1500 Coastal Hwy., Fenwick Island, 581-0098
Braised short ribs, crab bisque, chocolate truffle terrine
Starters: $7-$11, entrées: $18-$24
Steve Hagen opened the doors to Off the Hook, his minimalist masterpiece, in June 2010. Blocked into a Bethany Beach strip mall, the restaurant stood out due to its straightforward, almost stark, approach to coastal cuisine. His uber-fresh seafood seemed to soothe and excite diners like an unplugged acoustic concert—stripped down, unembellished and honest.
Hagen’s open kitchen plated humble yet meaty fish like tautog, fluke and blues with few embellishments. His dining room, save for a few 8-by-10 prints, was mostly bare and white. What Hagen wasn’t doing with his new restaurant became more intriguing. He and his crew knew that it took gentle flavors—a squirt of lemon, a handful of grape tomatoes—to supplement stellar local product.
The idea clicked. Off the Hook knocked Bethany locals on their backfins.
Now, meet the sequel.
Just Hooked, which opened in May, isn’t quite “The Godfather: Part II,” at least not yet. But like all solid sequels, it exudes equal parts enjoyment and familiarity. Most all of my favorite characters are back, but the recycled lines didn’t quite deliver the same impact.
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Tucked into Fenwick’s Sunshine Shopping Center at the spot where the legendary Quail slung half-price burgers on Sundays, Just Hooked is roomier than Off the Hook, with a deck to boot. A few nature prints in the Kevin Fleming tradition line the walls alongside Hagen’s beloved blackboards. There’s a bar built into a large central island, and a custom-built wine closet off to one corner.
The decor, from the prints to the pelican doorstops, is a respectful nod to seashore life, and a show of reverence to the watermen who work the local inlets. One such person is local legend and fisherman Chet Townsend and his family, who supplies product.
Great seafood is once again the headliner here. Floating from the entrance drifts the unmistakable aroma of fish searing on a hot cooktop and on its way to becoming beach-ified comfort food. And if you’ve dined at both Hagen establishments, this feels like a frying pan full of déjà vu.
Chef Nick Brown doesn’t stray far from the template, and his menu does feature a few Off the Hook carryovers. But even the new dishes share in Off the Hook’s culinary aesthetic.
Forget pork shoulder: I’m bringing Brown’s baked bluefish to my next barbecue. The fish, roasted in a hot oven, yielded some of the juiciest, most fall-apart tender flesh I’ve ever encountered. Clever plating flourished when the accompanying grape tomatoes, dressed in an herb gremolata, broke down under the fish’s heat and mixed with runoff fish juice to create a zingy sauce that blanketed tortellini pasta.
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But lo-fi food carries certain risks, and when flavors become too subtle, they can practically disappear. A chilled bundle of crab Louie, paired with fresh-tasting but innocuous cucumbers and arugula, offered faint citrus notes, but little else in the way of secondary flavor. A house-made Thousand Island left but a faint impression. Meaty P.E.I. mussels (including the single largest mussel I have ever seen) flexed considerable depth of flavor, but didn’t jibe with a mostly tepid pool of lemongrass, ginger, bok choy and lemon juice. Worse still, the coveted dipping bread was burnt solid.
Crab bisque staged a much more successful marriage of flavors, by way of its deft interplay of corn and jalapeno, the latter of which lurks in the background and delivers a spicy shove when you least expect it. Together the ingredients synthesized a smoky-sweet blanket that wrapped around substantial threads of crabmeat.
The kitchen knows it can never misfire on such killer combinations, and sometimes skates a thin line between reliable and formulaic.
Consider blackened mahi mahi: rubbed gently in tangy spices and served on grilled corn and scallions, smoky bacon and cheddar grits. It was, essentially, the same dish as the seared scallops, served with grilled corn, scallions, crispy chorizo and cheddar grits. They’re equally delicious—but hadn’t I seen this movie before?
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In cases like these, too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but some added variety in the menu could go a long way. Perhaps tellingly, it was the few non-fish items that left the most lasting impressions. Like the succulent braised beef short ribs, which glided over homemade parpadelle pasta in a rich and homey stew that succeeded at the neat trick of being creamy without any cream. Sturdy and robust beef flavor stood tall against the dry, tannic hint of red wine, while garlic confit and shaved Parmesan applied the punctuation note.
Hooked’s flatbread was another marvel. A gently sweet sauce, made from peak-season summer tomatoes, easily outpaced that of most pizzerias. Slices, topped with pancetta, goat cheese, garlic and melty leeks vanished in a messy huff. I considered ordering a jumbo pie to-go.
One night, I actually did take home a box of key lime pie, because I remembered how amazingly dense and luscious it was at Off the Hook. Desserts are another consistent strength of the Hooked family, and the restaurants share most of the selections, like dark “truffle” terrine, a buxom block of chocolate sprinkled in sea salt.
With food this good, and this easy to perfect, fans have no choice but to clamor for another sequel. Might I suggest “Hooked 3: Return of the Flatbread”?