I had been looking forward to visiting the latest addition to the Sea Isle City restaurant scene for some time. However, I wanted to give the restaurant the time to work out the “opening” kinks. With the rental season being over, I figured it was time to head over to La Fontana Coast and to see how it was doing as one of the few true “fine dining” restaurants on the island. I was both delighted and disappointed on many fronts.
My dinner companion and I headed over on Wednesday night. We made our reservation through Open Table and had a chance to look over quite a few reviews on the site before heading out to dinner. Based on the mixed reviews on Open Table and having received the same information first-hand from friends, I was truly curious to see how the experience would end.
We were greeted at the door by a young woman, checked in, and led to our table. She offered us our choice of areas and with it being a quieter evening, we chose to sit by the windows. The restaurant decor is nice, but a little hard. Many of the previous reviewers mentioned how loud the restaurant was during their visits. With there being nothing at all to absorb the noise in the decor, I can understand how some diners would find this a bit annoying over the course of the evening.
Our server, Barbara, immediately greeted us, offered water, and asked us if we would like our bottle of wine opened (the restaurant is a BYOB). She went through all of the specials in detail, but no prices were mentioned. I listened as the other server went through his table presentation, and he followed the same format. I mention this as some of the prices can be a bit steep, and diners should ask before ordering so they do not get sticker shock when the check arrives.
While mulling over the dinner menu, we decided to order the Rapini con Salcica ($10.95). The dish consisted of sautéed broccoli rabe with grilled sausage, finished in light garlic and virgin olive oil. The broccoli rabe was cooked perfectly and tasted excellent. The light amount of the sauce on the dish was very flavorful and more than a few pieces of bread were dipped into it. However, the sausage was not exactly what I was expecting. Instead of a delicious, full flavored piece of Italian sausage, the meat on the plate reminded me more of a breakfast sausage and both my dinner companion and I commented it was reminiscent of the taste of Scrapple. A bit disappointed, we hoped our entree selections would prove more satisfying.
For dinner, I chose the Pasta Special ($31.95), which was fusilli pasta with crab, shrimp, and scallops in a lighter red sauce. My companion ordered the Penne alla Vodka ($18.95). Our dishes arrived with perfect timing and our server offered us both crushed red pepper and cheese for our plates. When the Parmesan arrived, it looked and tasted as though it came directly from a Kraft can of Parmesan. This was quite disappointing, as I fully expected freshly grated Reggiano Parmigiano or Locatelli for the plate.
As for the entrees, my companion’s penne was absolutely delicious. The vodka sauce was perfect and the pancetta held up incredibly well in the dish. Amazingly, the peas also held up well and each bite was pure bliss. My entree was not quite as thrilling. The presentation was excellent, but the actual seafood was a tad lower quality than what I was expecting. The shrimp were large and flavorful, but the scallops were very thin and overcooked. In addition, instead of lump crab, the meat was actually shredded throughout the dish. At $31.95, I was definitely expecting plump and flavorful pieces of lump crab mixed in with the shreds, but there were none to be found.
As our dinner wound down, our server cleared the table and presented dessert menus along with offering coffee service. While looking over the dessert menu, I noticed quite a few of the desserts from my days in the industry. Many of the desserts on the menu are distributed by a food vendor. This is not to say the desserts are not excellent, however, for this style of restaurant and at these prices, I would expect the chef to put his own personal stamp on the final dish of the evening rather than rely on desserts purchased from an outside source.
We ended up ordering the Mango Ripieno (mango sorbet served in a frozen mango shell) and Profiteroles (cream puffs with a brandy infused cream, rolled in chocolate). Upon the suggestion of the server, we also ordered a Tiramisu (this dessert is homemade) to take home and try later. All of the desserts were quite good, but I already knew this, having sampled the products from a vendor years ago. The Tiramisu was exceptional, definitely something to try, especially because it is homemade.
La Fontana Coast is trying to be a white tablecloth, fine dining restaurant, but it still has quite a ways to go before it can justify the prices on the menu. For instance, table maintenance needs improvement. Not once during our meal did the server crumb the table. If you are going to have tablecloths on the tables, it is imperative the customers are not dropping their arms on crumbs during the entire meal. Something else we noticed was that the bread was not fresh. It may have been made on property or purchased from a vendor, but it was not warmed and was breaking apart to the touch in a bad way. It seemed as though it has been sitting out for most of the day.
We also noticed a table behind us that ordered the whole fish. Traditionally, the server would filet the fish on a gueridon or a dressed tray jack stand. This server chose to push some glasses aside on a nearby table and filet the fish there. I was not at all impressed with his skills, as it took him too long to filet and it looked as though it was served in quite a few broken pieces. If my Pasta Special was $31.95, I can only imagine what the price tag was on that dish. I would have been furious had that been put down in front of me. To add insult to injury, the server merely moved the glasses back in place on the nearby table after serving the dish and the table was then again ready for seating.
One final service note is in how the servers handle their wares and reset tables. In this type of environment, servers should use trays for all glasses, hand service for dishes, and have a mise en place for silverware when additional wares are needed at a table, along with resetting tables. On several occasions, I noticed trays being laid down on seats while the busboy cleared and wares were being held in hand while being brought to the tables.
Something else that was a bit surprising was the lack of management presence on the floor. There was a male at the host desk most of the evening, but we never saw him approach a table or walk the dining room to check on guests. The only time he approached our table was to snatch up the check after we put our credit card into the folder. However, while doing this, he never looked at us or bothered to say a word. Upon returning the check, it was merely dropped on the corner of the table, again without a word or inquiry about our dining experience.
It may seem as though I am being a bit harsh on Sea Isle’s latest addition to the island eateries, but at these prices, the restaurant must deliver what it promises. Dinner for two will run about $100 without alcohol, which is pretty significant in this day and age. People need to be wowed in every way and walk out the door fully satisfied, and that was not the case. While I think this restaurant has enormous potential, it still has a long way to go before it can be considered fine dining.
Food – 3.5 stars
Service -4 stars (our server did an exceptional job, but management needs to train the staff in fine dining techniques)
Location: 5000 Landis Avenue, Sea Isle City, NJ, 08243
Phone Number: 609-486-6088
Hours: restaurant is still open nightly and is expected to remain so through October, possibly later. Full time hours during the summer. Call for latest hours.
Payment Methods: Cash and all major credit cards
Delivery/Pick-up Service: No/Yes
Facebook: there is a link on the website, but it leads to Facebook page that is not the restaurants as of this printing.
This restaurant is a BYOB establishment.
Reservations for this restaurant are available through Open Table.