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Ameritage Bistro

Ninth and Orange streets

Wilmington

427-2300

www.ameritagebistro.com

 Prices Small plates $8-$12, shared plates $6-$12 and up, entrées $16-$22, desserts $6

Recommended dishes French onion soup, omelets, rockfish, pork chops 

True Bistro

Ameritage hits the hallmarks: good food, casual atmosphere, great prices.

Bistros are booming. In Delaware, there’s Eclipse Bistro, Corner Bistro, The Bistro at Bear Trap Dunes and Partners Bistro. In spring Dan Butler opened Bistro on the Brandywine next to Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford. And downtown, the old Brandywine Brewing Co. space has become Ameritage Bistro. (Try saying all that 10 times fast.)

But will we always have Paris at any of these eateries? Not likely. If you’re into authenticity, you’ll want hex-tile floors, painted mirrors over a wood bar and al fresco tables scattered near open windows. About as close as we get in this area is Coquette Bistro in Philadelphia.

For the most part, the bistro has become corrupted. Need proof? Visit P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, which couldn’t be any further from the original concept. The French would faint if they saw those towering horses looming above a Parisian sidewalk.

In this area, a bistro is now a trendy marketing term for dining that’s casual, comfortable and offers some flair. If that is the definition, then Ameritage succeeds. Yet is also makes a respectable effort to deliver dishes that have their roots in the traditional cuisine, which is more than many other so-called bistros do.

From the fat square of pork belly glistening on the plate to the poached egg quivering on a tangle of frisée, the cuisine often hits the mark. And the prices? Totally affordable, therefore totally bistro. The highest-priced entrée on my visits was $22.

The restaurant’s building at Ninth and Orange streets had stood empty until Michael Hynansky decided to open a restaurant. (He and his father, Winner Automotive Group owner John Hynansky, purchased the structure in 2002.)

I am somewhat suspicious of businesspeople who decide to venture into the cutthroat restaurant industry. Hynansky, however, quite smartly hired pros to take charge. General Manager Henry Dawson is the former assistant manager and wine buyer at Dilworthtown Inn in West Chester. Executive Chef Sean Holland’s background includes stints at Moro in Wilmington and the Farmhouse Restaurant in Avondale.

The Villanova firm Balongue Design handled the interior of the two-story space, and it is striking, albeit not very bistro-like. Opulent Medieval-looking chandeliers hang above shiny bare tables with an exotic striated finish. Prints of work by Gustav Klimt shimmer in gold frames. Tawny glass tiles front the granite-topped bar. It’s all warm and glowing, except for the open ductwork in the ceiling, which doesn’t jibe with the polished look of the place.

I also couldn’t fathom the diner-like menu covers, which came complete with a stretchy gold garnish. A few weeks into the opening they already looked hammered. I was told they were being replaced. One can only hope the owners go for brushed metal, wood—anything with a hipness factor.

On the whole, the appointments are urban but approachable. That is also true of the food. There is an effort to combine all that is working on the restaurant scene: good prices, just enough of the avant-garde to make diners feel daring, and a sampling of small plates, sharing plates and large plates.

French onion soup arrived in the proper lion’s head bowl, according to a dining partner who has traveled extensively in France and Belgium. Topped with gooey melted Gruyére, the flavorful broth was nicely balanced, neither too salty nor too robust.

Against some of the small plate options—including smoked salmon and mushroom bruschetta—a simple omelet might seem, well, boring. It was anything but. If you’ve ever tried your hand at making an omelet, you’ve probably turned a portion of the eggs brown and stiff. Ameritage’s version was soft, airy and a perfect buttery yellow. A decadent black truffle cheese turned the eggs into haute comfort food. I was glad I shared it, however. A little black truffle goes a long way.

Ameritage’s take on the Lyonnaise salad featured crisp pancetta strips instead of the usual lardons. Fine by me. I was more enamored of the poached egg’s yolk, which slowly oozed across the frisée, lending a sunny richness to the Dijon-red wine vinaigrette. But I couldn’t forgive the rubbery, tepid potato cubes, which tasted like they’d sat too long.

