At this rate, Tia Sexton will have the forearms of Popeye in about three summers.
Lime after lemon after clementine after whatever else she could dig out of the fruit crisper, squashed to smithereens beneath her kung fu citrus-juicing death grip.
Behind the onyx bar at her 14 Global in Bethany Beach, Sexton squeezed, stirred and shook some of the best cocktails I had last summer. Wild, but expertly balanced creations like The Ginger—made from clementine and lime juice, ginger-pepper syrup, Hendrick’s gin and an array of flavored liqueurs—made her seem like the Walter White of mixology. Her workspace was more a science lab than a bar anyway, with its vats of liquors infusing in rosemary, pineapples and the like, and jalapeno slices spiking a squeeze bottle of simple syrup.
For Sexton, the devilish drinks are one of several outside-the-box dynamics she’s built at 14 Global. The smallish, 56-seat dining room, armored in bronze and stonework, aims for a Pangaean, borderless approach to fusion cuisine. Hawaiian opah shares menu space with kangaroo sliders, the tacos go next to the springrolls. The meatballs are Moroccan; the eggplant, Japanese. Localvores, divert thy gaze.
The farm-to-table movement was supposed to kill restaurants like 14 Global, which opened in 2012. Lucky for us, it didn’t. When Sexton, along with chefs Shane Kellagher and John Speziale hit their marks, they spun some of the sharpest, most satisfying food going in Sussex County last summer.
The chefs, working from inside a matchbox-sized kitchen, often stoked their international ingredients into warm and vivacious things. Like their vividly aromatic Island Soup, whose smoky-sweet tendrils of crab and white fish swished in a coconut-infused broth. A hidden snap of lime and lemongrass added depth and backbone. Or their crisp but malleable pork belly confit, which was cured and smoked in-house. The hunk of pork radiated with a sinful chipotle-honey glaze, which dripped onto a pleasing bed of polenta studded with sweet corn, roasted red peppers and Manchego cheese.
Kellagher, whose previous stops include Rehoboth’s Pickled Pig Pub, clearly knows his way around a hog. Bacon snuck its way into lots of dishes—never a bad thing. The best of the bunch was his soulful little stacks of cornpone. Baked, then fried, the crispy logs were fused with generous hunks of bacon and cheddar cheese, then drizzled with maple syrup, landing a direct hit to the sweet-salty pleasure center of the brain. So too did the crispy duck confit and shaved asparagus salad. Dressed lightly in the smooth, sweetening notes of tarragon and green goddess dressing, the peppery asparagus, microgreens and salt-cured duck leg never overpowered, yet remained nicely balanced. Of course, where would sweet-and-salty be without its poster child, bacon ice cream? House-churned into a rich, velvety fluff and punctuated with caramel and biscotti, it was every bit as decedent as, well, bacon ice cream should be.
Simpler applications are OK, too, especially when solid technique can back it up. Kellagher and Speziale rendered pan-seared red snapper flesh into a perfect golden-brown crisp, which flaked apart beautifully into dollops of kiwi-strawberry compote. They wrangled the subtle gaminess out of grilled kangaroo steak before stuffing it into slider buns and expanding its flavor with slathers of Cabot cheddar, onion jam and garlic aioli. Elsewhere, a salty horseradish crust managed to assert itself just enough to enliven halibut filet without overpowering it, while a bed of toothsome white beans captured the punchy jus overflow.
Not everything worked so well. A soy-lime marinade imbued opah ceviche, an already-rich white fish, had too much salt that pulverized its texture, and left it waxy and mushy. Not even the house-fried wontons could save it. Ditto the bacon-wrapped jalapenos, which were stuffed with a gloppy, off-putting paste of braised beef and cream cheese. The peppers were also undercooked and still mostly raw. Attempting to cut them with a butter knife made the grayish stuffing spew out the end. It wasn’t pretty.
14 Global’s “communal plates” implied some level of tapas-style service, although most dishes seemed entrée-sized to me. With 40-some options, and tables ordering without abandon, the tiny kitchen occasionally got held up. Which would be a lot more grievous if Sexton’s amazing drinks didn’t fill the time so well.
A savvy veteran of the beach scene (most notably at Magnolia’s in Ocean View, and Agave in Lewes), Sexton went toe-to-toe with her kitchen’s creative wiles. So fresh and flavorful was her frozen kiwi-basil lemonade that it obfuscated the alcohol completely, leaving only a citrusy buzz in its wake. Muddled blackberries and Brazilian rum gave her Fuego Pisco a vibrant Starry Night quality, while the rosemary-infused King’s Cup blended rhubarb with Malbec and Crown Royal. Every blood orange mojito and acai berry margarita dazzled the eyes and tastebuds equally, and with lots of pop.
Quite a thing for quiet Bethany, where there are more strollers on the sidewalks than on the shelves at Bye Bye Baby, and places like Mango Mikes, Patsy’s and The Parkway serve nobly as the grown-up respites in the otherwise G-rated beachfront stretch. With bold flavors and thunderous drinks, 14 Global marks an interesting and welcome shift toward something more modern and exotic. Fortified by bacon and alcohol, the louder the better.