It is sometimes true that there can’t be too much of a good thing.
The bartender who decided to splash Campari with grapefruit juice must have had some hunch that bitter on bitter was a perfect foil to the sharp edge and funky base of tequila. Hence the delicious Siesta cocktail at Fork + Flask at Nage.
The chef who decided to soak roe in soy sauce did far more than perform a sushi bar parlor trick. Pairing the combination of brine on brine with a mild roasted oyster was sheer brilliance.
And the designer who decided to blow out a wall to create a larger, airier lounge made what had always been a relaxing space that much more comfortable.
So it goes at Fork + Flask. Goodness is heaped upon goodness and, occasionally, even more goodness, as anyone who enjoyed its previous iteration as the playfully creative Nage might expect.
The name is new. The approach to food and drink has been 12 years in the making. Downtown Rehoboth had long been a dining destination when Nage opened 12 years ago, but it did something no other local restaurant of its caliber had done before: It proved that people would venture out to the highway in search of good food and drink, and it spared folks from other points from having to drive into town to find an outstanding experience. The kitchen vaulted a who’s who of local chefs—Hari Cameron, Ted Deptula—to local stardom.
Nage operated happily as Nage until spring, when the partners, having months prior decided it was high time for a redo, unveiled the new look and concept. Not that Fork + Flask has shucked everything that made Nage great, but there is a distinct difference. The dark ceilings and Tuscan palette have been ditched in favor of a brighter, beachier look. You will still find boutique wines, but the once extensive list has been pared down and melded with a larger drink menu that gives equal play to craft spirits and brews. The carefree approach to food, no matter how carefully contrived, remains, but with a more populist bent. And there is even more fun in the way it’s all put together.
In the dining room, knotty pine paneling and exposed rafters blend with gleaming white subway tile and aquamarine cushioning. At the bar, Beefeater and National Bohemian rub shoulders with Dogfish Head Compelling Gin and Sam Smith. At the table, tater tots and bacon walk hand in hand with burrata macaroni and cheese. So the evolution remains consistent with the Nage philosophy of creativity, even as it veers in new directions. That duality should please anyone.
We first visited early on a weeknight at the height of summer. Diners filled a half-dozen tables. The pace was relaxed. We ordered a Crooked Hammock Brown Ale—brewed at Fork’s new sister restaurant, the brewpub Crooked Hammock—and scanned the menu.
Its unconventional organization seems to encourage grazing. Plates are grouped under the headings Cultivated, Caught and Raised to describe compositions that are primarily vegetable-based, seafood-based and everything else. In each category, small plates—they are many—get listed first. Entrées follow, then daily specials. Be warned: The menu changes often, so though you are likely to find French onion soup and the house burger, both staples held over from the Nage days, you never know what else the week will bring. Don’t be dismayed. Constant surprises are part of the fun.
From left: Sweet corn ravioli and roasted scallops; Tuna tartare
We started big, with fried olives, baked Brie and the aforementioned onion soup, an offering so incongruent with notions of summer dining that resistance was futile. The soup was as traditional as it gets—nicely caramelized onions, hearty beef broth and a generous crouton—save the topping of Gruyère, which lent a pleasing hint of nuttiness.
The Brie arrived as a small wedge wrapped in phyllo with strawberries, blueberries and candied walnuts on the side. The berries stayed slightly tart, the nuts were just sweet enough, the pastry perfectly flaky. The cheese inside found that heavenly place where it had melted just enough to maintain its texture and smooth the pungency of the rind.
Frying anything can be a dangerous dance between the coating on the food and the time and temperature. Chef Sean Corea’s kitchen crew does it right. Spanish olives stuffed with pimiento, neatly aligned on a small white plate, were perfectly crisp on the outside. The dab of aïoli atop each, a la pommes frites with mayonnaise, added the merest touch of garlic while allowing the bright flavor of the olives to shine. We appreciated the contrast of textures. (With so many types of olives and fillings, there is plenty of territory to explore here. More, please.)
Entrées were equally creative. The broiled tuna was a burst of summer flavors, owing to the basil crust and accompanying nuggets of pattypan squash in saffron-perfumed tomato coulis. We know it’s a sin to order foods cooked well, but medium-rare fish is still too much for some diners to bear. The tuna arrived cooked through, as requested, but the thick cut required heat until it dried slightly. The kitchen could have chosen a thinner portion. It did little to diminish the meal. The combination of flavors—and the sweet grits on the side—more than made up for the misstep.
Frozen milkshake pie
Fork + Flask emphasizes craft and artisanal food and drink, as well as fresh, local ingredients. Since summer in Sussex is all about corn, it appeared several times on the menu and in several ways. This leads to one exception about too much of a good thing: Teaming creamed corn with polenta as accompaniments on the same dish was a bit much. That said, both were very good—the corn, made in house, lightly creamed, the polenta dusted with Old Bay seasoning when it was cooked—but they stole some glory from what was a very, very good crab cake. Traditionalists will appreciate the simple approach: real blue crab (none of the Venezuelan or Indonesian crab that becomes so prevalent in times of lean local harvests) pan fried—to a golden brown. There is no mistaking the Old Bay. Capers in the house-made cocktail sauce were a nice touch.
We returned the following Saturday night for a go in the enlarged lounge. Though the dining room was plenty lively, the bar was uncrowded at 9 p.m.—read that as relaxing—as anyone who dines out on summer Saturdays at the beach would understand. Over the previously mentioned Siesta and a tangy-sweet Cuban of rum, champagne and simple sugar mixed with muddled mint, lime and bitters served up, we started round two.
Crab croquettes were no mere miniature crab cakes. They were served with the same polenta and cocktail sauce, but the croquettes proved creamier, as they should have. The kitchen rides the craze of truffle oil nicely by offering Caprino Cremosa on its list of about 10 artisanal cheeses. It is served with chips of lavash.
And then there were the oysters…
Roasting oysters can be a surefire way to rob them of all the qualities that make them so delicately exquisite—to sap the sweetness that counters the mild, palate-waking brine, to dry their juiciness, to toughen the plumpness. At Fork + Flask, this was not to be the case.
If it is true that there is genius in boldness, the audacity of the decision to roast perfectly good Eastern oysters registers off the intelligence scale. Never mind the decision to pair them with soy-marinated caviar. The oven transfigured the oysters into perfect pillows of pop. Rolling on the tongue, the soy caviar replaces—and enhances—everything the shellfish could have lost in the cooking, which was little. The slightly sweet pickled watermelon served in place of a traditional mignonette or cocktail sauce was a lovely touch. But the amplified brininess was amazing.
Given the wide-ranging nature of our dining, it seemed appropriate to order the sampler of pastry chef Dru Tevis’ desserts. We thoroughly enjoyed the bites of chunky chocolate brownie, dense salted caramel brownie and other sweets. I was bowled over by the smoky cocoa flavor of the chocolate cake truffle.
But next time, if they’re available, it’ll be oysters for dessert. A couple dozen. And I’m not sharing.
19730 Coastal Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 226-2037, forkandflask.com
PRICES: Appetizers $6-$13; entrées $18-$36
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Roasted oysters and soy caviar with pickled watermelon