Off the Hook has been open for a while now. I wrote my first review just weeks after they opened, so it seemed fair to go back and check it out after they have had time to settle in. I remember the first time I walked in there last summer and saw Steve Hagan in the open kitchen. My expectations went up immediately, and I have yet to bedisappointed.
Off the Hook may be relatively new, but Chef Hagen is not. He spent 4 years as executive chef at Big Fish Grill in Rehoboth, and (among other things) 2 years at Catch 54 in Fenwick Island. But, y'know, "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes," so Steve partnered-up with local entrepreneur Kevin Frey, rented a storefront on Rt. 26 about a mile from the beach, and fired up the ovens. I have some nice things to say, and one gripe later on, so here goes:
First impressions count, and I place a lot of stock in the creativity and freshness of bread that's brought to the table. And there it was: Impossibly moist focaccia, freshly baked with roasted tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, and drizzled with olive oil. Before anyone accuses me of "liking everything" (I don't), go in there and have some of that focaccia. If you don't agree, post a comment below and yell at me. I can take it.
The parade of appetizers began with Baked Oysters on the Half. Four plumpies were cuddled up with crumbled bacon, and ... here it comes ....... crushed Ritz Crackers sprinkled with cheddar-laced horseradish. A simple preparation that worked quite well. The Roasted Corn & Jalapeno Crab Bisque was creamy, with soft overtones of sherry--but I couldn't taste the jalapenos! I know that many restaurants worry about the "wimp factor"; cutting back on spice for fear of offending delicate palates. (Yes, I mean that sarcastically.) But why should we all suffer? Maybe serve (on request and on the side) a few chopped jalapeno for sprinkling--seeds and all. Just a thought.
The Calamari is crunchy and not oily; exactly what you would expect from a good seafood place. A dash of Old Bay adds a nice touch, along with two sauces for dipping. One of the stars of the appetizer show was the Grilled Tuna Quesadilla. One of my newly appointed Foodies-in-Waiting (a commercial fisherman) loved the dish, especially the pico de gallo-style treatment of the vegetables. It took two servers and a bussboy to pry the plate from his trembling hands. The Wedge of Romaine follows in the footsteps of other local wedges: A stalk of Romaine (minus the big top leaves) is sliced lengthwise, and the customary toppings are ladled onto the cut side. Off the Hook adds crispy red onions.
Another special was Seared Tuna, perfectly cooked with a beet-red center. But the kicker was the bright green soybean puree upon which it rested. It looked a little like guacamole, but one taste revealed a mild mixture of soybeans with a pinch of ginger, pepper flakes and cream surrounded by a lake of an ever-so-slightly-sweet orange/soy nage (a la nage = the vegetable sauce/bouillon in which the fish is poached is also served on the plate). I had the Blackened Mahi Mahi. The Chef's seafood comfort-zone was evident, and yet again, the associated veggies were a hit. An al dente soy bean/corn succotash was served in a spicy (no "wimp factor" here!) tomato/beer broth along with cheddar grits drizzled with herbed oil. Please keep this between you and me: I used the rest of that warm focaccia to sop up all remaining evidence of that broth. It will be interesting to see if they let me back in there.
Another special was Fish 'n' Chips. Chunky pieces of white, flaky fish (most probably cod) were crisped-up in a particularly interesting flour mixture. "Interesting," because it's almost identical to the seasoned coating The RehobothFoodie uses for his famous fried chicken! (Where's my attorney when I need him?!) It was crisp, not too thick, and redolent with pepper, salt, and (I suspect) paprika. It was accompanied by "chips" (OK, fries) and a bright, crunchy cole slaw. The Crab-Stuffed Fluke entree was attractively presented with the crab mixture in a polite mound on top of the fish. Roasted fingerlings sparkling with a lemon vinaigrette supported the structure.
I do have one gripe. Pretty much every entree sports a little garni of Snow Pea Shoots. They do look pretty, but they're stringy and not very palatable. As they migrate out onto the plate, it becomes a challenge to get a forkfull of food up to your mouth without the little thingys hanging off and dripping sauce. I found myself repeatedly herding them to the side of the plate. A good idea on paper, but not in practice. Steve...maybe some parsley? I know it's boring, but it's easier to swallow--quite literally.
I usually don't talk about desserts unless they are (1) homemade, and, (2) exceptional. The desserts at Off the Hook fall into both these categories. On our last visit we split the Orange and Coconut Bread Pudding, drizzled with a custardy sabayon and topped with vanilla ice cream. Another of my recently crowned Foodettes had the Blueberry Buckle. This is another RehobothFoodie home-cooked specialty, but I'm not telling you if theirs is better than mine. But order it. 'Nuff said.
Off the Hook is at 769 Garfield Parkway (Rt. 26) in Bethany Beach, less than a half-mile west of the totem pole and across from the WaWa. I'm not sure what their off-season hours will be, so give them a call at (302) 829-1424. The place is small, and even though they don't take reservations, I'll bet they would appreciate a call if you're bringing more than 6 people in there. Click here to see the menu. (L., D.) Price range: Moderate +.