Recipes dont come much more retro than lobster Thermidor, named for the eleventh month of the First Republics new calendar, when Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have first tasted this dish. Restaurants dont come more retro than Atlantic Citys Knife & Fork Inn, which opened in 1912 as a mens club and was famously raided by bottle-smashing federal agents during Prohibition. Two retros, it turns out, can make a very persuasive neo. The Knife & Fork has done it by a feat of entrepreneurial imagination and daring bolstered by hospitality know-how and culinary care.
From its start, the Knife & Fork was as distinctive as its location at the relatively quiet intersection of Atlantic, Pacific, and Albany avenues at the south end of town. A fantasy Flemish-style castle four stories high, its white stucco emblazoned with crossed knife-and-fork emblems, it rose above its modest surroundings like the prow of a ship. After its club days, the Knife & Fork resurfaced as a classy restaurant through whose portals passed the likes of Sinatra and Burt Lancaster. It ran aground under the squabbling ownership of the Latz brothers, and a 1999 attempt by one of the sons to revive it fell short.
Frank Dougherty, whose family had steered the venerable Docks Oyster House through Atlantic Citys lean years, rolled the dice on the moribund Knife & Fork. The Doughertys bought it in January 2005 and, after a massive restoration, reopened it last July. The crenellated exterior again gleams. Inside, the polished mahogany, leaded glass, and burgundy drapes cosset visitors in a fantasy of Old World pedigree, New World wallet, and Worlds Favorite Playground whimsy that is both convincingly luxurious and a hoot. The room not to be missed is the main dining room, on the second floor, with its mauve walls, softly glowing fixtures, and hand-painted faux-stone vaulted ceiling.
The menu and the space are well matched. The theme might be called simple opulence, which is not necessarily an oxymoronbig steaks, big lobsters, big wine list, big pricesbut the quality is high, and values arent hard to find.
The very fresh and generous appetizer salads range from mixed greens with goat cheese, pomegranate vinaigrette, and spiced pumpkin seeds to an artfully molded crab-and-avocado salad, one of the Knife & Forks subtle nods to modernity. A well-stocked corn-and-crab chowder laced with roasted-jalapeño cream is delicious. The big, crisp lobster spring roll is filled with pleasingly crunchy shredded vegetables but rather low on lobster. On the other hand, the crab-and-corn cakes, served with lobster vinaigrette, are plump and meaty. If youre into ostentation, the very fresh, horizontally arrayed colossal shrimp cocktail, lives up to its billing.
The entrée side of the menu is where prices get serious, especially when the L word is involved. Enter the 8-ounce cold-water lobster tail and 8-ounce filet mignon combo at $52 and the 18-ounce butter-poached cold-water lobster tail at $48. These kingly indulgences lurking halfway down the Seafood and Shellfish list serve to make the 2½-pound lobster Thermidor seem a steal at $43. A 2½-pound lobster is big, and stretched out whole on a long white plate, red back split open and eyeballs glaring white, he looks none too happy to be there. The morsels his parted carapace yields, though, are tender and tasty. Sautéed in butter, finished with mushrooms, cream, mustard, and Parmesan, lobster Thermidor is a legit delicacy. Napoleon, as befits an emperor, may have overindulged, which might explain why hes often depicted with his hand in his vest, perhaps patting an upset tummy.
On the turf side of the ledger, the Knife & Fork gets high marks. A 16-ounce prime sirloin, ordered medium, is delivered exactly so; cooked over a wood-burning grill, its crackling outside and exemplary inside, hitting the sirloin sweet spot of aged beef flavor and toothsome texture. A Gibraltaresque cider-cured pork chop with very good Bordelaise sauce is as lean as chicken, which might be a reason to order it or eschew it. Truly spectacular are the braised short ribs, which hit the trifecta of big portion, melting tenderness, and abundant flavor; aswirl in a stew rich with minced carrot and onion and its own earthy essences, the meat melds soulfully with its accompanying creamy mashed potatoes.
The sides include some of the best treats on the menu. Braised cippoline onions are wonderfully plump and tangy-sweet. Beer-battered string beans with lemon aioli are crunchy, delicious, and surprisingly light. Glistening, delicate sautéed baby spinach with shaved Parmesan puts to shame the discolored glop that often sullies the vegetables reputation. French-fried beet chips make irresistible pass-arounds even if you dont like beets; theyre like Terra Chips, only way better. Another terrific choice for the table is the pommes soufflé; they look like extra-long French fries, but, twice cooked, they somehow puff out and emerge crispy-thin outside and tantalizingly airy inside.
Hewing more or less to tradition serves the Knife & Fork well until dessert, which is a bit of a yawnacceptable warm chocolate cake, profiteroles, gelato, sorbet (not made in-house), yada yada yada. Encouraged by the lobster Thermidor, we bet on that New Orleans warhorse, bananas Foster, assuming you cant go wrong spooning rum-spiked sautéed bananas over vanilla ice cream. After a few moments, though, it melts into treacle. Your inner child may love it, but I say your inner emperor deserves better.