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Bonus Coverage: Roundup of the Old and New Stars on the Restaurant Scene

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Mona Lisa’s escargot. Photo by Ron Dubick

Every year brings a wave of restaurant openings and closings, but changes of the past 12 months have a different tenor. With new styles of food comes a new attitude or, at the least, an attitude that’s never been expressed so clearly.

“We want to be a part of the community for a long, long time.”

The words belong to chef Bryan Sikora, owner of the much-anticipated La Fia Bakery + Bistro + Market on Market Street in Wilmington, but some version of them has been spoken by all the new owners this year.

The trend, with a few exceptions: smaller, cozier, approachable and homey, with an intent to be not just a business, but a vital, longtime part of a community.

And by homey, we mean just that. Jacques and Kellie Macq, owners of Mona Lisa Euro Bistro in Wilmington, live with their toddler daughter upstairs from the restaurant. Meghan and Joe Church spent months renovating their new home—their first—on Rehoboth Avenue into Bramble & Brine, the hottest thing to happen in Rehoboth Beach in a couple of years.

As for chef Donny Merrill, owner of the wildly popular Skipjack in Newark, “People are thanking me for being here. It’s been wonderful.”

Driving the attitude is the realization of a dream or long-term plan to open one’s own place, accompanied by the desire to put down roots.

Sikora, a native of Western Pennsylvania, kicked around the country through his 20s and early 30s before opening the acclaimed Django in Philadelphia, then Talula’s Table in Kennett, a place so popular, its one large table was booked a year out. In Wilmington, he saw a place to call home: a town with a supportive community that would respond enthusiastically to his culinary approach: sophisticated food that seems simple, all made in-house, meaning the bread served with your white bean-squash ravioli and duck ragout was baked that morning. A charming space with large storefront windows, a tin ceiling and warm wooden floors adds to the comfortable feeling. 

“The experience doesn’t have to be a one-time thing,” Sikora says. “I want people to know this is a nice, warm, welcoming place you can enjoy often. I want people to feel at home here.” (La Fia, 543-5574)

One of the big surprises on the dining scene has been Pochi Chilean Cuisine and Wine Bar in Wilmington, where chef Patricia Millan and husband Braulio Roja have won a loyal following for the food of their native land. Millan, whose recipes come direct from her mother and grandmother, had family in the business at home. When she followed her brother, a psychologist, to Philly a few years ago, she discovered Wilmington. In it, “I saw an opportunity in the people,” she says. “I believed my food would change a little bit what people think.”

The warm, cozy dining room with honeyed oak floors hosts newcomers and regulars who have responded to fare such as pan-seared Chilean sea bass over sautéed garlic spinach with blackberry reduction and sautéed sweet potatoes. The dish is typical of Chilean cuisine, which employs many of the ingredients American diners love, but in different ways. Other than a few early patrons who sent their dinners back to the kitchen because they didn’t understand that ceviche is chilled, the city has responded enthusiastically. (Pochi, 384-6654, pochiwinebar.com)

Also from South America comes a second The Chicken House Charcoal Grill. In Claymont, owner Nancy Pacheco is building on the success of her original Peruvian Chicken House in Newark. The star is charcoal-grilled chicken, marinated according to a recipe developed by her husband’s family in Huariaca, Peru, 70 years ago, like the beef and pork. But The Chicken House also serves seafood a la several delicious ceviches. Sample the national drink, pisco, in cocktails or sours, as well as favorite beers like Cusqueña and Cristal, and South American wines. (Chicken House, 793-1504, thechickenhouserestaurant.com)

Mona Lisa reinforces the international presence in Wilmington. Jacques Macq, a native of Belgium and the general manager at the Wilmington Country Club for seven years, had been looking for a place to buy until finding Mona Lisa. “The goal was to buy a small place we could handle,” Macq says. “We wanted to do it the European way. We wanted to live and work in the same place. We wanted to create a true European bistro.”

Keeping the name Mona Lisa, formerly an Italian restaurant, kept the faithful. Adding “Euro Bistro” attracted new fans. All visit for classics such as veal schnitzel with späetzle and lamb chops with Dijon-Parmesan crust. Appetizers include escargots and shrimp Lejon. Other European touches abound.

“I always wanted my own place, Macq says. “I’m here 25 years, then I’ll give it to my daughter.” He laughs. “I’ll sell it to my daughter.” (Mona Lisa, 888-2201, monalisaeurobistro.com)

Meghan Church grew up in Rehoboth Beach, and she misses old favorites such as The Seahorse, The Avenue, Chez La Mer and The Garden Gourmet. With Bramble & Brine, she wanted to revive the vibe of those places, along with the favorite foods—but with a different flair. Husband Joe, the chef who helped put popular places like Eden and Jam Bistro on the map, thus gives the twice-baked potato and ribeye steaks new life, as well as surprising diners with dishes of rabbit and venison. “Organic, locally sourced—those are things which we think are a given,” Church says. The kitchen is open to the dining room so patrons can see everything in the works, and because the place is also the Churches’ home, it’s furnished in their own casual way.

