I think back to a conversation with chef Bryan Sikora about four years ago, shortly after he and his wife, Andrea, had opened the charming La Fia bistro on Market Street. By then, Sikora had accomplished more as a chef and owner than many twice his age. He had big ideas and enough knowledge to try something new, and had seen enough of the country and various dining scenes to recognize his true culinary home when he saw it.
From the comfortable proximity of his Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, one of the hottest tickets in the region, he observed Wilmington. He knew the downtown, with a melding of cultures from millennial hipsters to everyday professionals to Brandywine Valley blue bloods—and with a renewed energy around revitalizaton—was the place. If the newly renovated Queen Theater could take off, so could a vision like La Fia.
RELATED: Bryan Sikora’s La Fia Bakery
The La Fia vision: a menu of inventive yet familiar food, quietly rustic, prepared with local, seasonal ingredients, all made from scratch and by hand, including the bread. Those who understand the rigors of baking in large quantities will appreciate the degree of commitment it takes, and Sikora is nothing if not committed, working long hours at the time to meet his own high standards. (Remember: Everything was prepared from scratch.) Diners responded enthusiastically, spurring the Sikoras to translate a similar vision into Spanish by opening Cocina Lolo a block away during the summer of 2015. At Cocina Lolo, Sikora applied a La Fia-like approach to Mexican- and Latin-inspired fare, with a similar response from foodies.
In their latest endeavor, the year-old Merchant Bar, the Sikoras succeed once again, this time by expanding the world view. Merchant has the cosmopolitan vibe of a great maritime city—I think specifically of San Franciso—with a menu of food and drink that accommodates diverse tastes.
Modestly scaled, Merchant felt lively even with the smallish group of patrons that visited midweek in late January. Bands of two to five ate at the few tables while a dozen or so chatted in pairs at the bar or took their drinks to the communal table up front. We were seated at a high-top next to the large store-front windows on Market Street, a perfect vantage point for watching doings inside and out.
In many ways, Merchant mirrors the prevailing gastropub aesthetic—Edison bulbs housed in brass pendants suspended from high ceilings, exposed duct work, honey blond hardwood floors in a basket weave pattern, and a room-long marble counter and bar. Yet the nautical imagery—framed prints of lighthouses and figureheads, paintings of old sailors, reproductions of archaic maps—set it apart, giving the place a feeling both sophisticated and slightly salty.
The menu, almost equally split between seafood dishes and those for landlubbers, reinforces the vibe—Nova Scotia mussels sit harmoniously with a hearty burger. The menu is also almost equally split between a small selection of starters and larger plates.
We began with a dish of diced red and golden beets loosely interpreted on the menu as “pickled.” The dressing was wonderfully subtle, tangy with a hint of sweetness amplified by a hint of fresh tarragon. Small dabs of ricotta added some silkiness to the gently cooked beets. The light touch spoke more than any bold pickling could have.
As we enjoyed the mix of Motown, soul and old funk overhead, we settled on two more starters. The calamari was a must, one of the true gauges of a kitchen’s finesse. The light touch was evident again in the delicate batter and the balance of peppery aïoli and sprinkle of sweet corn chow-chow, neither of which amounted to more than just enough to complement the perfect texture and flavor of the fish.
The irony of the light touch is that it stands out by not standing out. It was most apparently unapparent—or is that unapparently apparent?—as a dish of four large shrimp grilled only long enough to impart a whiff of smoke. It would have been a crime to mask the sweetness of such truly fresh shrimp with a heavy prep, so the kitchen again spoke softly, topping them with a light tomato salsa, a modest crumble of queso fresco and a bit of fresh chopped cilantro.
Sikora’s dedication to craft and quality ingredients expresses itself even in the cocktail selection, as the “bar” part of Merchant Bar implies. On the traditional side, the house gin and tonic starts with top-shelf Hendrick’s and Fever-Tree Tonic—made by a company that prides itself on having found the world’s purest quinine—and finishes with a garnish of cucumber and juniper berries. Signature drinks include a cocktail of soft Espolón tequila blanco infused with jalapeños mixed with fresh lemon and pineapple juice with mezcal and vanilla.
We chose instead from the small list of wines and beers. The Carol Shelton Wild Thing Zinfandel proved a little too extravagant for the delicate flavors of the beets (our bad). Moving on, our server—friendly and efficient, despite flying solo for the evening—deftly recommended the Costamolino, a citrusy white that proved a perfect complement to the smoke of the shrimp. Kudos to her.
The wine paired equally well with Merchant’s chicken tagine. The dish gets the Sikora twist, served quartered and deboned on a wooden board with a sautée of cauliflower, celery, carrot and golden raisins in a crock on the side with a souffle cup of harissa. I couldn’t say if the dish was prepared in a tagine, but it showed all the tenderness and blend of Mediterranean seasonings it should have.
By far the highlight was the crab pad Thai. I could go on about the toothsome rice noodles, the textural counterpoint of the peanuts, the fresh, earthy snap of the sprouts, and the intriguing pepper and smoke of the shrimp sauce, but what most deserves note is the abundance of domestic lump blue crab. Where other restaurants might have served crab from Venezuela or Indonesia—the readily available, mealy, bland crab that some places try to pass off as equal to the blue crab from our Atlantic coast—Sikora remains committed to quality. His commitment is less an awareness that his public is paying attention than an innate certainty that only the best will do.
Which elevates all his restaurants above others that claim to be bistros or Latin places or gastropubs—and which gives us one more reason to wish him continued success. 426 N. Market St., 543-5574, Wilmington, merchantbarwilmington.com
PRICES: Appetizers: $12-$14; entrées: $18-$20
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Grilled shrimp, crab pad Thai
Moroccan chicken with a sautée of cauliflower, celery, carrot and golden raisins with a cup of harissa.//All photos
From left: Red & gold beets with ricotta; calamari served with sweet corn chow-chow & spicy aioli.
Crab pad Thai with domestic lump blue crab, rice noodles, peanuts and shrimp sauce.