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The River Rock Kitchen Combines Comfort and Culture

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photos by Ron Dubick

After 18 tempestuous years, the Wilmington Riverfront has recently begun to take the shape of the upscale, urban funplex its developers always imagined. The vision of men like Arthur Trabant and Russell Peterson involved transforming an industrial waste site—albeit one with a storied history—into the city’s new cultural annex. But through its ups and downs, the Riverfront has accumulated quite a stable of attractions. Amid its sizable collection of fine-dining and family restaurants, there are its high-dollar condos and IMAX theater, not to mention the trampoline park and the opera company. The Westin Hotel might be the most important addition yet. When the four-star, 180-room hotel and its green-tea-scented air wafted into town this spring, it furnished the beleaguered hamlet with a needed amenity. The city’s $40 million investment is the first hotel built there since 1980, but with the massive Chase convention center and its slate of large-scale events, the Westin forms like Voltron as a natural appendix. And this is no ordinary hotel. The Westin chain, which owns a palace in Madrid and whose bed linens are sold at Nordstrom, is recognizably high-end. With its fashionable mix of rustic retro-whimsy, the Riverfront location and its lobby “vertical gardens” feel informed by the upmarket boutique sensibilities one might find inside an Anthropologie store.

River Rock Kitchen, the hotel’s in-house restaurant, works in step to evoke a similar sense of comfort and culture with an artful, open floor plan and a stark color palette. A giant print of a soothing waterfall serves as a visual keystone, and with powerhouse locavore minds like David Lattomus and Kristin McGuigan navigating the current, the motif extends to the food. Both chefs have worked the legendary stoves at the Hotel du Pont’s Green Room, and both know a thing or two about mixing traditional and cerebral styles of cooking to satisfy the city’s demanding palates.The approach mostly works at River Rock, where a tapas menu allows Lattomus and a team of promising chefs—including Danny Bullock, the son of New Castle County Council president the Rev. Chris Bullock—to present a creative set of culinary voices throughout a mixed bag of a small plates. There are swaths of classic Brandywine Valley refinement—tender, crispy slices of duck breast in a pool of port-wine reduction and local strawberries, or the hen-of-the-woods mushrooms that boost the house-made ravioli with rich Manchego cheese—where balanced flavors, precise execution and artful assembly set upon white, teardrop-shaped plates are reminiscent of the Green Room itself.

And there are the soulful injections and innovations that help elevate less showy ingredients to greater heights: the pine-nut purée, preserved lemon and Asiago cheese that bombard the crunchy kale salad with lively flavor, or the smoked Roma tomatoes and blackened spring onions that add dimension and barbecue flair to pan-roasted pork tenderloin. Black-garlic aioli and whole-grain mustard add kick to panko-breaded crab cakes, while summer corn hash is reborn as a “cassoulet” with slivers of blue crab meat. And then there are the mindful remixes of bar-food essentials: the meaty, bacon-wrapped chicken wings, whose Thai-garlic hot-sauce coating renders them crispy and spicy in all the right ways, or the smoked cheddar, Old Bay and herb-studded sauce that transports crawfish mac and cheese to decadent new levels.

Occasionally, the balancing act seemed to lose its sense of equilibrium and finesse, resulting in a few well-intentioned attempts that didn’t quite land. Braised pork shoulder and house-made gnocchi were engulfed by red-wine jus that gave the pasta nuggets a rusty brown hue and flattened the flavors of lemon thyme, fennel and mushrooms into a dreary and bland pile. A rack of braised buffalo short ribs, over mashed potatoes, clunked with equal resound, its meat lukewarm and gristly with a pallid complexion. I liked the way compressed Asian pears and segments of yuzu coaxed the lightness and depth from pan-seared scallops, but the seafood’s chewy texture laid waste to the sauce. A pale flap of “pan-kissed” skate wing fronted a mess of a dish that combined the bitterness of wilted dandelion greens with the dried-garlic funk of toasted “everything” bagel crumbles. Only in moments like these did River Rock seem guilty of the less-desirable traits of selling sheen over substance and artistic outré concepts packaged and delivered with overwrought corporate countenance.

But like the Riverfront itself, River Rock possesses much promise. Bursts of great food—and a fine green-tea-infused Mojito—prove that its ambition is in the right place. And as the Westin’s culinary team continues to develop its own voice, it will have a lot more to add to the local dining conversation.

818 Shipyard Drive, WIlmington, 654-2900, www.riverrockkitchen.com

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