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Having a working fishing fleet in Barnegat Light is so important to our restaurants. But the one product that comes from the sea through our docks that’s always entirely local is scallops.
With all of our other products, we buy local whenever it’s available. It assures freshness and tends to be high quality products. But scallops are a local offering 100 percent of the time. And late/winter and spring is prime time for these delicious nuggets.
This mollusk lives on the sea floor, but unlike clams which tend to dig in, or oysters that attach to each other to form reefs, scallops move at their own free will, by clapping their shell together with a strong abductor muscle. The shooting water propels them backwards across the sea floor.
Our Atlantic Sea Scallop Fisheryis one of the most important in the world. It reaches from the Mid-Atlantic up to the Canadian Maritime. Barnegat Light and Viking Village, are home to one of three major scalloping ports in New Jersey, along with Cape May and Point Pleasant. The largest landing port for scallops in the US, is New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Viking Villageis home to about 26 scallop boats, all of which are dredge boats. The Larson family own 12 of them. They drag a dredge along the ocean floor, picking up a mix of what’s down there. The dredge is dumped onto the deck of the boat and the crew shucks them onboard. Shells are tossed back into the sea, where other fish eat the membrane and other innards.
That abductor muscle is the part that we eat. These are separated into three different sizes and stored an insulated hold. Bigger boats carry as many as 20 tons of ice. Scallop trips are usually one week to 10 days. The boats are kept impeccably clean because, the scallops are now a food product. A good trip can produce 18,000 pounds of scallop meat.
Generally, the boats are after larger scallops, which are just as tender and tasty as smaller ones, and tend toward colder water. Juvenile scallops are the ones that reproduce, so by targeting larger scallops, scalloping is overall very sustainable. Juvenile scallops actually sift right out of the dredge. In 2013, the Marine Stewardship Councildeclared the Atlantic Sea Scallop and the approximately 350 licensed boats, as a certified sustainable fishery. Scalloping supports many local families.
Kirk Larson, a captain and manager of several boats at Viking Village, is a fifth generation scalloper. He explains that the fishery is unique in that they govern their own industry with NOAA Fisheries. They have a system where authorities can track them, to make sure they’re not in off-limit waters. Fish and game officers will arrive for a “pack out” (unloading the boat) to ensure they are within legal limits.
“We’re one of the only industries that regulates itself,” says Larson, “We do our own science and research and fund it ourselves. We have Research Set Aside (RSA) trips that we do, where all the profits of those scallops pay for scientists who accompany us on certain trips.”
He explains that they will close off certain areas to let scallop populations mature, not unlike a farmer rotating his fields. They are also allowed a certain amount of incidental bycatch, which are mostly flatfish.
“We keep what we want. We don’t want juvenile scallops, so they go overboard to grow and continue reproducing,” Larson explains, “We have ‘timed trips’ where we’re on the clock as soon as we leave the inlet and off when we get back. We can keep as much as we can hold. We get about 30 days a year to fish that way, so we make the most if it. Then there are trips where we can keep a certain number of pounds.”
When the boat arrives at the dock, the bags of meat are hauled from the hold and packed for shipping. Barnegat Light scallops are sold around the world, but we always secure our share for the menu at all of our locations as well as the fish markets here and Ship Bottom Shellfish.
Scallops have a mildly sweet flavor and a soft, fleshy texture that folks love. They’re high in protein (16-23 grams pers serving) and low in fat.
Broiled oysters, or hand-breaded and fried have been staples in our restaurants for years as their own dish or as the broiled/fried combo. And we feel scallops are what really makes our creamy seafood bisque at Mud City Crab Houseand Ship Bottom Shellfish. They are the perfect complement in Mud City’s Shrimp and Scallop Linguini or the Santa Cruz at the Black Whale. Shellfish fans are particular to the Blackened Scallops with Thai Mayo app. The Scallops and Bacon (pork belly) are quickly becoming a favorite at Parker’s Garage.
But most importantly, they’re the one source of local harvest we can always count on.
