A Quiet Surprise

The Executive in Milford may be the best restaurant between Wilmington and the beaches. Gilmore’s in West Chester puts a unique twist on French cuisine–and there’s free bubbly.

The Executive

556 S. Dupont Blvd.

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Appetizers $6-$12
Light entrées $8-$10
Entrées $16-$29

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Recommended dishes:

Cream of crab soup, Executive salad,
crab cakes, anything from the wine list

The grilled mako is served with fingerling
potatoes and vegetables.

Photograph by Keith Mosher

Shakespeare had it all wrong. A rose by any name might smell just wonderful, but how many women would want a dozen of them for Valentine’s Day if they were called, oh, faithless flowers?

Nowadays, a name is too important to be left to chance. It’s the first step in a successful marketing program. Which might explain why Milford’s newest upscale restaurant is called The Executive.

Zipping past it on U.S. 113, nothing but the restaurant’s sign would bring the word “executive” to mind. Out here, on the Sussex County side of the Mispillion River, just past Milford’s newest strip malls, the roadside architecture starts to murmur “outskirts.”

In fact, the building The Executive occupies isn’t glitzy enough to look like a retail operation. It’s a low-slung, unimpressive structure with wide panels of brick-colored siding, without the big, bright signs that mark most modern eateries. The restaurant doesn’t even fill the building, which it shares with a couple of professional offices. The name, it would seem, aims to give the operation a little more dignity, a little more class than might be apparent to the casual onlooker.

It’s a good notion, but a poor choice of words, at least in terms of luring travelers in off what is, after all, a major route into town. In this generic setting, “executive” is too generic a word. It doesn’t stick out amid the sprawl. Sure enough, when I Google it, I can’t find another Executive Restaurant anywhere in the country—only at places like cricket clubs in Australia and tennis clubs in England.

Luckily, the locals didn’t need a snappy name for a lure. They quickly discovered that the nondescript building disguised a surprisingly classy, upscale operation with a well-executed menu. The night we checked out The Executive, it played host to at least two office parties, as well as a small crowd for a Frank Sinatra impersonator, and the place was nearly full from our 6 p.m. arrival. If anything, the crowd was growing when we left during the second set.

Though it was a busy night during the holiday season, the atmosphere at The Executive was serene. The hostess had everything calmly under control. Though most of the wait staff was young, everyone seemed well trained. Except for a forgotten order for a second glass of wine late in the meal, we never felt neglected.

We were still getting accustomed to the unexpectedly swank atmosphere when we got the wine list, which just might be the Executive’s best feature, not for its length, but for its value and selection. A full two dozen are offered by the glass. That’s an especially large number considering the relatively modest length and reasonable prices of the overall list. Almost every bottle is under $30.

The hexagonal piano bar features a baby
grand piano that stands on a raised
platform beneath a glass-roofed atrium.
Photograph by Keith Mosher

It’s not a broad selection by any means, so it wisely concentrates on a limited number of varietals from America and Australia. The only Europeans are the Chianti and three Pinot Grigios. With four Shirazes, three Pinot Grigios, four Cabernets and five Pinot Noirs, you can conduct your own comparisons. Find out how two different Cabs taste with steak, or the Pinot Grigios with the seafood. Best of all, all but a handful of wines sell in a tight, affordable budget range: $18 to $24 a bottle, $6 or $7 a glass. Among the exceptions was the Fiddlehead Pinot Noir. At $57 a bottle, it’s the most expensive on the list, outside of the Veuve Cliquot.

Most impressive, some of these selections are quite good for the money. Archetype Shiraz, for example, is impressively deep-bodied and spicy for $7 a glass, $24 for a bottle. These wines aren’t underpriced. They’re simply good examples of the decent quality that can be found in the $10-$12 retail range these days.

For the finishing touch on this impressive wine list, even the descriptions for each bottle—occasionally gushy, but almost always accurate and helpful—give the impression that somebody here knows something about wine.

