FOURTEEN STEPS TO FLAVOR

Walk up 14 steps from street level and you’ll find Bistro 14 (bistro14lbi.com), a restaurant offering an extensive oyster and raw bar along with a classic mix of shore food and French cuisine. (No coincidence, the 14 steps were the inspiration for this Beach Haven eatery’s name.)

From the west-side windows, patrons—who rave about the gorgeous sunsets—look out over the porch to Barnegat Bay, where some of Bistro 14’s products originate just blocks away. As chef-owner Rich Vaughan puts it, “Pete McCarthy, our clam farmer, you can see his beds from the deck.” Matt Gregg of Forty North Oyster Farm (fortynorthoysters.com), one of Bistro’s suppliers, adds a similar perspective: “The oysters are coming from waters that are literally visible from the restaurant, delivered personally by the grower.”

These statements sum up what makes this place special: fresh ingredients and a focus on relationships.

HIS- & HER-STORY

And at the heart of the restaurant’s story is a relationship and partnership—a marriage, in fact. Rich co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Karen, who does stints in the kitchen but is mainly responsible for the front of the house. The couple lives in Spray Beach with their three kids. As the restaurant’s menu tells it, “When Karen Deitz and Rich Vaughan took jobs at the Gourmet’s Mooring in 1986, they had no idea that they would fall in love and marry. How much further from their minds was the prospect of one day opening a great new restaurant where the Mooring had once been? But, in the summer of 2004, the Vaughans did just that.”

Rich further describes Bistro’s beginnings: “We got into the restaurant business by a gradual process. Each successive summer job became more serious, and eventually we had the opportunity to buy a small restaurant on Schooner’s Wharf, Great Bay Seafood Company. Ta-da! We were entrepreneurs.” They went on to run Great Bay successfully for 11 years.

Rich continues: “In some ways, Bistro 14 existed in our heads for quite a while. We just didn’t have a place to do it. In fall of 2003, as I was shutting down Great Bay for the summer, J.B. Maschal stopped by and let me know that the Mooring wouldn’t be returning to Bay Village. They were looking for another restaurant to move into the location. My first reaction was, ‘No way.’ It was too big. It came with some baggage. Karen and I both thought it was a huge risk. But the more we looked at the space, and the more we looked at the numbers, it became obvious that it was a risk worth taking.”

L’INSPIRATION

When given the chance to open their new enterprise, the couple chose to focus on food from their shared enjoyment of traveling—and eating—abroad. “We loved France, the bistro style of cooking, and the bistro tradition of hospitality and generosity,” Rich explains. “We felt like it was a style of restaurant that wasn’t well represented on LBI. We thought the island was ready for something a little different, and we wanted people to find out that the stereotype of French cooking as too fussy or fancy wasn’t necessarily true.”

Beyond the bistro roots, Rich mainly finds inspiration from his sources. “My purveyors and the available ingredients drive what goes on the menu more than anything else,” he says. Oyster farmer Gregg talks about how his relationship with Bistro 14 and the Vaughans began: “Rich and Karen reached out to introduce themselves once they heard I was growing Barnegat oysters; from that point, it took a year and change to actually get the oysters to market size and in their restaurant.” The Vaughans’ long-sightedness created a mutually beneficial situation for both the farmer and the shucker of this “consistently sweet and salty oyster.”

In addition to Gregg and clam farmer McCarthy, Rich names some of Bistro 14’s other vendors: “Chris Scales, another clammer, is the man who brings us the Mullica River oysters and littlenecks. Don and Art at Sally’s Seafood in Waretown provide the best product available. Maxwell’s is another key merchant. The Cheese Shoppe in Surf City supplies our cheese. We couldn’t do our job of creating great food without any of them.”

As for the folks who bring that great food to your table, Rich says, “One thing we try very hard to do is to cultivate a knowledgeable, professional service staff. We like Bistro’s customers to truly feel like guests, like they are meeting at a friend’s house for dinner, not getting shuttled through a food mill. To do this, we need a team out front who are as passionate and dedicated as we are.”

SOME LIKE IT RAW

Many would consider that service staff very lucky: “We encourage our staff to taste all the oysters,” Rich explains, “so everyone can speak intelligently about the raw bar.” And what a raw bar it is. Featuring the widest variety of oysters on LBI, with over 50 varieties to be offered over the course of the season and six to eight different kinds of East and West Coast oysters served on the half shell daily, it’s no surprise that Philadelphia Magazine named Bistro 14 “Best of the Shore Raw Bar.”

