Chicken and corn chowder, shrimp and lobster pot pie, cajun meatloaf
Ryan Cunningham caught some hell for messing with chicken and dumplings.
The straight-shootin’ executive chef at Milford’s newest restaurant, Abbott’s Grill, might not be welcome at the Cracker Barrel anymore for his desecration. The nerve, serving gnocchi in place of shortening and flour. Somewhere, Paula Deen is fainting into her stand mixer.
“That’s definitely been the most controversial item on the menu,” says Chrissy Sarro, one of the restaurant’s managers. “We try to tell people that it’s not like their mothers’ chicken and dumplings. Some have said, ‘Screw you. We’re never coming back.’ And then others have loved it. That’s just Milford.”
That’s just Milford, a town of dichotomies—rent in twain by the Mispillion, straddling two counties, producing seven governors while harboring a countercultural icon such as comic book artist Robert Crumb. That’s just Milford, which, while beaming small-town American splendor, has welcomed armies of new families and retirees.
But on the restaurant tip, Milford hasn’t been nearly as welcoming. Sarro, former owner of the late Library Square Café for 10 years, has seen how fickle new locals can be about restaurants. “You’re definitely appealing to a lot of demographics and a lot of new people, so it can be kind of crazy,” she says.
Enter Abbott’s Grill, which uses some of that hard-won wisdom to position itself as a place that can please the town’s many palates. The Grill certainly has the guns to do it, and if its first few months of service are any indication, it could be in for a long run.
The man with the vision was Kevin Reading, chef-owner of the wonderful Nage in Rehoboth Beach. Reading, business partner Josh Grapski and Cunningham (an ex-Nager and former chef at Bonz in the Harrington casino) form the front office, along with Ryan’s brother, manager Matt Cunningham.
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The team has made Abbott’s into a place that’s about comfortable, local flavor, or, as the voice on the answering machine chirps, “A place for family and friends to gather.” There’s something on the menu for everyone: fried green tomatoes and mac ’n’ cheese next to baked brie and apricots, as well as beautiful braised lamb shank next to something called fry-chos.
Before opening, the Abbott’s team performed a little reconnaissance on a few of the town’s chain places (which are going gangbusters even as locally owned restaurants close left and right). What a clever idea. If Ruby Tuesday’s can clean up with salads and burgers, why not Abbott’s? And you’d better believe Abbott’s would be much better.
Reading and Cunningham have the talent to turn salads into wonderful creations and to make burgers masterpieces of local bison patties with portobellos, smoked onions and bacon—all the while keeping the tab under $20. I didn’t get to try the fry-chos, but I’ll bet they’re delicious. Nearly everything else I ate was.
From the start, it’s easy to see the labor that has been poured into these dishes. Reading and Cunningham’s knack for hard-fought flavors can be found everywhere on the varied menu. Even simple creamy chicken and corn chowder, with its barely-there tendrils of tender chicken and notes of sweetness, took hours to perfect. The kitchen roasts whole cobs of corn, shaves off the kernels, then steeps the bare cobs in cream to begin building the broth. Tasso ham comes through with much-needed saltiness.
I really enjoyed the few occasions when the kitchen eschewed traditional down-home cooking for a hybridized haute-country style. Such was the Cajun meatloaf, a hunk of meat so juicy and tender, it yielded like birthday cake to a fork. The traditional country gravy was very good, but I dug the dollop of peppery chutney, whose hints of curry and ginger had me thinking Far East instead of Southeast.
Earthy shrimp and lobster pot pie, meanwhile, had me pining for Nantucket. The dish is steeped in French tradition. The velvety filling was lobster veloute, a creamy lobster broth built from mirepoix, roux and bouquet garni. The veloute I would guzzle like Gatorade. The only negative was chewy, slightly overcooked chunks of lobster.
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On paper, flatbread pizza of clams Casino topped with frisee and bacon salad seemed a strange idea, but all the dots connected. Little lumps of clam, loosely shielded in Parmesan breading, dotted crisp, pita-like crust while frizzles of frisee and bacon provided sidestrokes of clean bite and saltiness. Drizzled over the whole beautiful mess was warm chive oil.
It saddens me to think the best dish isn’t offered during summer. Should they return in fall, try Abbott’s luscious pumpkin gnocchi. The dish showed Nage-level sophistication and warmth, with the pillowy gnocchi acting as focal point in a thick ragout with tender chunks of braised lamb, sun-dried cherries and butternut squash in a sweet Madeira reduction. It was a warm woolen sweater of a dish, hand-knit by grandma with love and served with shaved Parmesan on top.
Reading helped spearhead farm-to-table dining in Delaware at Nage, and it would seem this concept is an even better fit in Milford. The restaurant sources from local farms, including Colvine Bison Farm on Del. 16 (for bison chili and burgers) and Evans Farms in Bridgeville. It’s one of a handful of ways Abbott’s is working hard for acceptance. (It takes its name from Abbott’s Mill, a town landmark.)
Servers appeared at times in need of a bit more spit-shine, as well as more study time with the day’s food specials, but they exhibited genuine friendliness and charm.
Then there’s Bald Jason, Abbott’s wacky unofficial mascot, whose name graces the adjoining pub. The building, which previously housed Smith and Co. Restaurant, is essentially divided in two: Abbott’s Grill on one side, Bald Jason’s on the other.
Smith and Co. had been looking very New York, 1980s, so the Abbott’s team reupholstered booths and modernized the dining room. Bald Jason’s is tricked out with 17 flatscreen TVs. So whether you’re after beer and burgers or Jerusalem artichoke risotto, it’s here.