Autumn Vegetable Fattoush with crisped socca and sumac./Photo by Steve Legato
Let’s pretend for a moment that Domaine Hudson hasn’t enjoyed an unparalleled reputation for excellence for the entirety of its existence. Let’s pretend that it hasn’t been driven by an unbroken line of outstanding chefs. Let’s pretend that anyone can dine there without subconsciously comparing the place to past iterations, because slightly-new chef Andrew Cini and his team deserve freedom from preconceptions. That’s only fair.
But also, let’s be real. Any time someone new takes over at such a highly esteemed place, everyone—absolutely everyone—who has ever dined there with some regularity is going to compare. Not that Cini has taken over yet. As the sous chef of Domain for the past year, he is a place holder until owners Mike and Beth Ross find, they say, “a suitable replacement” for former chef Dwain Kalup. And Kalup, a recent James Beard Award nominee, is a tough act to follow. His duck liver mousse with Port reduction and pickled plums—one of the best dishes I have ever tasted—left me speechless.
(From Left): Kale and Chanterelle Confit with gribiche, pistachio and verjus.; Lamb shank./Photos by Steve Legato
But I’d make a case for Cini. He nearly did the same with a fattoush of crispy sliced watermelon radish and grilled zucchini lightly dressed in a vinaigrette subtly seasoned with earthy sumac—possibly the best dressing I have ever tasted. But it was the clever substitution of crispy socca—fried noodles of chickpea flour—for fried pita that made the dish interesting. Anyone who can elevate a salad in such a way deserves some props. (The server’s suggested wine pairing of Fabrice Gasnier Cabernet Franc rose was a skillful one.)
The fattoush is in perfect keeping with Cini’s interests. A Wilmington native who came up under some of the best chefs in Philadelphia, Cini is the former owner of the shuttered Mezze in Kennett Square, a casual tapas-style restaurant that offered a wide variety of vegan plates and ample Mediterranean influences. Those dishes translate beautifully at Domaine.
Our most recent visit, made on the cusp of autumn, featured a new fall menu. Among the seasonal starters was another delicious salad: a so-called confit of chanterelle mushrooms and kale with pistachios dressed in tangy verjus and rich sauce gribiche. The mushrooms were sliced into Ys that made a striking impression on the plate. The kale was wilted to an unusual tenderness. The dish created a warmth appropriate to the season, and the crockery it was served on, like the fattoush, spoke to the down-to-earth approach that is the basis of all things Domaine at present.
Chef Andrew Cini prepares dishes at Domaine Hudson in Wilmington./Photo by Steve Legato
More earthy goodness: a perfectly crunchy baguette straight from the bakers at locally beloved De La Coeur, and a selection of artisanal cheeses from Third Wheel Cheese Company, which unites farmers and small makers from across Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
More Mediterranean deliciousness: a ragu of mild rabbit and spicy sautéed mustard greens with chickpeas over hearty cavatelli, and the showstopper: a grilled whole dorado with fried baby potatoes. The silver-skinned fish was moist and firm, gently seasoned with a light salsa verde. But it was the mild smokiness of the flesh paired with mass of blistered shishito peppers that sent it over the top.
St. James tart is an almond cake with strawberry geleé and candied
Cini has an eye for elegant presentation. The lobster a la nage featured the white flesh of tail and red of the claw, both moist and tender, resting beautifully on the bed of black Beluga lentils tinged with anisette. (We ordered the appetizer-sized portion, but it could have been a meal on its own.)
A braised lamb shank, dark as night, stood out on a white bowl. Never mind that that glace sealed in the juices of a meat that fell off the bone, or that caponata and spiced pearl onions were thoughtful accompaniments.
Dishes can be ordered individually, but the three-course prix fixe adds dessert for $60, which is an incomparable bargain. Since we had already sampled three courses, why not do ourselves in? The chocolate pot de crème was a just-sweet-enough finish of cool, smoky chocolate custard and banana mousse topped with Chantilly cream. The St. James tart was an equally subtle, rustic almond cake dusted with confectioner’s sugar and paired with a bright strawberry gelée on the side. Nothing was too sweet. I appreciated the restraint.
So let’s get back to the comparisons that no fair-minded diner should make. A review of Kalup’s Domaine Hudson in March 2017, titled “Better Than Ever,” dinged one entrée for lack of balance. It was delicious just the same. In similar fashion, I’d be tempted to ask Cini to reconsider the rabbit in the ragu, perhaps as a confit, or in some form other than the ground bits presented—delicious as the dish is as a whole. If that’s the worst that can be said, the menu is a great success. Cini maintains the record of excellence established by those before him, and that is no small feat.
1314 N. Washington St., Wilmington, 19801 • 655-9463
Prices: Soups, appetizers and salads: $10-$28; entrées: $26-$50; desserts: $10-$25
Must-try: Lamb Shank, Autumn Vegetable Fattoush, Kale and Chanterelle Confit