The charcuterie plate featured the requisite mustards, cornichons and salami. It was all respectable, which is no surprise, considering Ameritage is partnering with DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia, whose products are available in Ameritage’s market area. A pad of pâté or a terrine would have given the dish a boost and lent more authenticity.

Most disappointing was the server’s inability to name the meats. (We had to ask later. The runner just plopped the dish down and bolted.) “I’ve only been here a month,” the server said. Thirty days is plenty of time to identify soppressata, prosciutto and pepperoni—especially prosciutto, which looks decidedly different than the others. But even after he checked, he got it wrong.

Service was a tad rough on both visits. To be fair, we muddled things up at one dinner by ordering a smattering of items that could be delivered whenever they were ready. But somehow, the rockfish got lost in the mix. We reminded the server, who’d never placed the order. During the wait, he offered a complimentary glass of wine. It never came. Without telling us, he instead removed the cost of my existing wine from the bill.

I can’t complain about the wine list, which like the menu is a solid value. A glass of Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc from Chile was “crushing,” said one dining partner. And it was $6 a glass; $24 a bottle.

The rockfish’s tardiness did not detract from its flavor. Served with its crisped skin face up, the fish was prepared with a simple lemon and olive oil. I loved the cushion of long-stemmed artichoke hearts, white beans, carrots and fingerling potatoes, which made the dish light and hearty at the same time.

For something more substantial, opt for the center-cut pork chop. Attractively striped with grill marks, the sublimely tender chop was surrounded by a roasted garlic jus studded with golden raisins. The chop had a subtle Middle Eastern flavor that paired well with the slightly bitter broccoli rabe and a mound of toothsome wild rice. (Another plus: Ameritage includes a nice-size portion of sides with its entrées.)

We were disappointed with the cassoulet, where unused pork belly apparently finds a home. I had a hard time finding the promised duck and lamb, and the dish lacked a mingling of salty, herby flavors. It had no depth.

Ameritage offers the same menu at both lunch and dinner, which explains the offering of eight sandwiches. I tried the oven-roasted turkey breast on black pumpernickel, a thick sandwich that also included coleslaw, Havarti cheese and Hass avocado. The turkey was tasty and the crisp fries were spectacular. But putting avocado next to coleslaw was a waste of good avocado. I got all the calories and none of the flavor. I’d go with one or the other.

We decided to revisit the bistro theme with dessert, choosing the crème brûlée and the Linzer tart. The crunchy, brown crust topping the custard was perfectly executed. The custard, however, needed something to give it more flavor, if only more vanilla. The tart was quite decent, as far as these things go, but my favorite bit was the smudge of chocolate under the berries.

Ameritage, which has valet parking, is definitely worth the trip from the suburbs, and it far outshines some of the options you’ll find out there, no matter how convenient. But there’s another reason to make the drive: If you want to see a dynamic restaurant scene in downtown Wilmington, you’d best show some support.

Certainly, Ameritage deserves it.

 Table Toppers

 It is perhaps the hottest table in America. And it’s right in our backyard.

Talula’s Table (102 W. State St., Kennett Square, Pa., 610-444-8255) spends 12 hours a day as a gourmet market, selling local organic poultry, produce, breads, cheeses, fresh fish, Belgian chocolate and fine Italian coffee.

But once the clock strikes , Talula’s Table turns into a private dining oasis centered around a single farmhouse table. There’s only one seating of eight to 12 diners, who enjoy an eight-course meal prepared by acclaimed chefs Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, formerly of Philadelphia’s Django, for $90 a head.

This summer, the menu might include braised rabbit, summer sausage, olives and white beans, summer truffles, untanked lobster knuckle, and sweet homemade ham and bacon.

But if you plan to eat there, prepare to wait. Talula’s is booked solid for the next 365 days. Every day Olexy and Sikora receive hundreds of calls for that date the following year.

“When we left Django, we wanted to do what we do, only better—more focused, more local and with even better ingredients,” Olexy says. “We wanted to do it for our own love.” —Matt Amis

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