Seafood is our thing. especially crabs. We’ve built our eateries on the long local tradition of food that comes from out ocean and local bays.
But since day one, we have always offered quality meat. When we opened the Old Causeway next door, we knew we wanted to offer something more. And a steakhouse was a logical direction.
All of our steaks are cooked on a wood-fired grill, burning 100 percent New Jersey oak from our wood pile out back. The grill was custom built for our the kitchen at the OC. Everyone who comes to our part of the marsh loves the smell.
Of course, it’s a lot of work to maintain the flame, but we strongly believe that the flavor of the natural wood is worth the effort, indicative of our overall philosophy of going the extra yard to separate ourselves.
Part of the success we’ve enjoyed has to do with our relationship with J Vrola, our meat purveyor out of Central Jersey.
Their story started with Constatine Vrola, who came to the US from Naples. He opened a small market called C Vrola and Sons in Jersey City, offering the freshest meats and poultry for customers. It was a family business and they survived tough times during World War II, coming out stronger on the other end.
Slowly the business morphed into larger orders to other butchers and nearby restaurants. Joseph Vrola took the reigns and reached out beyond North Jersey. In the 80s, they moved headquarters to South Amboy becoming “center of the plate specialists.”
“What we sell to Old Causeway and its sister restaurants is all black angus beef from small farms in the midwest. They’re cooperative farms. And all the steaks are hand cut at our cut shop the same day they’re delivered,” says Doug Tucker, the sales rep that we deal directly with.
All steaks are premium grass-fed and grain finish with no hormones or antibiotics. At Mud City, we have our Fliet Mignon, NY Strip, Rib Eye, and Porterhouse. Then we give you your choice of OC Steak Sauce, Red Wine Demi Glace, Chimichurri, Herb Compound Butter, Caramelized Onion & Balsamic Glaze, Black Truffle Butter, Fresh or Horesradish Cream Sauce.
We’re also pretty proud of our Signature Steaks like the OC Carpetbagger, which is a bacon-wrapped 8 oz filet mignon topped with Mushroom Madiera wine, and fresh oysters. Then there’s the Flatiron and the Black Eye, a 14 oz. rubbed down ribeye blackened and smothered in our jumbo crab and gorgonzola cream sauce with roasted sunrise peppers. And we’re also pretty proud of “Rosemary’s Strip,” a rosemary & garlic marinated 12 oz. NY strip atop sourdough crustini and bathed in our toasted mushroom cabernet sauce.
And Chef Jim Moran certainly isn’t afraid to get creative in the kitchen with steak specials.
We’ve always offered the land lovers quality steaks from Ray’s Currituck Porterhouse at the Black Whale Bar and Fish House to Mud City’s Filet Mignon and the Prime Strip and Prime Flat Iron we serve at Parker’s Garage and Oyster Saloon.
“It all starts with the roots of our business. We’re family owned and family run, just like the Magaziner and Nugents’ restaurants,” explains Vrola Sales Manager, Walter Myslinski, “We only want to put our name on the very best steaks. We want to support another family business, restaurants that provide that same kind of quality and won’t settle for anything less. It’s ideal when we have a relationship with the owners of the restaurant. It’s like their baby. We like being in direct contact with the people who own the place. We have similar philosophies.”
While Mud City doesn’t open for another few months, we are plenty busy next door at the Old Causeway Steak & Oyster House. The staff there is working with our same purveyors to get fresh seafood even through the worst of this Arctic winter. The temperatures haven’t just been cold; they’ve been brutal. The Barnegat Bay has been frozen for weeks.
“Life gets real difficult around here in this type of weather,” says Dale Parsons, fifth generation commercial bayman of Parson’s Seafood, right across the bay in Tuckerton. He’s not kidding. Life is always challenging for our fishermen and shellfish harvesters, but winter can be really tough and a winter like this is nothing short of brutal.
On a recent Saturday, Long Beach Island was literally two degrees, still feeling a whipping northwest wind.
