaking of travel, take a gastronomic journey into the past and try the smoked fish spreads offered at A Ca Mia (trout, salmon, and mackerel) and at Mayer’s Tavern (bluefish). They are the perfect accompaniment to a glass of white wine or your favorite martini. Although widely popular back in the day, escargot has become a bit of a rarity on today’s menus. It’s no surprise it can still be found at the Lobster House but can also be enjoyed at the Washington Inn.
Deviled eggs are probably the most ubiquitous of all appetizers. But there is nothing ordinary about the deviled eggs at the Ebbitt Room. They take the humble egg to a whole new level, topping them with everything from filet mignon to caviar. Speaking of filet, Primal has a fabulous version of steak tartare served with citrus teriyaki and wasabi cream.
You’ll think you’re in New Orleans when you dive into the shrimp and crawfish beignets with Cajun dipping sauce at 410 Bank Street. And, speaking of Southern cuisine, the Magnolia Room prepares homemade ham croquettes every day. Or transport yourself to Italy and indulge in the mouth watering Tagliolini Neri con Gamberi (homemade black linguine with shrimp, hot sausage, and diced tomato) at the new Andrea Trattoria. If you are feeling truly adventurous, grilled octopus is offered at five Cape May favorites: Grana, Panico’s, the Pier House, Union Park, and the Washington Inn.
For the vegetarians: Step aside Brussels sprouts—cauliflower has come into its own as an appetizer. Exit Zero prepares it four different ways, Fins tops it with everything bagel seasoning and ginger lime aioli, and the Pier House serves a Thai chili version with sesame and scallions.
Lastly, foie gras, the very definition of decadent appetizers and therefore usually reserved for special occasions, is a treat not to be missed in Cape May. Peter Shields, Union Park, and Grana present three of the best creations I have ever tasted. The first is served with Grand Marnier cinnamon swirl French toast, almond granola, apricot marmalade, and cherry purée; the second with almond apple cake, preserves, and a maple bourbon glaze; and the third with warm barley salad, golden raisins, pine nut streusel, and cherry compote. Each one juxtaposes the silky richness of the liver with the crunchiness of nuts and balances salt with the sweetness of fruit. It will make your palate dance with delight.
Tricky Little Morsels
Pretty much anything can be served as an appetizer or an hors d’oeuvres. But hors d’oeuvres are not simply miniature entrees. They should be able to be easily consumed in one or two bites without the aid of utensils. Think about the last time you were at a cocktail party, balancing a drink and an hors d’oeuvre plate while being offered another hors d’oeuvre and a napkin from a server. It takes talent—and practice. Ladies have the additional challenge of keeping their purses from falling off their shoulders which can cause the whole balancing act to come crashing down!
When planning a party of your own, be careful how many you decide to include on your menu. It can be intensely time consuming to prepare bite-size versions of your favorite recipes. Do the math. If you are hosting a gathering of, say, 40 people, each one to consume 12 to 15 pieces (which is how many you need when they are to be eaten in place of an entrée) it equates to a whopping total of 600 tiny little morsels! Preparing that many is an almost impossible task unless you have help, especially right before the party begins. Plan your menu carefully and limit yourself to only a few time-consuming recipes. Round out the selection with items that are prepared en masse, like dips and crudités or other things your guests can self-serve like bruschetta.
Need some new ideas? Of course, the internet is an endless well of recipes but when I am looking for hors d’oeuvre inspiration my go-to is a book written by Eric Treuille and Victoria Blashford-Snell. First published in 1999, it is simply entitled, Hors D’oeuvres. It is a step-by-step primer on the subject including techniques, strategies, dozens of helpful hints, and excellent photography. The original hardcover is rare, but a new paperback version is widely available.
Of all the hors d’oeuvres and appetizers I have ever prepared, by far the most requested is baked brie with praline sauce. Immensely popular since the 1980s, brie en croute is easy to prepare and most people love it, but not all. Some people find the rind to be offensive. So, trim off the top and sides before wrapping it in puff pastry. Seal the edges carefully and bake at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes. Be sure to let it rest for five to ten minutes after you remove it from the oven, so it won’t be quite so runny when you cut into it. The praline sauce is the secret. Combine dark brown sugar and butter with some heavy cream. Heat until bubbly and add some chopped toasted pecans. Pour over the cheese and it’s as simple as that. Freda’s Café serves up a yummy version, complete with a raspberry dipping sauce.