“I hear this a lot: ‘I feel like I’m in my grandmother’s dining room.’ I love that, because I feel like I’m in my grandmother’s dining room,” Church says. “This isn’t just a restaurant. It’s a house. Joe and I are here for a long time, so just come visit. We’re having a good time.” (Bramble & Brine, 227-7702, brambleandbrine.com)

Speaking of game, “I can’t keep the venison chili in the house,” Merrill says. And he may never be able to remove antelope from his ever-evolving menu at Skipjack. Some iteration of antelope has been a mainstay since his Krazy Kat’s days.

Skipjack’s nautical decor—model ships, trophy fish, ring buoys and brass instruments—suggests the Eastern Shore, as does the name Skipjack, so fish is a big part of the experience. But Skipjack isn’t easily pigeonholed. “It’s all over the place,” Merrill says. “We’re doing whatever we feel like.” And that has proved popular with locals. So has a Sunday brunch with fun fare such as Monte Christo sandwiches of turkey scrapple, Black Forest ham and Jameson-maple applesauce. “The quality is there, with a different attitude,” Merrill says. “We’re about comfort.” (Skipjack, 456-1800, skipjacknewark.com)

 

A new sensation in Wilmington’s Trolley Square: Satsuma Asian Kitchen + Bar. The latest from chef Michael DiBianca, longtime owner of the exceptional Moro, Satsuma inhabits the old Del Rose Café, which was gutted to make way for a rustic-contemporary space with exposed brick walls and rafters, open ceilings, modern fixtures, a sleek black bar and an eight-seat sushi bar. The menu is wide-ranging, diverse and original, offering sushi such as the crispy shrimp roll with macadamia nuts and remoulade; street food such as fried chicken sliders with cheddar and daikon sprouts in aïoli; and entrées such as seared scallops with wasabi potatoes and almonds in soy brown butter. “I’ve always liked the freshness and simplicity of Asian food,” DiBianca says. “But we’re not focusing on one area of Asia. It’s all of Asia. Very non-traditional.” When the weather turns, head to the upstairs deck. (Satsuma, 656-3015, satsumakitchen.com)

Cantina di Napoli Italian Grill & Bocconcini, from the same family that opened the original Cafe Napoli on Kirkwood Highway and Tarantella di Napoli in Newark, has also joined the bunch in Trolley Square. The restaurants are famous for homemade pastas, traditional seafood, veal and chicken dishes, and ample portions. The pizzas that made them famous 20 years ago are as delicious as ever. (Cantina di Napoli, 777-3300, cantinadinapoli.com)

New at the beach: Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria in an old oyster warehouse across from Catch 54 in Fenwick. The latest from SoDel Concepts owner Matt Haley, Papa’s offers a huge variety of tacos, from lamb mole to lobster to fried clams to tongue. Rice bowls include a dish made with pork belly, pineapple and plantain. The bar stocks every kind of tequila available in Delaware, and the crew there is aging a few of its own (they’ll mature in about three years), while concocting some interesting infusions. The open air upstairs dining room feels like another world. (Papa Grande’s, 436-7272, papagrandes.com)

Here’s a warm bienvenidos (welcome) back to the former Tijuana Taco Shop, now Margaritas Grill. After 10 years, the Lancaster Avenue favorite closed its doors in Wilmington, then moved out to Prices Corner. What made Tijuana Taco a landmark—authentic Mexican food prepared under the direction of the exacting DeMucha family—translates perfectly to the new location. But the new place comes with a new Tex-Mex corner on the menu, too. The decor, with its cheerful yellow walls and humorous Day of the Dead murals, is a bit fancier, but the service is as warm as ever. (Margaritas Grill, 660-7915, facebook.com/pages/Tijuana-Taco-Shop/10150105681110173)

On the subject of Mexican, Cromwell’s Tavern in Greenville has changed its name to Cromwell’s American Tavern & Taqueria. For the first time in the 23 years since it opened, the local favorite has changed its menu and concept in a big way. Owner Pat Nilon, recognizing the popularity of Cromwell’s weekly Authentic Mexican night, expanded the menu to include 18 Mexican dishes, including burritos, tacos, quesadillas, taquitos, enchiladas, fajitas and more. “Sometimes you want enchiladas and a top-shelf margarita, and your better half wants a world-class burger and a robust Malbec, and you both want spicy buffalo chicken winglets. Now you don’t have to compromise,” Nilon says. “We like to think of menu changes as evolution rather than revolution.” (Cromwell’s, 571-0561, cromwellstavern.com)

Another big change of the past few months has been the conversion of the Stone Balloon Winehouse in Newark to the 16 Mile Taphouse. Vintage maps of Delaware and wooden casks have replaced the Old World maps and wine barrels of the Balloon, but otherwise the place looks the same. The big difference is an emphasis on the beers of 16 Mile Brewery in Georgetown and a gastropub menu from chefs Sean T. Howell and Brian Mackey that often incorporates beer in the recipes. That manifests as appetizers such as house-cut fries with 16 Mile beer-cheese fondue, lump crab, pork belly, scallions and tomato, as well as a po’boy sandwich of shrimp marinated in 16 Mile brew. Game appears here, too, as seared loin of venison with green beans, demi glace, fried potato and beer spaetzle. (16 Mile Taphouse, 266-8111, 16miletapjouse.com)