Angela Andersen, a frequenter of Bistro 14’s raw bar, local oyster connoisseur, and producer of an upcoming film featuring the Bay, Barnegat Baymen, and the resurgence of oysters, describes how enjoying these local delicacies does more than brine your palate and fill your stomach: “Ordering the local oyster harvest, like Forty North, Rose Cove, and Mullicas (or Graveling Points), is a direct way of supporting the local fisheries and building a local economy. Also, oysters—like all bivalves—filter and clean the water they grow in; their taste represents their place.”

Rich is encyclopedic in his bivalve knowledge, explaining that the location where oysters grow, the salinity of the waters where they develop, that season’s rain levels, and the ambient water temperature all affect how oysters taste, how big they grow, and their particular texture. Gregg extends on this idea of place, or “merroir” (like terroir for wine, see: http://bit.ly/merroir), describing the oysters that he farms and sells to Bistro 14: “As far as merroir goes, [Forty North] spent years scouring the entire New Jersey coastline looking for an area with shallow water, lots of energy, and high salinity. Summer sea breezes create constant wave action that tumbles our oysters, forcing them to grow deep cups and very large adductor muscles.”

Want to learn more? For the 2016 season, Karen’s planning oyster events like tastings and how-to-shuck lessons. She’s also the first in the area to introduce a new tool at the raw bar: an oyster journal in which Bistro 14’s regular oyster eaters can record their impressions of each variety. Long-time customers had joked about keeping a Rolodex® at the raw bar so they could be reminded of that day’s bivalves’ characteristics, and the Vaughans also wanted to give their servers easy reference for describing varieties to consumers. For Karen, the journal seemed like “a cool and educational” solution.

It makes sense. Tracking favorites from many merroirs in a personal oyster journal can enhance aficionados’ knowledge of this delectable species, helping them remember their favorites at Bistro 14 and beyond. As Andersen says, “Besides the local oysters, adding West Coast and New England varieties takes you on a journey around our nation’s waters in one happy sitting.” With so many types from just up the street or across the country, keeping an oyster journal can be a great way to appreciate oyster diversity.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR

Besides a passion for oysters and a certain reluctant pride in having won Chowderfest for their Breton-style clam chowder in 2007, Rich and Karen share a true enjoyment of the dishes on their menu. Asked for their favorite recipes, Rich says, “That’s kind of like asking which of your children is your favorite, isn’t it?” With a little prying, he admits, “I love our hanger steak. It’s just a perfect, classic French dish: ‘Steak Frites.’ The hanger is a flavorful cut, not super tender, but if you prepare it carefully it beats any other steak by a mile. Plus, you get a mountain of our Bistro fries and that is always a good idea.” Karen, meanwhile, is quick to name as her favorite the roasted chicken with olives, described on the menu as “a classic bistro preparation…with garlic, shallots, and herbs.”

And the dish they can’t take off the menu for fear of a patron uprising? “This is always a problem,” Rich explains, “because the menu does have to change or else the restaurant becomes stale… About four years ago I replaced the lamb shank, which I thought was an underperforming dish, with the trendy beef short rib. You would have thought I took a magic marker to the Mona Lisa.” Needless to say, they put the lamb shank back on the menu and now it’s as permanent as a Sharpie ®.

Even more long-lasting are some of the structural and decorative aspects that make the restaurant unique aesthetically, such as the wooden ceiling beams. “They were installed in 1966,” Karen says, “and were reclaimed from a barn in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, before ‘reclaimed’ was even a thing.” The floors are also reclaimed wood. Fresher than the beams and floors but similarly noteworthy are the floral arrangements from Beach Flowers by Bankstons; a recently featured bouquet included both a turnip and an artichoke.

Another addition that's newer than the beams is Bistro 14’s role as an official tasting room for Sharrot Winery (sharrottwinery.com), a vineyard in Hammonton, New Jersey. The restaurant offers 14 varieties to sample and purchase, with many of the wines pairing delightfully with the raw and cooked fare.

Throughout their years in the hospitality business and all the location, menu, oyster, and beverage changes, it’s evident that the Vaughans find a lot of satisfaction in their work. Rich puts it best: “Getting positive feedback from our guests is very nice. Having a family who discovered Bistro 14 at the beginning of their vacation come back three or four times—that really makes you smile.”

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