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Review: Satsuma Asian Kitchen +Bar

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Cambodian spare ribs are prepared with lemongrass, ginger, scallion and crushed almonds.

Satsuma

1707 Delaware Avenue, Wilmington, 656-3015, www.satsumakitchen.com
Recommended dishes: Wild salmon with fennel and orange, seared spicy tuna, duck salad
Prices: Little plates/sushi rolls $7-$13, large plates $17-$20

The Friday happy hour crowd, boisterous and electric on domestic beers and holiday spirit, raged on in familiar fashion at Satsuma Asian Kitchen + Bar this winter. At overcrowded hightops, Wilmington’s Trolley Square denizens—the city’s young, kinetic army of paralegals, junior bankers and social media managers—gathered as they normally do, to get nicely lathered, take selfies[1], and shout things at one another[2].

But upstairs in Satsuma’s tranquil dining room, the kids seemed miles away. Here among the intimate, aqua-colored booths, decorated tastefully with black-beaded chandeliers, the only extraneous noises were the gentle creaking of darkened hardwood floors and silverware clinking over plates of tuna tartare. All seemed peaceful.

Until…Another recognizable noise. Distant this time, but building rapidly into an earthshaking crescendo of rumbles and clangs. This was, of course, the CSX train thundering by on the old B&O rail line. It was right outside our window.

For anyone who’s spent time inside 1707 Delaware Avenue, where the Del Rose Café operated for nearly 50 years, the train sounds like an old friend. Since 1962, customers found comfort here among the beer-soaked, darkened rec-room din, where live rock bands and squashing crowds were as familiar as the rusty train trestles outside. It was a place for chicken fingers and homey Italian classics like chopped antipasto, for stumbling around during the summer months on the enclosed patio. It was the opposite of fancy[3], and that was basically the point.

So when the Del Rose closed unexpectedly last spring, it felt puzzling to watch Michael DiBianca, the multiple James Beard-nominated chef best known for his work at imminently upscale Moro, swoop in.  Wouldn’t his Hyde Park credentials, and his whimsical, lavish cuisine clash with the Del Rose’s loveable drabness? Wouldn’t his recipe for chopped antipasto call for organic red sorrel and ibérico ham. And wouldn’t it cost $47?

With the rebranded and renovated Satsuma[4], DiBianca strives for balance. With artful, simple dishes—like the striking shrimp “mojito”—he’s free to indulge his creative side while honoring the building’s casual spirit. And the vibrantly plated shrimp—blanched, butterflied and fanned out like a starfish in a fortified puddle of lime-kissed rum, coconut flakes, charred pineapple and fried mint leaves—made boilerplate shrimp cocktail seem like a faded memory.

Keeping the bar scene and recession-proof booze[5] and its heart is a smart play for Satsuma, and one that’s worked well at places like Jose Garces’ Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, where creative drinks and uptown snack food reign.

From Left to Right: The wild salmon is served with fennel, orange, tarragon oil and popcorn.;
The flash-seared spicy tuna is served with seaweed salad, Ponzu vinaigrette and wasabi peas.

 

Armed with a newly installed sushi bar and pan-Asian “street food” inspiration, Satsuma pairs lychee saketinis with perfectly flash-seared tuna, seductively soft and splashed with poppy ponzu vinaigrette; or ginger-infused Osaka mules with a crunchy pile of shaved Brussels sprouts, slowly wilting under the flavorful potpourri of cinnamon, Asian pear slices and compact sausage rounds.

Patrons can still get Miller Lights by the bucket, but they can also grab $3 pints of craft beer from Evolution and Goose Island, or something from the impressive but approachable bottle list, like Fordham’s Copperhead ale, or Sixpoint Brewery’s touted Bengali Tiger.

After a few of those, the cravings for cheese steak eggrolls, or the truffle- and duckfat-laden “Duck-Duck Disco Fries” become hard to ignore. Greasy, comforting goodness comes in all shapes and sizes at Satsuma, from the overstuffed pork fried wontons dripping with honey-sesame oil glaze, to starchy udon noodles, jumbled together deliciously and haphazardly with chewy mushrooms, wilted basil and plump edamame beans—all with an oozing fried egg on top.

The marriage of drunk and divine didn’t always work out. A pleasing porky crisp and lemongrass bbq sauce suited Cambodian spareribs well, but out of three, only one arrived without fatty stretches of gristle. Korean-inspired meatballs, whose aromatic, pineapple-soaked sauce showed promise, were themselves shriveled and hardened from overcooking. The sushi bar’s proprietary roll creations were mostly decent but forgettable spirals of tuna, tobiko and tepid[6] mayo sauces, with a few experimental wildcards—like the oddly satisfying pork belly-fried-onion Cubano roll—thrown in for good measure.

But DiBianca’s penchant for top-shelf product can only go unnoticed for so long. Unsheathed and unescorted, fish like the velvety wild salmon gleamed freshness. Dressed simply with thinly shaved fennel, tarragon oil and orange suprêmes, the salmon coursed with fingerprint-pattern fat lines, indicating its proximity to the fish’s belly, and giving it a great buttery richness. Not even the superfluous handful of microwaved popcorn (huh?[7]) strewn around the plate could spoil it.

Another DiBianca hallmark—his militantly perfect duck confit—found its way from Moro, shredded and spreading its silky richness into wilted green cabbage hunks, tart green apple slivers, and cashews.

That the chef can wedge this much of his wizardry into such a goofy and charmingly cramped floorplan is a feat unto itself. The upstairs, salvaged office space, is as impossibly narrow as the bar area. Calibrating seats for 50 diners—let along making the space feel inviting and intimate—must’ve seemed like building a Barnes & Nobel inside a gym locker.

To top it all off, the bar crowd, the chef’s target audience, hasn’t missed a beat. They’re still a pain to nudge through, but they’ve returned to the familiar brick walls in force, chopsticks replacing the garlic knots in their hands.

The missing domino between Scratch Magoo’s, Kelly’s Logan House, Catherine Rooney’s and the rest, Satsuma seems destined for Sunday Fundays, Love Seed Mama Jump reunion shows and every last godforsaken bar loop imaginable.[8]

If the heralded chef’s Trolley Square[9] stature grows, you can pencil in the Duck-Fat Disco Crawl for late summer.



[1] Your 2013 Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year, ladies and gentlemen!

[2] I’m sure there was also a SnapChat or two.

[3] Though that chopped antipasto was consistently great.

[4] Moro means blood orange in Italian, and Satsuma is Japanese for mandarin orange. Marketing consultants call this “brand consistency.”

[5] Still the restaurant industry’s undisputed revenue champ.

[6] Several dishes that were marked “spicy” on Satsuma’s menu failed to deliver much in the spice department. Weirdly, it was the usually docile bowl of steamed edamame that provided the most punch, thanks to a liberal dusting of dried hot pepper.

[7] One of the few times a menu items coaxed an eyeroll out of the server.

[8] Satsuma’s two-word digital strategy, per the company Facebook page: “NO COVER!!!!”

[9] I use the term Trolley Square loosely and colloquially. No harm intended to the steadfast residents of Forty Acres and their allies.