Kale and arugula salad with figs and feta cheese./Steve Legato
The market has proven otherwise. Interest in traditional fine dining has been waning for years. Too stuffy. Too expensive. Too out of the way, in most cases. With today’s emphasis on so-called profit centers—and actual profit—no business wants to float one division at the expense of others. And no restaurant can survive on special-occasion celebrations and Mother’s Day brunches, no matter that they always sell out. Yet even on Valentine’s Day a few years ago, a consistently busy night for restaurants everywhere, there were many empty seats in The Green Room—and that was well before the recent uptick in new restaurants.
So, I cede, grudgingly, that the time for change has come, while hoping against hope that things don’t change too much. I can’t imagine a Wilmington without a Green Room, and I can’t imagine a Green Room without cuisine that equals the spectacular space in which it is served—a Green Room without the amazing free span of its soaring coffered ceilings, the 20-foot-high windows, the heavy drapes, the oak paneling, the pendulous chandeliers—without, in short, everything that makes merely sitting in such a place a world-class experience.
I thus recall our most recent visit wistfully, nostalgically, even, from this short distance. From the first whisper-quiet footfall onto the lush carpet to the moment we said goodnight to the piano player on the way out, the experience was everything the famous restaurant has promised for a century. The room casts a spell. Even if I’d known the visit would be one of my last to the current iteration, there could be no effort of memory or imagination that would have made the occasion feel any more special. Special has always been The Green Room’s day-to-day fare.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras served with herb ricotta donut and jalepeño jam./Steve Legato
The servers’ white gloves disappeared long ago, but good service never has. We were greeted and seated with a degree of decorum that is all too rare these days. That’s not to say service was formal or stiff. It was anything but: casual, friendly, prompt, unobtrusive. The servers—all three who visited our table at one time or another—were genuinely interested in our feedback as they learned a fall menu that had been introduced only days before. The experience felt like more of a sharing than a transaction.
That fall menu teemed with the flavors of the season: apple, exotic mushrooms, hearty root vegetables and cranberry. We started the only way it seemed one should, with seared foie gras served with a light ricotta “doughnut” and surprisingly sweet jalapeño jam. The silky foie gras, lush as only foie gras can be, was so perfectly seared it easily have stood on its own, but the pastry was a delight just the same.
Pork belly added a touch of salt to two jumbo scallops that were stacked with meaty trumpet mushrooms and topped with micro greens, all on a plate painted with a swirl of apple-rosemary purée. A salad of young kale leaves and arugula burst with the tang of feta and the sweetness of quartered fresh figs, all kissed with just enough fig vinaigrette.
(From Left): Executive chef Keith Miller.; Jumbo sea scallops served with trumpet mushrooms and micro greens./Steve Legato
The list of entrées clearly veered toward the classic: Peking duck, Scottish salmon and the like, all touched by various international and modern influences. We opted for a hotel signature. I proudly own my snobbishness on crab cakes, so I’ll quibble with the kitchen on The Green Room version. A hint of green pepper produces a flavor that belongs to crab imperial, and the pan searing on this night produced a crust that verged on croquette crispy—too much, in my mind, for crab meat. That didn’t diminish our enjoyment, and it doesn’t diminish its status as a local favorite, though I found the accompanying parsnip purée cloying. The tumble of caramelized parsnips and carrots on the side would have sufficed.
A lackluster rice-and-vegetable entrée hints at the need to refresh. Assuming the dish is there to appeal to vegetarians, it shows that the kitchen doesn’t understand their tastes or needs. Today’s vegetarians are much savvier about nutrition and gastronomy than those of yore, and they demand consideration.
Ardent omnivores would be pleased, however, by the delicious grilled venison loin. I can think of no finer addition than the medley of exotic mushrooms. With the purée of herbed celery root, the dish was at once refined, rustic and, I hope, a fair hint of what lies ahead.
Hotel du Pont crabcake served with caramelized carrots and parsnips./Steve Legato
The owners promise a new French concept in the spring. If we can read “new” as the au courant French cuisine, there is ample reason to get excited. Its respect for tradition certainly suits The Green Room’s proud past while leaving lots of room for exploration and innovation. That seems a perfect way for The Green Room to carve out a new place in Wilmington dining and—dare I say it?—lead the broader local restaurant scene the way it did 40 years ago.
Till then, I urge you to book an evening at The Green Room while you can, especially if you’ve never been. It will be memorable.
Note: The hotel’s neighboring Brandywine Room will continue to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Green Room,Hotel du Pont, 42 W. 11th St., Wilmington, 594-3154
Starters: $11–$23, salads: $10–$14; steaks and chops: $33–$41; entrées: $26–$44
Recommended: Hudson Valley foie gras with herbed ricotta doughnut, jalapeño jam and butternut-pecan-cranberry chutney; venison loin with herbed celery root purée, trumpet royale, hon-shimeji, maitake and organic beech mushrooms, and plum-balsamic reduction