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Bold Flavors and Big Wines at Luxe Domain Hudson

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The sweet corn agnolotti with morels and fava beans.

Domaine Hudson 1314 N. Washington St., Wilmington, 655-9463, domainehudson.com
Recommended Dishes quail terrine, black garlic cavatelli, grilled lamb loin
Prices Appetizers/small plates: $10-$14, entrées: $24-$36

No restaurant in Delaware embodies Wyeth-country elegance so pitch-perfectly as little Domaine Hudson.

The worldly opulence. The love of fine art, fine wine, and fine horses. The melding of Victorian and country grace that feels equal parts inviting and private. All the signifiers we connect with Brandywine Valley polite society were woven into the restaurant’s fabric since its inception nine years ago in a back pocket of Wilmington’s business district. For the DuPont trustee with the 900-bottle cellar, or the 9-to-5er with a box of Franzia sweating in the trunk, Domaine Hudson has been there to impart high-end excellence and sophistication.

In new owners Michael[1] and Beth Ross—who took over in 2011—the restaurant gained new life and direction straight from its wheelhouse. Renowned veterinary horse doctors and world-travelers from Chadds Ford, the Rosses seem like natural fits. Though the couple slimmed down and un-busied some of the dining room’s more ornate decorative flourishes, they remain devoted to sharing great wine from a seemingly endless cellar, and robust, forward-thinking cuisine[2].

In-between the plates of cloth-bound Cabot with oaked honey and shaved apples, and the glass of 2008 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia [3]“super Tuscan”—nary a beat feels missed. The Rosses know and love their wine, and the restaurant’s legendary list—a staggering 475 labels long at last count—is now sensibly organized in an iPad by variety, year, price, and origin, with sommelier and former-chef Roger Surpin acting as its encyclopedic tour guide.

Together with recently installed chef Dwain Kalup, the team keeps Domaine Hudson buzzing. Kalup is no stranger to treating the region’s literati, having served dutifully in all three kitchens of Xavier Teixido’s Harry’s Hospitality Group[4]and winning the praises of culinary school instructors and Zagat raters.

Left to right: Executive chef Dwain Kalup; The grilled New York strip steak is served with roasted eggplant purée, cashew-cilantro pesto, cured kohlrabi and a balsamic-soy reduction; The white sangria Riesling sorbet is served with a pear-melon compote,
crispy crepe and strawberries.

 

His challenge at Domaine Hudson is crafting a menu that suits the restaurant’s lofty reputation and atmosphere—without succumbing to stuffiness or pretentiousness. So far so good. In Kalup’s hands, French slow-cookery and hyper-prepped arrangements tessellate into works of beauty, and big flavors crash like waves under even bigger flavors. With ambition and artistry, the young chef embraces and harnesses forceful flavors like black garlic, date confit, caramelized endive, and Saba vinegar into a neatly composed, visually striking foil for housemade cavatelli. Here, as in many of his plates, Kalup tiptoes precipitously close to the deep-end, where huge flavors can engulf and overpower any palate. But he knows just when to pull back, and stop the dial on a bold, but balanced note.

Usually.

But even in Kalup’s wilder moments—the rich, woodsy quail terrine, for instance, with its dense and subtle flavors, scents and textures, he wallops with a vivid orange smear of spicy chorizo emulsion—the results are still interesting.

I loved the sweet-smoky veneer of curry and molasses imparted into a bowl of fresh, tender bay scallops, tossed with crunchy candied sesame seeds, and the clean, bracing kick of red snapper crudo, layered with blood orange, fennel and capers, and drizzled with black olive oil. Elsewhere, it was perfectly deployed caraway seeds whose soothing essence helped bridge morel mushrooms, white asparagus and serrano ham in a tasty antipasti.

For all his deft work with delicate arrangements, Kalup seemed most at ease when plying big, protein-rich entrées, especially when it came to red meats, like a fat New York strip steak or a husky spring lamb loin. With such pristine springboards, Kalup could augment flavors and textures set to seasonal poses, like a swath of fairytale pumpkin purée and whipped goat cheese, or creamy farro dotted with wilted escarole and crisp pearl onions. A beautiful hunk of fall-apart tender braised kid goat arrived lacquered in sinful maple-infused agrodulce[5], whose sweet nectar dripped onto charred cabbage and toasted hazelnuts.

Left to right:The olive oil-poached shrimp with red curry yogurt, radish and pineapple; The dining room. 

 

No meal at Domaine Hudson is complete without wine, and when Kalup and Surpin[6] work in lockstep, the real fireworks commence. Kalup’s kaleidoscopic use of ingredients gives Surpin a wide spectrum of flavors to enhance and mutate with a carefully selected pairing, so when Kalup gives him smoked[7] linguini with black garlic-hazelnut pesto, Surpin answers with 2010 Scarpa Monferrato Rosso Piemontese blend, whose masculine, bittersweet tones helps deepen the pasta’s dark flavors. Before long, one begins to wonder how they ever ate green-tea cake with yuzu caramel and Thai-basil gelato without a glass of Surpin-recommended Hungarian Tokaji, whose musty sweetness fits the cake like a white-chocolate coated glove.

It’s a high-wire act that’s much trickier than it looks. But Kalup and Surpin—who find themselves on the business end of $145 tasting dinners and some of the region’s loudest and most conversant wine experts—are settling into a show-stopping groove. In a time where recession-triggered belt-tightening gave rise to Delaware’s gastropub, localvore and food truck explosion, Domaine Hudson’s lavishness could’ve easily faded out of fashion.

But with a new team hitting its stride as the economy slowly recovers, Domaine Hudson feels as vital as ever. So long as the food keeps pace with the wine, as well as with the region’s rapidly evolving dining whims, Domaine Hudson will maintain its lofty perch, lending modern context to the centuries of tradition and wealth that blossomed along the nearby creeks and riverbanks.



[1] A professor of surgery and Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, Dr. Ross often treats some of the country’s elite racehorses, and has operated on Breeders’ Cup champion “Da Hoss”—twice.

[2] Founders Tom and Meg Hudson set the standard with a wine list that simply outpaced everyone else in town.

[3] Judging by the reactions in the room when this wine was brought out, you’d have thought Pope Francis stomped the grapes himself.

[4] Scoring the hat trick of Kid Shelleen’s, Harry’s Savoy, and Harry’s Seafood.

[5] The Italians’ answer to sweet and sour sauce.

[6] The highly-entertaining Surpin is also a trained chef, and preceded Kalup as executive chef at Domaine Hudson.

[7] This was a new one for me: Kalup dumped a few pounds of flour into a hotel pan and left it in a wood smoker for a few hours before folding it into pasta dough. 

 

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