“We literally have to get in a boat and go break up the ice,” says Ernie Panacek, who has been working at Barnegat Light’s Viking Village since 1980 and managing the operation for the last 29 years, “They want to go fish. When we’re shut down for weather, we’re going backwards. You don’t ever catch what you lost when you’re in for weather. We take advantage of the short periods of time that the boats can fish.”
While most folks were seeking refuge of a warm fire, Kevin Wark, captain and owner of the Dana Christine, of Barnegat Light, was doing his best to clear the snow and ice off his boat following the blizzard. It was time to fish again.
“We’re monkfishing and we catch some winter skates. Sometimes you just have to deal with that screaming wind,” says Wark, “Those first couple waves where you get splashed are the worst. Once you get numb, then you just kind of keep going. Sometimes the whole windshield ices over.”
In icy weather like this, captains will run a deck hose all day, flushing fresh seawater across the deck to prevent dangerous ice from forming where they’re working.
“It’s mostly day trips. Sometimes we have to leave extremely early. Whenever we get that window, we gotta go,” he explains.
Down in Tuckerton, Parsons, who sells shellfish 52 weeks of the year, wholesale and retail, was warming up after a frozen day on the water. Winter Storm Grayson was on the way and he’d just been out harvesting what he could from Tuckerton Cove.
“We took a ride out to the areas just outside of where our leases are. We probably could have chipped out a channel, but sometimes when the tide changes, it’s tricky. And you can’t get stuck in there,” explains Parsons.
When the ice prevents him from getting to his lease, Parson is able to harvest wild clams to provide for his customers.
“When it gets this cold the clams stop moving around. As the bay surface freezes, it makes the water underneath move at a higher velocity, which washes the sand from on top of the clams. When those clams become exposed, we call them ‘cut outs.’ We get out of the boat and pick them up.”
When his farmed clams are inaccessible, his customers are very happy to buy wild product.
“We get everything wild from little necks to the biggest coconut chowder clams you can imagine. There’s a market for every size of clam.”
As he points out, everything is subject to the weather.
“We have some pretty fancy wetsuits that we buy from Brian over at Farias,” he explained.
“The ice out there is constantly moving. You might chip through it, but with the tide reversal, you might not get back. When we have gusts out of the northeast and northwest, that’s actually not bad for us. We get a soup of ice, rather than a sheet of ice.”
The crew at Barnegat Oyster Collective has been dealing with it as well.
“Although we had spent a lot time planning and preparing our farms for a drastic winter, none of us were mentally prepared for such arctic conditions. Once the freeze had really set in, all of our farm sites, from Little Egg to Mantoloking and even Barnegat Light were completely inaccessible,” says owner Matt Greg.
The only way they could check on the oysters was aerial shots from over the bay.
“We were forced to watch the ice encroach on our livelihood via drone footage. As the thaw set in, we began to pick up the pieces – shoveling out boats, clearing boat ramps, cutting channels through the frozen harbors, and finally, breaking over 20 acres of iced-in farming gear with axes,” he adds.
The sites that are adjacent to more freshwater have been more frozen than those in the saltier parts of the bay.
“Although we haven’t been able to access all our sites yet, the damage thus far has been minimal and we only suffered a few weeks of no harvest/sales. We learned a few lessons,” admits Gregg.
Clams and oysters are always a staple from the raw bar to chowder. We do monkfish specials at several of our restaurants. Monkfish generally hide on the bottom, disguising themselves from prey, swallowing it whole. They’re able to extend their stomachs to ingest fish almost as big as they are. And they’re really cute….
Wark describes monkfish is a dense white fish.
“It’s good skewered. It’s incredible to grill. It’s definitely different. I don’t think anything really compares to it because of the grain and density of the fish. That’s why people call it poor man’s lobster. Most of the it gets packaged, boxed and sent to Asia, but we do have a tail market that’s local.”
Fishing and harvesting don’t slow down, because they can’t – even in the most bitter weather.