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Dining Review: Off the Hook: A New Restaurant by Steve Hagen in Bethany Beach:

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The basil-encrusted tuna is served with cherry tomatoes, leeks, spinach, wild mushrooms and a sweet herb pesto. Photograph by Jared CastaldiAt a Glance

off the hook
769 Garfield Pkwy., Bethany Beach
829-1424, offthehookrestaurantbb.com

Recommended Dishes:

Buttermilk battered oysters, shrimp and grits, fish tacos, French toast bread pudding.

Prices:

Appetizers $6-$10
Entrées $18-$24

 

According to its town history, Bethany Beach was founded by Christian missionaries as a haven of rest for “quiet people”—and to a lot of folks, it’s still thought of as the coastal town for those seeking a quieter, more family-friendly option. Not at all like those rowdy carousers in Dewey, or the sugar-fueled and thoroughly loud Rehoboth Beach crowd.

So imagine my confusion at the army of diners that blitzed the bar, elbows down, for P.E.I. mussels and vodka tonics at Bethany’s newest place on a recent Friday night. It seemed they had very little in common with their restful forebears.

Off the Hook has caused much hubbub in Bethany. An hour wait greeted me one weekend night during the off-season, along with everyone else imprudent enough not to reserve a table.

Part of a small retail strip on inland-jutting Garfield Parkway, Hook is the creation of Steve Hagen. A veteran beach chef who grew up on a family farm in Laurel, Hagen seems in-tune acutely with the pulse of this area. In short time, his humble restaurant has incited some big-time response and busy services.

The smallish storefront provides a clean, modest decor—white walls are dotted with blue, swishy artwork. Painted in white letters on the blue awning outside is Fresh. Honest. Local.

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Executive chef Matt Cornelius prepares a dish. Photograph by Jared CastaldiHagen also could tack on Delicious. Simple. Traditional. But that probably wouldn’t leave much room on the sign. The motto is every bit true. And after three visits it crossed my mind that perhaps Hagen’s created an ideal beach restaurant: The menu is a modest cross-breed of traditional fish house and modern upscale-casual. The ingredients are exceedingly fresh, and usually prepared without too much elaboration.

It’s just the sort of place Sussex Countians seem to be craving. The game plan works, and is employed similarly at Rehoboth’s Salt Air and Henlopen City Oyster House. It goes like this: local seafood and produce, uncomplicated dishes, vibrant flavors, affordable checks. Two three-course meals at Off the Hook cost me less than a tank of gas.

And you can’t get middleneck clams this plump and sweet and the size of golf balls at any fill-up station. The mammoth bivalves bobbed in a simple tomato broth spiked with caramelized fennel and chorizo, a smooth mix of flavors that helps squeeze every molecule of flavor from a quality ingredient.

See also Off the Hook’s fried oysters, where a fat, briny oyster hides beneath a crispy, super-light crust and is accentuated with blue cheese crumbles and a swoosh of spicy mayo.

Even on the occasions when the kitchen invited a few embellishments to a plate, the combinations remained spot on. In an outstanding bowl of warm butternut bisque, shredded lump blue crab swirled in and accentuated the pronounced sweetness of roasted squash. A splash of added citrus butter needed dimension. The same balancing act played across blackened mahi filets, which nestled inside warm flour tortillas in OTH’s popular fish tacos beneath housemade pico de gallo and vinegary pickled onions.

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The grilled mahi mahi is served atop fingerlings, capers, grilled romaine and garlic confit. Photograph by Jared CastaldiHagen, who bopped around to tables checking in and laying charm on customers (he was also busy readying Off the Hook’s second location), left cooking duties to Matt Cornelius and Nick Brown, young, affable cooks who offered good face time with customers.

Their lone blemish, if you could call it that, was a plain Jane filet of mahi, which slumped atop fingerling potatoes and a limp tomato sauce. Though I was treated to a beautiful and unfettered cut of fish, the composition lacked the panache of others. I much preferred the grilled shrimp and smoked cheese grits, a comparative party on a plate exploding with deep flavors that enhanced warm, grill-marked shrimp.

Sautéed crimini mushrooms marched and melted into gooey Pecorino cheese atop crisp flatbread, while tender braised leeks worked their subtle magic filling the gaps. Such an outstanding topping—I just wanted more of it.

Portion size was not an issue with OTH cioppino, which burst with the bounty of Indian River—more golf-ball clams, velvety mussels, fin fish, scallops, shrimp (and probably more critters I’m forgetting). Nor was it an issue with perfectly cooked seared scallops—another bargain at $15—which roosted atop creamy pearl couscous.

The dessert menu, meanwhile, gave rise to some down-home heaven, first with a rich, creamy Key lime pie that would make customers at Jimmy’s Grille buckle, then a dark chocolate terrine, sprinkled with toasted hazelnut and sided by coffee ice cream. Though my favorite had to be Hagen’s French toast bread pudding, a dessert that induced Pavlovian drool at the mere mention of its otherworldly topping: whipped maple- and applewood-bacon butter.

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Business has been brisk at Bethany’s newest dining spot. Photograph by Jared CastaldiOf the three descriptors, Honest was perhaps the most impressive. Hagen ensures a transparent operation. A straight-shot view into the kitchen is there from any of the 50 dining room seats, plus five or so more at the tiled, blue bar. Sidle up and witness every cut of fish get sprinkled with salt. Every pat of butter. Every wipe of the side towel. Everything the kitchen staff says and does is on display.

“People’s knowledge of food in the last few years—I don’t know what it is—but it has changed,” Hagen says. “They’re more conscious of what they put into their bodies, so you have to give them flavors they like, you gotta’ be true, you gotta’ be honest. And it seems the more local, the better.”

In our case, the bread pudding had already disappeared in a rampage, and thoughts of local tautog and sustainable agriculture drifted back to some melted maple-bacon butter stuck to the corner of my lips. Then I thought it might be a good time for some rest back among the quiet people.

 

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