In May, Zack King changed the name of his Old Bay Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach to Delaware Distilling Company. Preceding  the change came an onsite distillery, then permitting to vend its own spirits. DDC is best described as like a brew pub, but with an emphasis on its vodka, gin and rum. “It’s done the right way,” King says. That means no additives or artificial ingredients.” Great food such as crab cake dinners and cioppino are done the right way, too. Lump crab served atop a Bloody Mary made with DDC vodka could be a cocktail or appetizer. You decide. (Delaware Distilling Company, 645-8273, delawaredistillingcompany.com)

The big news in Lewes is the return of the Rose & Crown, open in the former Bésemé space in the Hotel Rodney. Delebrity chef Jay Caputo offers the same kind of tweaks to British pub fare that elevate it the way he elevates Mexican food at his Cabo in Rehoboth Beach. Deviled eggs are filled with crabmeat, bacon is ground into the beef for bacon cheeseburgers, and the shepherd’s pie gets duck confit and root vegetables. The five-onion soup wins raves. The beer list encompasses standard brews and several craft varieties. (Rose & Crown, 827-4475, roseandcrownlewes.com)

Also new at the beach: Brothers Su-Kyun Shin and Jay Shin keep it basic and delicious at their Sushi Heaven in Lewes: sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, tempura and appetizers such as shumai. But they give things a subtle twist, such as spiced rices in their sushi rolls. You’ll also find a few Korean specialties, such as bi bim bab (rice and veggies)  and short ribs. (Sushi Heaven, 644-2223, facebook.com/sushiheavenlewesde)

A welcome addition to bustling Main Street in Newark: The Melt Down, a specialty grilled cheese place that is going gangbusters thanks to a full menu of novelties. To wit: The Baja Melt, a gooey delight of Monterey Jack cheese, avocado, tomatoes, pulled chicken and Baja butter on Italian bread. Special butters—rosemary butter, Parmesan butter and others—are part of the Melt Down secret. Bread from Philadelphia’s famous Le Bus is also part of it. The rest is constant experimentation with recipes. You’ll also find soups and salads, offered in various combos, and a treat you just have to try: a grilled ice cream sandwich. (The Meltdown, 737-1135, meltdowngc.com)

The former Padi in Hockessin is now Asian Kitchen Bar and Grill. The ownership is the same. So is the great Japanese, Thai and Malaysian fare, as pioneered by sister restaurant Rasa Sayang in North Wilmington. With traditional apps such as chicken satay you’ll find non-traditional sushi like a tartar of tuna, salmon, avocado, black caviar and wasabi-yuzu sauce. The crispy red snapper fillet is a must. (Asian Kitchen, 239-1800, padirestaurant.com)

With its strict adherence to the rules of coffee culture and varietals from around the world, The Drip Café in Hockessin may be heaven for coffee geeks. But owner Greg Vogeley and chef Brittany Yoder  are committed to a breakfast and lunch menu of local, seasonal foods, one that changes every five to six weeks. (The Drip Café, 234-4430, dripcafede.com)

Sarah McKeown’s Nectar Café & Juice Bar opened late spring in part of Cake Bar’s old space on Second Street in Lewes. You’ll find plenty of fresh juices and smoothies, but there is lots of healthy breakfast food, too. Smoked salmon comes with the standard accompaniments. Fresh brioche gets turned into French toast with pecan-bourbon sauce. Pesto and arugula make green eggs and ham. (Nectar, 645-5842, cafenectar.com)

Jim Bauerle of Dewey Beach Enterprises bought the old Captain’s Table, then re-named it the Table and Taproom, a gastropub with farm-to-table fare. Chef Jason Dietterick prepares lobster mac-and-cheese with buttery lobster and smoked Gouda. He serves crispy-skinned salmon with braised red cabbage, roasted cauliflower and roasted garlic purée. He sneaks a little beer into a few recipes. (Table and Taproom, 227-6203, captainstablerehoboth.com)

Tom Holmes of 17776 Steakhouse in Rehoboth Beach and Tammy Mozingo have turned the former Luca space in Millsboro into The Pint Pub & Eatery. “The concept is to take people back to a corner bar in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Holmes. It’s a little bit Irish, a little bit English and a little bit American. That means you’ll find a variety of burgers, as well as Irish fare such as a boxty—a fried potato pancake—with various toppings. A Hobbit Pie joins bangers and mash on the selection of entrées. (The Pint, 934-5822, thepintpub.com)

El Diablo Burritos, the popular Cali-style burrito stand in Trolley Square, opened a second space in North Wilmington, next to Culinaria in Branmar Shopping Center. In addition to oversized quesadillas, you’ll find all the usual taco-burrito fillings, plus some not-so-usual ones such as goat cheese, feta, braised short rib and leg of lamb, plus a variety of housemade salsas and picos. (El Diablo,  691-5532, eldiabloburritos.com)