44 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-7107
starters and small plates $5-$14,
entrées $11-$18, desserts $7
Cool Hand Fluke, Day Boat, The Beach
Chef Hari Cameron approached the table with a warm but weary smile. The evening sun cast a warm glow onto his black-rimmed eyeglasses and tattooed forearm. He spoke softly. “We’re about 45 days into service now,” he said. “I don’t have kids of my own, but I’ve been told that’s the rapid diaper-changing stage.”
The chef had every right to sound slightly delirious. In those 45 days, he’d given himself just three days off. He looked exhausted. Ragged. Sleep deprived. But like a new dad, Cameron also looked profoundly satisfied with his new creation, a(MUSE.), his labor of love on Rehoboth Beach’s colorful Baltimore Avenue.
Cameron, a native of Georgetown, had spent the previous eight years at Rehoboth’s excellent Nage Restaurant, which provided a foundation for locally driven, progressive-leaning coastal dining. But because of my few prior interactions with the chef, it was clear that his culinary mind was moving at a different speed. He’d speak excitedly about a shipment of earthy heirloom sunchokes, or his new temperature-controlled sous vide cooking bath. Cameron was, of course, the only chef who thought to bring a liquid nitrogen tank to the Rusty Rudder’s Country Chili Cook-Off.
And perhaps the most fun element of his new restaurant is the chance to share in Cameron’s excitement for food, an unbridled dining nerdiness that drips from every absinthe foam and sweet corn emulsion.
The enthusiasm speaks even louder in Cameron’s cooking—his lively, erudite, and often brilliant cooking—and makes a(MUSE.) one of the most inventive and exciting new restaurants in Delaware.
Cameron’s kitchen staff, which also includes his brother Josh, excells at creative transformations of ingredients, which it presents mostly as small plates that range in size from two-bite snacks up to heartier, conventional entrée sizes. The menu organizes dishes from small to large and encourages much exploration and sharing.
No matter the size, the food at a(MUSE.) acts as a gallery for Cameron’s artistry and imagination, and cleverly titled dishes like Cool Hand Fluke look as though they belong in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Fresh flounder crudo, pounded flat, is wrapped around tiny drums of golden and red beets like ocean-scented crepe paper. Interspersed fell dehydrated flakes of potato and candy-striped beets that delivered texture. Bright sprinkles of watercress reclined atop it all.
It isn’t exactly French Impressionism, but Cameron’s knack for expressing color and movement in a single plate of ingredients is uncanny. Consider the vivid red sorrel and foraged purple sage that nested on tender pan-roasted quail. The tuxedo of foliage, bitter and clean-tasting, tamed the perched quail while, beneath it, a crunchy bed of broad beans and a few piquant forkfulls of house-pickled veggies lent textural contrast.
Rare is the opportunity to get amped about tomato soup, but a(MUSE.)’s playful version was like a roadside farmer’s stand in a bowl. Bisected red and yellow cherry tomatoes, green long peppers and smooth almonds bobbed in a rich, soulful serving of peak-season tomato soup. A snappy goat cheese croquette and floating islands of fluffy tomato foam helped create yet another dramatic presentation that burst with color.
Cameron, an avid food blogger and student of Nathan Myhrvold’s influential “Modernist Cuisine,” occasionally explores the mysterious corners of molecular gastronomy and its trappings: sous vide machines, freeze dryers, N2O siphons and other culinary gadgetry. But in Cameron’s hands, plates never devolve into the overly cute, complicated or soulless gimmicks that such tampering can render. Instead, the flavors at a(MUSE.) remained clean and luminous.
Perhaps he has Nage and its stalwart devotion to flavorful coastal dining to thank for a(MUSE.)’s approachability. Or perhaps its his Forage Team—which cuts loose on the Delmarva Peninsula for wild edibles like mushrooms and tree nuts—that keeps the gang grounded. Even a(MUSE.)’s more esoteric creations are forged in tradition. Potted Chicken, a rich appetizer, arrived in a glass jar with layers of shredded chicken rillettes, foie gras mousse and face-puckering whiskey gelee that combined on toast points into a rich, salty schmear.
Even more conventional beach fare was re-cast in a(MUSE.) duds. Hulking chunks of Hickman’s prime beef splayed across grilled summer squash, zucchini and peach that hovered over luscious jus to create a cross-stitch of heavy and light elements that oozed lusciousness. Ditto The Yardbird, a beautifully caramelized bone-in organic chicken breast whose salty essence dripped onto wilted rainbow chard and smoked potato nuggets.
Classic flavors and pristine ingredients paraded along the heavier portions of a(MUSE.)’s menu, like seared dayboat scallops, caramelized to a beautiful brown and paired with guanciale bacon and sweet local corn. The brisk crunch of brioche-breaded snapper benefited from a stab into cooling tomatillo salsa and color-speckled heirloom tomatoes.
But like any good fireworks display, a(MUSE.) knew to save the biggest bangs for last. The restaurant’s small dessert menu packs a major wallop, amplifying the kitchen’s best tendencies ever more.
Heavenly Lavender Fields infused locally grown lavender into dark chocolate ganache, ice cream and housemade marshmallows, each floral bite tempered gently by droplets of local honey. Peaches and Cream presented a study in ripeness and the summer fruit’s inherent sugar content. Just one plate offered variations that were bruléed, sorbeted, balsamic-macerated and rose gelee-enveloped—each slice more sublime than the last.
Then came The Beach, an edible diorama that’s destined to become a restaurant staple. Between the toasted-wheat ice cream dunes, hazelnut praline and cocoa nib sand, salt water taffy pearls, and beach glass made from nitrogen-frozen grapes, lies the best a(MUSE.) has to offer: creativity and vision synthesized through local flavors.
With dishes like these, it’s eminently easy to appreciate the artistry of a(MUSE.). It’s considerably harder to apply the time, mindfulness and devotion necessary to create such works.
On our final visit to a(MUSE.) we noticed a wall that had been papered entirely with pages from a book. When we finally got close enough to it, the wall revealed all there is to know about Rehoboth’s best new restaurant—even the walls have been plastered with “The Joy of Cooking.”