I’ve seen the restaurant business from the inside. Sometimes, it isn’t pretty. And it is not the kind of thing you can fake. An owner needs to know exactly what he or she is doing in order to survive.
So when someone with no experience starts or buys a place, often with little more than enthusiasm and the notion that there is some glamour in the business, I give them long odds. No matter how great an operator’s love of food and drink, enjoying it is quite different than selling and serving it. The business is not kind to dilettantes.
Not that someone doesn’t occasionally prove exceptional.
When Michael and Beth Ross bought Domaine Hudson in 2011, I was skeptical. As expert, accomplished and successful as they were as veterinarians, they seemed to make the most unlikely of restaurateurs. Nothing in their experience—caring for sick and injured horses, including world-class racers—indicated a head for the restaurant biz.
And in Domaine Hudson’s case the challenge seemed even greater. Domaine enjoyed a reputation as one of the best, a place where dedication to outstanding cuisine and devotion to wine were perfectly wed. Few other restaurants operated at its level. Would new owners have the good taste needed to maintain its rep and the good sense needed to make the numbers work?
The answer is an unqualified yes.
Domaine Hudson’s bar area
Exhibit A: The Rosses cruised past the critical five-year mark in September. Domaine’s door is still open. Diners keep going.
Exhibit B: The wine program is as robust as the original owners intended when they envisioned creating a place where true oenophiles would feel at home, but not at the cost of alienating anyone else.
Exhibit C: Chef Dwain Kalup, a brilliant hire, also has passed the five-year mark, and his food remains outstanding.
I might even say that, at times, his food is otherworldly. Kalup seems to inhabit a niche in which classical and contemporary techniques and philosophies find perfect harmony. His food feels timeless, yet also of this moment. It pleases by being at once classic and innovative.
Which might also explain the classic rock in the background. Played at low volume, The Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead were a surprisingly appropriate accompaniment to the meal, a signal that you don’t have to stay buttoned up to enjoy great food and drink.
On our most recent visit, we did not dine lightly. Dreary winter weather demanded food that was comforting and fortifying. It also called for that special something that would lift the spirit. Domaine delivered.
We started with Kalup’s golden beet soup, a buttery purée enriched with a drizzle of whipped pistachio and an oil lightly infused with tarragon. A sprinkle of crushed nuts provided a textural counterpoint. A silky “tartare” of ground red beets lent a visual pop to the beautiful swirl around it and gave a slightly sweet note to the whole.
Golden beet soup with pistachio whip, tarragon oil and red beet tartare.
We could have lightened up with some of late fall’s fruitier flavors, perhaps a salad of baby greens and shaved apple or shaved celery and pear with radicchio, both dressed with tart vinaigrettes, but we dove deep.
I can describe the duck liver mousse only as exquisite. It felt like softened butter in the mouth, with a subtle flavor of cream and nuts. The Port reduction may have been a predictable means of sweetening the mousse, but the tart pickled plums were a delightful surprise that elevated the dish from the merely decadent. Such a pairing exemplifies the sort of tricky counterpoints and complements that Kalup creates with ease. And he doesn’t take his eye off what others might consider minor details. A few seconds on the grill worked magic on the charred crostini—another contrast of texture—by imparting a bit of smoke.
We enjoyed the duck liver mousse with the 2012 Le Bourgogne Chanson Pinot Noir that was aptly suggested by the server. After all, it seemed such a French-spirited dish called for a French wine. The red fruit on the nose mirrored the plums, and the slightly acidic finish on the palate prepared the way for the next velvety bite.
Left: Duck liver mousse with pickled plums.
The dish was a show stopper—or so we thought until a plate of house-made chestnut fettuccine arrived. More delicious richness.
Like Domaine’s charcuterie, all pastas are made in house. The consistency of chestnut paste lends itself to a large noodle such as fettuccine, yet the kitchen managed to roll it ribbon thin while maintaining a perfect al dente texture. The flavor comes through clearly. The aroma of fennel rose on the steam. The brown sage butter heightened the earthiness of the noodles, and the kitchen was generous with the pine nuts.
We found the pan-seared barramundi, its firm white flesh cooked perfectly, a bit cloying. Served with braised celery and fennel, orange purée and roasted grapes, it could have used a touch of acid and salt. That’s not to say it wasn’t a very good dish just the same. I have no such criticism of the aged duck breast. Roasted to a perfect medium rare, it was a fine contrast to the crispy-skinned confit leg. Both were fragrant with fried rosemary and topped with leeks melted with foie gras tempered by sweet roasted hakurei turnips drizzled with hibiscus honey.
We found the server’s suggestion of 2014 Errazuriz Carménère for the pasta to be another fine choice, an informed recommendation made without pretense. Which characterizes Domaine Hudson nicely. Our waiter was attentive but unobtrusive, knowledgeable yet down to earth. The pacing was slow enough to allow us to savor every dish, just brisk enough to prevent boredom. New plates and flatware arrived with every course.
It is easy to see how Domaine earned an “extraordinary” rating from Zagat’s, which should keep it going strong for a long time to come. Kalup, with an assist from sous chef Brent Chellew, limits the menu, which allows him to keep a range of ingredients under control. That means an offering of half a dozen entrées (duck, beef, chicken and two fish on our visit), with a like number of starters, shared plates (not including house-cured charcuterie or the cheeseboard) and house-made pastas, which are offered in appetizer and entrée portions.
The variety of ingredients gives sommelier Richard Hover ample room to play. His list of 450 labels is neatly presented via an iPad, which allows you to search by region and varietal (there are 25) and to scan tasting notes. Thirty wines are served by the glass. Glasses are poured in 5-, 3- and 1.5-ounce servings for those who want to sample widely. And the fun continues through flights organized around a theme, some with witty names such as Que Syrah Syrah, Pinot Envy and Cabernet Cabaret.
The intimate scale of the place adds to its charms. The Rosses’ love of horses is proudly yet subtly on display as prints hung on ivory walls. A rolling barn door hung from an overhead track separates two small dining areas. The Merlot-covered banquette and wine-bottle chandelier announce their love of the grape.
There is a short list of craft brews. There are dessert wines and Ports, single malts and Scotch blends, small batch bourbons and ryes, grappas, various liqueurs and creams, but by the time we got to them, we were done.
I have only one regret about our experience: I did not save room for dessert. Butterscotch and bread pudding are weaknesses. The mere thought of the combination was almost too much to bear.
1314 N. Washington St., Wilmington, 655-9463, domainehudson.com | PRICES: Appetizers, $11-$15; Entrées, $28-$38. | RECOMMENDED: Duck liver mousse with seasonal pickles and charred bread, chestnut fettuccine with sage butter, aged duck breast.