Chef Steve Hagan continues to bat a thousand with his first venture, Off the Hook in Bethany Beach. In fact, the place is a little annoying to review, because I can never find much of anything to complain about at either lunch or dinner. After a couple of servings of that warm, yeasty focaccia, it’s hard to complain about anything. I fully expected the same experience at Just Hooked, his Fenwick Island installation opened in May 2011. I thought there would be lots of hits, but was disappointed with a few surprising misses.
It’s been a while, and I definitely owe this location another few visits. Since this article was written, co-owner Steve has opened Hooked in Ocean City in the 81st St. Center where the old La Hacienda used to be. He is also expanding his Bethany presence with a sports-themed bar in the spot where Steakhouse 26, 26, and Sirlae’s used to be (next to the Giant Food in Millville). I hope he has better luck there. It seems that this concept is exactly what that spot needs. We’ll see.
I’ll start on an up note with one of the hits (remember, menus change often, so hope this is still available!): The Sweet Corn and Jalapeño Crab Bisque. Fragrant with sherry and cream, it’s topped with several large, snow white lumps of fresh crabmeat. We’ve ordered it every time we’ve been, and it has yet to disappoint. A surprising miss, however, was the Buttermilk Battered and Fried Calamari. On our first two visits it was undercooked — so much so that the body part of the tentacle pieces (usually a coveted gem of light crispiness) was rubbery and totally impossible to chew. I won’t describe the scene when everybody at the table had to somehow remove the remains from their mouths without clearing the room. The breading, though nicely spiced, was soft and soggy. For starters, they should put the spicy mayo on the side rather than pouring it over the pieces. It ruins the coating, especially if it’s still hot out of the fryer and absorbent. Interestingly we had the same experience with the fried oysters, prepared and presented in pretty much the same manner, except they’re topped with crumbles of gorgonzola cheese. They were cooked OK, but the coating was soggy from the toppings. Sometimes practicality has to trump creativity.
On a more positive note, a definite star on the starters menu is the Wild Mushroom Flatbread with Criminis, Leeks, Pecorino and bits of Micro Celery. I have to admit I was a little suspicious of the combination as it appeared on the printed page, but it was a hit when it appeared in my mouth. Four little triangular slices are studded with the savory mushrooms and the muted onioniness of the leeks. The cheese just makes it better.
On two of our visits, I had the Shrimp and Grits. I’ve never had them with collards before, and the combination works perfectly. The greens were firm and flavorful without overpowering the cheddar taste of the grits. I have to say that on our most recent visit, the shrimp, though nicely spiced, were overcooked and chewy. I suspect this was an isolated incident, as the other time it was just fine. Yes, it’s easy to overcook shrimp, but it’s unforgivable for a restaurant that defines itself with seafood. The kicker on the dish was the braised bacon broth. Call it what you want, it is bacon, and it’s going to be a little greasy. But they drizzle just enough on that you get the bacon flavor without it being slippery. This one was certainly a hit.
The Poached Pear Salad that was on the summer menu was replaced by the seasonal Squash Salad with Walnuts, Spinach, shallots, bacon and a sherry reduction. And I thought the Pear Salad was good. This is wonderful, and is slightly reminiscent of the ubiquitous Thanksgiving afterthought, Waldorf Salad, but with actual taste.
One of the specials on a couple of our visits were the Crab Cakes. The two large cakes were almost pure crabmeat, and what filler there was (you need some, for goodness’ sake) had a wonderful flavor. I would stand them up against both of the leading crab cakes featured so far here on RF. One of the nice little values-added was a mound of Granny Smith Apple Slaw. The tart fruit was evenly julienned and tossed with bits of red onion. Everything was stuck together with a light crème fraîche. A delightful combination. In fact, the apple julienne was so crispy, I mistakenly thought it was jicama (a firm root vegetable often found in salads and slaws). I was forced to hang my head in ignominy as I was one-upped by reformed fresser and Bethany Foodie-at-Arms (whom I will simply refer to as “Born-to-be-Wild Rescue Guy”). He guessed what it was. I thought it was jicama. Shame on me.
Sadly, on our last visit they were out of the Chicken Cacciatore (delicious on our first few visits) so the pullet-lover had to get the Prime Rib special. The Prime Rib was drizzled with a warm and savory horseradish sauce and crowned with a wispy ball of fried onions. The meat was tender, flavorful and perfectly done. Funny they could get those onions lighter than air and they couldn’t do it with the calamari.
I have to compliment the waitstaff on how they handled a small mistake on our most recent visit: The prime rib had been ordered with the horseradish sauce on the side, but it arrived with the sauce on the meat. It happens. You deal with it. But how it is ultimately perceived (and the impression that it leaves) depends on how the staff handles it. Amid a flurry of apologies, the dish left the table at the speed of light. I watched the open kitchen handle it “on the fly,” and it was barely a few minutes until an entirely new piece of meat arrived, hot off the grill with all new toppings — all new sides — and a fresh apology to boot. Being prime rib, I know all they had to do was to sear off a new slice, but the staff handled it perfectly. Not a bad attitude in the place. Nice touch!
The thin filet of Pan Roasted Fluke (aka “summer flounder”) was accompanied by a lemon garlic barley (reminded me of lemony bulgur wheat before I roll it into mehshi warak enab) and an artichoke salad. The plate was deliciously light and lemony. The Pan Roasted Salmon was also a hit on our third visit, basking in a nest of caramelized onion and fingerling (potato) ragout with spinach and cream. Salmon lovers will get this one every time. Another special on our last visit was the Cioppino. As you might expect, each morsel was cooked properly in the light broth.
Given the nature of the place, the menu will certainly change seasonally. There is a big bar in the back with the obligatory TV, but the room is cleverly laid out so that diners are not unnecessarily accosted by whatever happens to be glowing (or scoring touchdowns) on the screen.
Earlier I mentioned the delicious focaccia at sister restaurant Off the Hook In Bethany. The bread served at Just Hooked is somewhat different, sporting tomato, garlic and herb toppings. The bread is drizzled with a particularly fruity and fragrant olive oil. I prefer the slightly sweeter, almost pizza-like bent of the Bethany variety with the red tomatoes, but they are both well prepared and it’s probably just me.
I have written several good reviews for Bethany’s Off the Hook, including a feature article in Coastal Style Magazine singing the praises of Steve Hagan and Chef Matt Cornelius’ cooking at that location. So it was difficult for me to write this less-than-glowing evaluation of their Fenwick installation. But I calls ’em as I sees ’em. If I didn’t you probably wouldn’t be reading this now.
Just Hooked is at 1500 Coastal Highway in a tiny strip center on the west side of the Highway in Fenwick Island. The space was formerly occupied (for what seems like 100 years) by The Quail restaurant. Just Hooked co-owner Kevin Frye has done a great job exorcising the dated demons of The Quail, and the new physical plant is open and inviting. There is no online menu (at least not yet), so you’re on your own. But the menu is not at all unwieldy or overly long. There’s something for everyone, carnivores and fish lovers alike. Check their hours (especially off-season) by calling (302) 581-0098. (D., Bar), Price range: Moderate +.