Park Place Café and Restaurant

“Hi Paul, not Tom”, was our greeting upon entering the beguiling Park Place Café and Restaurant, a six-table BYOB in sleepy Merchantville, NJ. Since the restaurant only takes reservations by voicemail, they thought I said my name was “Tom” when the restaurant called that afternoon to confirm. We thought it was clever to use that as a greeting when we walked through the door. It was a light-hearted, warm welcome.

We were greeted by Francesca, the restaurant’s relentlessly charming host and co-owner. Our table had four seats and the restaurant was a bit loud, so when it came time to order Francesca actually sat down next to Marnay to go over the specials and to take down our order. It made us feel like we were regulars, even though it was our first time.

The chef and co-owner Phil Manganero, runs the kitchen but also spends his days off foraging for ingredients. The restaurant also has its own garden and gets the rest from mainly local purveyors. Their vision for the restaurant, among a sea of red sauce Italian joints, is to create a “New Jersey Terroir.”

The “Kitchen Sink Salad”, a weekly special, is a good example of what they are trying to do. It’s a mix of just about every fresh and seasonal or foraged fruit and vegetable that was available that week. Our salad had wild purslane, wax beans, blackberries, blueberries, herbs from the garden and a few other things thrown in. This seems like a lot, but it made sense. All of the flavors came together in harmony, and they were tied together with a sublime vinaigrette.

Park Place Cafe Kitchen Sink Salad in Merchantville, NJ

The housemade rigatoni, which Francesca informed us that the chef had finished making just before service, showed great restraint. It’s Jersey tomato season, so the pasta highlighted a light tomato sauce and a bit of parmigiano reggiano on the rim of the plate. The dish was brilliant simplicity – there was nowhere for imperfections to hide. A lesser chef would have drowned the rigatoni in sauce – but the housemade rigatoni was way too good to do that and needed to shine on its own.

Park Place Cafe housemade rigatoni in Merchantville, NJ

We had seen on Instagram that Park Place was popular with wine aficionados and it did not disappoint. Shortly after we arrived, a table of six showed up, each person with three bottles of wine! I didn’t want to stare at them too long, but judging by the color of their white wine (almost brownish yellow) it had some serious age. It was entertaining to watch them pour each glass.

The olive oil poached tile fish, a special, was blitzed with shaved truffles and chanterelles. It was an umami bomb that was also intriguing because of its mix of temperatures – warm fish, cold chanterelles that tasted like they had been soaking (perhaps reconstituting?) in vinegar. Meanwhile, the poach in olive oil kept the white tile fish from overcooking.

Park Place Cafe olive oil poached tile fish and bottle of wine in Merchantville, NJ

The walnut cake for dessert reminded me a fancier version of my grandmother’s walnut rolls. Park Place takes it to a whole other level with a rich cream and extra walnuts placed on the side.

Park Place Café is a dream of a restaurant tucked away in Merchantville, NJ. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that place was real. If you live in the area, we strongly suggest that you check it out.

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Housemade Rigatoni with Jersey tomato sauce

Address
Park Place Café and Restaurant: 7 East Park Avenue, Merchantville, NJ 08109

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Ultimate Jersey Shore Weekend

Saturday

It seems like we travel somewhere at least every weekend during the summer.  It’s either to see family or to a wedding or, occasionally…for fun!  On Saturday morning, we took an Amtrak train to Philadelphia on our way to visit Marnay’s Mom in Margate, NJ.  Margate is on the same barrier island as Atlantic City, just two small towns to the south.

It takes about 2 hours to get to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. We grabbed a bite to eat in the station and then sat outside at The Porch at 30th ( @theporchat30th ) while we waited for our NJ Transit train.  The Porch at 30th is an urban oasis on the formerly barren sidewalk outside the train station.  It is a beautiful example of placemaking.  They transformed the sidewalk by adding swinging porch chairs, public art, things for little kids to climb and some impressive plants.   I would hang out there on my own even if we weren’t waiting for a train.

The Porch at 30th

When we arrived in Atlantic City, we met two college friends and went to Barrels of Margate, your standard Jersey Italian red sauce joint…the kind of place that we grew up with.

Barrels restaurant, Margate, New Jersey

Afterwards, we headed to the Ocean City boardwalk.  We walked almost the entire thing and made sure to get some famous frozen custard from Kohr Brothers.  The ice cream definitely made up for a so-so dinner.  We walked some more but at 11:00pm everything shuts down in Ocean City, so we knew it was time to head home.

Ocean City boardwalk

Sunday

We woke up and walked to get some bagels from Margate Hot Bagels and coffee from Wawa, which are right next to each other on Ventnor Avenue.  Ventnor Avenue is the “Main Street” of Margate, Ventor and Atlantic City.  I got a sesame bagel with nova and Marnay got an everything with an egg.

Margate Hot Bagels and coffee from Wawa

Fueled by our bagels, we took a 3 mile walk on the beach to Longport, the next town south.  I need to mention how incredible the weather was all weekend.  Low 70s with a sea breeze and not too much sun.  We could have stayed outside the entire day in this weather.

We decided to have lunch at Aversa’s, an Italian Deli on Ventnor Ave.  I got an Italian sub which had amazing housemade bread, but otherwise bland ingredients.  The others had meatballs and said that they were not great, either.

After relaxing, we headed for dinner at the Greenhouse, mainly a spot for pizza and drinking.  Greenhouse is next to the most famous attraction in Margate, Lucy the Elephant…a 65 foot tall elephant!  Lucy was built as a tourist attraction in the 1860s and as a way to generate interest in the area.  Today, she is a National Historic Landmark.

Lucy the Elephant

Margate is very narrow and has the ocean on the east and the bay on the west.  We got delicious ice cream from the Margate Dairy Bar and then walked over to the bay side to enjoy it.  We sat on the dock long after we had finished our ice cream and watched an incredible sunset, along with fireworks from the towns on the other side of the bay.  It was well after dark when we headed home to the apartment.

Monday

On Monday morning we headed home.  We made a quick trip to Wawa for some coffee on the way to the Atlantic City train station and then took NJ Transit to Philadelphia.  Once again, we had lunch on the swinging chairs at the Porch at 30th.  Then, we took Amtrak back to Union Station.  Miraculously, there was no track work on the Red Line and we got a metro to Silver Spring immediately.

NJ Transit: Atlantic City train station

The food on our Ultimate Jersey Shore Weekend was only OK.  But the scenery and the walks were certainly made it an ultimate weekend!  There’s no denying, however, that we were happy to be back in Silver Spring.

Places we visited
The Porch at 30th: 2955 Market St, Philadelphia, PA
Barrels of Margate: 8409 Ventnor Ave, Margate City, NJ 08402
Kohr Brothers: Wonderland Pier, Ocean City Boardwalk North End, Ocean City, NJ 08226
Margate Hot Bagels: 9414 Ventnor Ave, Margate City, NJ 08402
Wawa: 9300 Ventnor Ave, Margate City, NJ 08402
Aversa’s Bakery: 9309 Ventnor Ave, Margate City, NJ 08402
Ventura’s Greenhouse Restaurant: 106 S Benson Ave #106, Margate City, NJ
Margate Dairy Bar: 9510 Ventnor Ave, Margate City, NJ 08402