To that point, on service, atmosphere and the spectacular wine list, The Executive plays more like The Excellence. The kitchen doesn’t quite live up to that. Few could. Though much of what we tasted was good enough, the best dishes were those that stretched beyond the main menu’s rather humdrum mix of classics (French onion soup, veal Oscar, chicken Marsala) and new standards (coconut shrimp, seared tuna).

The standout of our meal was a pork chop in a soy-kissed pineapple honey glaze. The chop is grown wide, sliced thick and, on our visit, benefited from reaching the table hot and juicy. If every dish were that good, The Executive might rank as the best restaurant between Wilmington and the beach.

The main-menu preparations rarely have the same spark. Crab cakes are big and sweet, but lack a signature touch that might make them special. So do the filet mignon and New York strip, neither of which gets so much as a sauce on the side. An appetizer of crab-stuffed mushrooms has the same problem: good ingredients, good execution but the nagging feeling that something’s missing.

Chef David Michael takes a break from the kitchen
to visit with owners Tina and Eric Rambo.
Photograph by Keith Mosher

High-quality ingredients take a dish only so far. To be great, a kitchen must show some personality. The “lite fare” menu has the right idea—grilled chicken panini, wraps of chicken or shrimp—but the only sign of such spirit on the entrée menu is salmon with apples and orange marmalade glaze.

Choose carefully and you can assemble a perfectly modern meal, including a house salad of mixed greens, walnuts, strawberries and blue cheese in a gentle champagne vinaigrette, as well as cream of crab soup served in a bread bowl. The salad is mixed enough so ingredients mingle in every bite. The soup is carefully made with good ingredients, rich enough to be dessert, and a nice counterpart to the light, tasty roll that served as its container.

A couple of other dishes were near-misses. A plate of four broiled scallops, wrapped in bacon and artfully served, was dabbed with a tangy barbecue sauce that was better suited for grilled meat than for broiled mollusk. Something lighter and brighter would have been perfect.

On a few dishes, in a few ways, The Executive shows evidence of humbler roots. Though I enjoyed the seafood medley, it was a gourmet version of the old mixed seafood platter—crab cake, shrimp, scallops and a fish fillet, all broiled and served in their own juices. It’s a lot better than it might sound—everything is exceptionally fresh—but it left me longing for something more distinctive. Another example: The fingerling potatoes that came with entrées were more like thumbs. The vegetable medley was rough-chopped to a size fit for the farm.

Yet almost everything lived up to The Executive’s standards. The lone exception will disappoint those with a sweet tooth: the pie. It might have been homemade, but it was indistinguishable from what you might get at a good roadside diner. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what The Executive sounds like it should be—and sure enough, when I look it up, there’s an Executive Diner in upstate New York. I don’t have to make the drive to know it doesn’t compare to The Executive in Milford.

Ich Bin Ein Baker
Achtung, baby. This German does bread right.

The Frankfurt Bakery had been open only a few days when requests began pouring in. Four weeks later, owner Andreas Janke had a steady stream of customers he could barely keep up with. “It was three times the demand I was expecting,” he says. “I’m working 14-hour days.”

Folks in Dover are clamoring for Janke’s fresh breads and pastries. Thanks to German efficiency—or just some amazing family recipes—Janke had a hit on his hands.

Bread is a staple in a country that boasts around 6,000 varieties of the stuff. At Frankfurt Bakery (429 S. New St., Dover, 741-0180), Janke has it pared down to around 15. Customers love his hearty breakfast bread, which is baked with dates, raisins, nutmeg, cinnamon and walnuts. Another essential is the Bavarian rye. “It’s the first item I sell every day,” Janke says. And you won’t find the Alpine Swiss in a supermarket. It’s blended with golden raisins and white chocolate. “Everything is from scratch,” says Janke, who grew up near Frankfurt. “Most of the time, my bread is still warm.”

Frankfurt has a custom sandwich bar that allows customers to pair Janke’s bread with lunchmeats and cheeses. The pastry menu is expected to expand. Just don’t go in asking for a slice of German chocolate cake—it’s not German. “Are you kidding?” Janke says. “You can’t even get coconut in most parts of Germany.” —Matt Amis

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