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Delaware Dining: A review of The House of William and Merry on Old Lancaster Pike in Hockessin by Matt Amis

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“The Cheesesteak” entrée is made with a 10-ounce ribeye steak and served with ricotta salata, smoked brioche, heirloom tomato vinaigrette and pepperoncini. Photograph by Thom ThompsonChefs Gone Wild

At a Glance

The House of William and Merry Restaurant, 1336 Old Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, 234-2255, williamandmerry.com
Prices
Starters $10-$16
Soups and salads $8-$12
Entrées $23-$29
Recommended Dishes
Root beer salmon, bigeye tuna tartare, “Strawberry Fields”

 

No results found for “avocado scallop blue cheese banana walnut French toast.”

This was my poor Google toolbar after I asked it to find a recipe I had just eaten at The House of William and Merry, a recipe so strangely unique and spellbinding I felt compelled to search the World Wide Web for some kind of precedent—some occasion in time when someone else assembled those words together in a sentence.

No results found. I think this one is all you, W&M. And I think I can add safely that no other restaurant in Hockessin tonight is painstakingly stacking avocado slices atop seared sea scallop atop blue cheese-filled banana-walnut French toast.

Executive chef and co-owner Bill Hoffman finishes off a pork plate of sugar-cured, roasted belly bacon, white wine pork sausage, braised cheek meat with pickled ramp, shaved mushroom and tomato jam. Photograph by Thom ThompsonYes, that is all one dish. And I left out the pomegranate seeds.

Chefs Bill Hoffman and Bruce Galloway Jr. are sort of like kids in a foie gras shop. The pantries inside their charming converted Victorian house are stocked with golden watermelon, pickled ramp, purple cauliflower and more truffles than a Godiva store.

And they’re clearly having a blast, as dishes like the above can attest. “I have to put a leash on them sometimes,” said Merry Catanuto one night. Merry is married to Bill the chef, and they are the William and Merry from the name.

Both are trained chefs—Merry at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and Bill at the Philadelphia Culinary Arts and Design School. Merry worked as a chef at La Pastaia in San Jose, Calif., before returning to—where else?—The Deer Park Tavern in Newark. Bill has worked as chef at Wilmington’s shrine to ornate fine dining—the Green Room at the Hotel du Pont, as well as Bistro on the Brandywine, Columbus Inn and Eclipse Bistro.

The House is their first restaurant, and the owners picked the location wisely. Though it’s still just a census-designated place, Hockessin possesses the kind of well-to-do residents that will support an adventurous, upscale restaurant. And while there are some great places in town, there’s nothing quite in W&M’s genus.
 

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Hoffman and Galloway drive this crazy train, and they make it work. Scallops with avocado and French toast is utter Chefs Gone Wild, but it is not a typical menu item (instead, it came as part of a six-course chef’s menu one night). Hoffman’s nightly offerings often do push boundaries of flavors and concepts, but in a much more intuitive way.

A starter plate of tuna tartare sparkled in a swathe of cotton-candy-pink beet foam while cool cubes of watermelon and citrus mingled with the fish to compose a savory, refreshing assembly that went down like a poolside cocktail. Another night, the kitchen constructed the dish in a ring mold, with dots of pink and yellow watermelon purée encircling the tuna like a life preserver.

Co-owner Merry Catanuto serves wine from her mother’s California vineyard. Photograph by Thom ThompsonFrom the dessert menu sprang “Strawberry Fields,” the deranged, rich cousin of the old “dirt pie” dessert everyone’s mom used to make. The “dirt” at W&M is made from toasted and pulverized Marcona almonds (the Spanish “Queen of Almonds”—softer and sweeter than the stuff in supermarkets) and the strawberries are macerated in balsamic vinegar. Squares of homemade panna cotta had me craving more time to run in this field.

Consider all this terrific fun for food geeks. Yet Hoffman, clearly an ambitious chef hoping to make his name, also triumphed when he dialed down the dazzle and stuck with traditional flavor arrangements. Take his eight-hour veal, its meat slowly braised tender, and its fatty top layer fried, separately, into crispy, salty, heavenly oblivion. A nice summer succotash, brightened by backyard corn, played an applaudable second-fiddle, but this dish belonged to the meat. Typically a tough, fatty chop, the veal breast was rendered here pliable and rich in robust veal flavor.

Meanwhile, an eight-ounce sirloin got upstaged by a study of onions—among a few roasted cipollinis were sautéed onions that matched the sweet pitch of red wine demiglace, plus a few onions that had been fried into the best onion rings this side of the Charcoal Pit.
 

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For all his culinary gymnastics, Hoffman’s best dish sounded more like a Good Housekeeping recipe than nouveau cuisine. But his root beer salmon was, simply, one of the best salmon dishes I’ve ever eaten. An eight-ounce hunk of immaculate quality, the fish was marinated and then glazed in, well, A&W. The syrupy drink highlighted the sweetness in the salmon with surprising gentleness, its sugar content never overburdening the meat. It was, instead, impeccably moist and full of flavor.

Gina Bellumori pours a cucumber martini next to a caramelized pineapple martini and the peach dessert. Photograph by Thom ThompsonEven when dishes missed, they were at least interesting (see, again: scallop-avocado French toast). An otherwise moist and creamy duck confit pasta was overmatched by a dousing of ricotta salata—a salty cheese that vanquished everything in its path. Pan-roasted tilefish’s only crime was verging on the ordinary.

The upstairs loft-dining room at William and Merry is decorated with black, folksy box chandeliers that play against white ceilings and walls, and above bare wood floors. It’s simple and elegant, but it’s a small room free of any sound-absorbing material, so it can get quite noisy.

Bear in mind that ingredients this good don’t come cheaply, and the prices at W&M can get aggressive (a $14 appetizer plate consisting of two seared scallops was a particular brow-furrower). But the food and the kitchen’s sense of adventure is absolutely, unequivocally worth the price of admission.

 

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