Many people return from vacation with souvenirs for their family tucked in their bags. John Siuta, chef at Martini Beach, comes home full of ideas about foods and flavors he’s savored during his travels and how he might work them into his menu.
John and his wife, Josephine, travel widely to expand their culinary horizons. In the last five years, they have scouted foods in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, France and England. Their wanderlust has put Martini Beach on the map.
“I always have food on my mind,” John says. “I’ll travel 3,000 miles and check out the local supermarket. I’m not looking for beaches when I travel. I’m looking for what people are eating and what we can bring back to Cape May.”
The Siutas spent a month in India last year, half of which John spent working at a restaurant in a small beach town. John returned to his own beach restaurant passionate about Indian cooking and has since introduced several Indian dishes.
A friend and I visited Martini Beach twice this spring, and were delighted by its variety of ethnic dishes. While India’s influence is evident, John is democratic about representing other regions such as Asia and the Mediterranean.
It is Spanish cuisine, however, that infuses Martini Beach with its personality and friendliness. While the restaurant serves full-course meals, it specializes in tapas, small appetizer-sized portions native to Spanish cuisine, which can be eaten as a snack or combined to make a meal. Tapas are fun because they encourage people to share dishes and allow them time to talk between tastings. The format is so popular that Chef John promises more tapas selections are on the way.
We tried five tapas one night we visited. The Turkey Kofta Masala, essentially spaghetti and meatballs Indian-style, was the best. We also liked the Duck Samosa, a pastry with roasted duck, Indian spices and vegetables, served with onion and mint chutneys. The Roasted Beet Salad with greens, gorgonzola, white balsamic, honey, and olive oil, and the Roasted Onion Hummus with marinated red peppers and grilled pita also were very good. The only dish that was mildly disappointing was the Turkish Pizza, a flatbread topped with spiced lamb, roasted garlic, zahtar, pepper and olive oil. The flavor was a little flat.
For a town completely surrounded by water, Cape May, surprisingly, has only a handful of restaurants with full, elevated, panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. Martini Beach’s upstairs porch definitely has one of the best of them. If your sights are set on enjoying it, make sure you book a table on the porch.
Great tapas and vistas aside, a restaurant that calls itself “Martini Beach” had better deliver on its signature drink. Happily, it does so brilliantly. According to longtime bartender Tim Citrino, the bar’s two most popular drinks are the Dark and Stormy, a martini made with ginger liqueur and dark rum, and the Cucumber Basil Gimlet, a martini made with cucumber vodka. Tim jokes that the latter is “like drinking a salad,” but says he sells 50 to 75 of each on busy nights in season. My favorite martini was Tim’s Lemon Drop. It is now my standard for all lemon drinks.
John grew up in a Polish family where his mother made perogi, or dumplings, at home to sell. “She used to steam the wallpaper off the walls,” he remembers.
By the time John was 10, he was making cheese, rolling dough, and growing mushrooms under his family’s front porch. After studying at the French Culinary Institute in New York, John went on to work for noted chef Daniel Boulud as well as The Food Network. In 1997, he moved his family to Cape May, where his parents had had a home. After coordinating the county’s Meals on Wheels program, John was offered a job as daytime chef at Martini Beach. He took over in 2006.
The Siutas are planning their next trip for later this year to Machu Picchu in Peru. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Martini Beach wasn’t serving Ceviche Tapas by this time next year.