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Taste an Asian Flair at 8th & Union Kitchen

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For Brian Ashby, life indeed happened while he was making other plans. The chef was contemplating a move to New York City when the possibility of buying Union City Grille in Wilmington presented itself. He jumped at the chance and soon was busy renovating the corner building  in Little Italy. “I have a stake in the neighborhood,” says Ashby, a UD grad who lives in the area. “It has a lot of potential.”

In April, he opened 8th & Union Kitchen, specializing in contemporary American and Southeast Asian cuisine—with a big emphasis on the latter. Think soft pork dumplings, piquant Thai beef salad and fragrant pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup that encourages “slurping.” For hesitant palates, items like burgers, rib-eye steak and fish and chips are pleasant alternatives.


Photography by Luis Javy Diaz
 

The restaurant reflects the owner’s time spent working at a Southeast Asian restaurant.

8th & Union’s mussels with lemongrass and red curry.

Chocolate-peanut butter spring roll with caramel sauce.

The modern-day gastropub—with a copper-topped bar, subway tiles, bare wood tables and a lovely cherry-blossom mural—is a reflection of Ashby’s experience working at a Southeast Asian restaurant while he was across the globe attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Australia-Sydney.  “I had never had a chance to live abroad,” the Delaware native explains. “And it had beaches, and they speak English.”

The brick-and-mortar result of his travels is impressive. But then, Ashby grew up in a restaurant household. His parents, Robert and Sandra Ashby, own The Deer Park Tavern in Newark, the three McGlynns Pub locations and Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa. Make no mistake, though. The younger Ashby has made the new place his own.

Chef Brian Ashby.

“Every day, I tweak something,” he says. “I’m receptive to my customers.” The chef gets diners off to a good start with complimentary popcorn seasoned with salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, cinnamon and red-pepper flakes. The sweet-heat combo sets the stage for a meal redolent with palate-pleasing ingredients. 

The only letdown was our chicken banh mi. The cutlet was breaded and fried, schnitzel style, as promised on the menu, but the baguette sandwich lacked any traditional pâté, and the paltry pickled carrot and cucumber languished between the bread. Our other choices were much more successful.

The flavorful summer rolls, wrapped in delicate rice paper, enveloped shrimp and prosciutto and were served with a thick peanut dip. The flash-fried calamari got energy from a swath of galangal aïoli, a garlicky mayo with undertones of ginger. But it was the pork belly bao sliders that left us swooning. The airy steamed buns with pickled carrots and cilantro were a nice foil for the slow-cooked, silky-rich meat.  

Grilled shrimp with green papaya salad.

For the teenager at our table, the American cheddar burger, cooked medium rare, as asked, satisfied a need for more familiar food. The plump patty obliged with lettuce, tomato, cheese and aïoli. Hand-cut fries were tucked into a Chinese takeout container—a seemingly requisite method of delivery in many casual restaurants these days.

The beautiful seafood pho was heavily steeped with shrimp, skate (the fresh fish of the day), radishes and avocado in, alas, an indistinguishable broth. Garnishes of rice noodles, watercress, Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime wedges and chili pepper slices were mounded in a separate bowl to be added to the soup, rescuing the dish from blandness. From the Big Plates section of the menu, I chose pad Thai, and was glad I did. The toothsome rice noodles tangled pleasantly with a generous amount of shrimp and chicken (you can order either separately), crisp bean sprouts and tamarind for a faithful rendition of the well-known dish. 

Seared tuna salad with egg, green beans, avocado and shishito peppers.

In most cases, the kitchen carefully orchestrates a balance of seasonings. But if you need more spice and fire, jars of chili oil paste sit on the table to doctor your food. Eighth & Union doesn’t shortchange guests when it comes to desserts, either. Pastry/sous chef Jayne Pawlikowski keeps the Asian ethos in mind with her creations. The chocolate peanut-butter spring rolls, for instance, are a sweet counterpart to their savory cousin. Warm and crunchy, the small wraps are even better when swirled in the accompanying caramel sauce and with a dollop of peanut-butter ice cream. 

Several flavors of homemade ice cream are offered daily. We became quick fans of the Thai basil chocolate ice cream. Even the moist peach cake was elevated with mango-cherry chutney, pickled peach slices and buttermilk ice cream. Ashby’s jaunt around the Pacific Rim certainly benefits the taste buds of tiny Delaware. Sit inside at one of the 150 seats or outdoors on the 25-seat deck and become happily immersed in a melting pot of Asian and American flavors without leaving town.   

 

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