Brio Tuscan Grille
305 Christiana Mall Road, Newark, 368-1448, brioitalian.com
Recommended dishes: bruschetta, sweet potato risotto
JB Dawson’s Restaurant & Bar
315 Christiana Mall, Newark, 369-4000, jbdawsons.com
Recommended dishes: slow-cooked ribs
Nordstrom Sixth & Pine Restaurant
100 Christiana Mall, Newark, 613-6000, shopchristianamall.com/dining-entertainment/nordstrom-sixth-pine-restaurant
Recommended dishes: lime-cilantro skirt steak
The Christiana Mall looked, to me, otherworldly.
Stepping through an entrance and looking around for the first time since its $125 million-dollar overhaul made my melon swivel like a tourist in Times Square. The crowds, the lights, the stores—even—all spell instant sensory overload to my poor, sheltered brain.
But with the holiday shopping crunch upon us, spending extended periods of time at the mall this month seems unavoidable. At some point during the endless, frenzied shopping, you’ll need to eat.
The food court is back and refurbished, with its endless supply of fried nuggets and syrupy moo shu, and standards like Auntie Anne’s, Orange Julius and Cinnabon remain in force as go-to guilty pleasures. There are also new, slightly fancier digs, including California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory and locally owned Pacuigo Gelato.
But in this new mall, where upscale is king and Anthropologie and Michael Kors are the standards, only the best will do. So in an effort to supplement its destination shopping with destination dining, property bosses General Growth Properties lured a handful of buzzy, boutique chain restaurants into the roster.
Page 2: Sixth & Pine
Here were three that caught my eye:
The almighty Nordstrom opened with a bang in April with a black-tie gala, shelves of expensive shoes, and a stylish culinary outpost, Sixth & Pine.
Named for the Seattle intersection that’s home to the Nordstrom mother ship, Sixth & Pine is on the second floor, past a thicket of mannequins wearing Marc Jacobs and Helmut Lang.
Swanky designer brands, it seems, should be left outside. S&P is low-key, considering Nordstrom’s trademark panache. It’s retrofitted with a smooth, rumpus room interior and an honest-to-goodness deli counter. Sandwiches, salads and deviled eggs and other noshes are orders of the day here.
Shoppers in need of refueling will find Sixth & Pine to be a happy, relaxed respite. Who needs Pikolinos when there are pickled veggies and a frosty mug of Boylan’s orange cream soda?
The crew here prides itself on great picnic food, with sandwich standards built to order, and a rotating menu of heartier fare available. A bowl of chicken pot pie seemed appropriate one rainy evening, and it hit all the right spots with its tender shredded chicken chunks, and a buttery rosemary biscuit that sopped up all the velvety broth.
The one-man kitchen is more than happy to roll up its sleeves, on occasion. Entrées like horseradish-crusted salmon and braised short ribs comprise the small main course menu, and from it sprang one of the better steak frites I’ve had in quite a while (the best I’ve had inside a shopping mall, hands down). Juicy skirt steak hit the flat griddle just right, leaving a satisfying crust, and a lime-cilantro aioli, spiked with chipotle powder, lent ample dimension to the beef.
Such scintillating flavors left a plate of bland, institutional chicken salad in the dust, but there was still much to love here.
Like the photographs of iconic Delaware locations (Dolle’s in Rehoboth Beach and the old F.W. Woolworth on Market Street in Wilmington) that come straight from Delaware Historical Society. It’s a nice nod to First State patrons, who are test-driving the very first Sixth & Pine in the country.
So long as shoppers’ hunger for warm pastrami sandwiches and crab Louis salads remains strong, it should be a good ride.
Page 3: JB Dawson’s
Just outside the mall-proper is JB Dawson’s, a spacious, soaring grillhouse whose base of operations is Reading, Pa.
This is the third JB’s location, and it looks mighty impressive—the decor is all American beef, with swooping plank ceilings, stone walls and oversized crimson booths. There’s track lighting and oldies piping through the house speakers.
JB’s specialty is simple and inviting pub food. With an almost scary precision, the open kitchen pumps out reliable American fare like spinach-artichoke dip, cheeseburgers, steaks and ribs.
It’s all the stick-to-your-ribness you’ll need this month, as a few excellent dishes I sampled attested. A muted spice rub enlivened my delectable 12-ounce strip and brought out an extra swash of juiciness. The accompanying creamed spinach? Oozy, salty therapy from the crunch of shopping crowds.
Sadly, Dawson’s subscribes to another American tradition: overindulgence. Surely those Cajun shrimp skewers could do without the Texas toast and the creamy garlic-butter dipping sauce, and customers would survive the bread basket without the brown sugar-maple butter. (And I won’t even go into the flat-screen TVs in the restroom.)
Such rich proportions wouldn’t be a problem if the food wasn’t so often pallid and off-putting. JB’s prized Danish baby back ribs were smoky-sweet, but their meat was overly unctuous from too much time in the oven, and fell from the bone in mushy hunks. The smoky aroma was more Marlboro red than applewood.
Dawson’s fulfills a need for mall-goers’ traditional appetites, but a little restraint and tact would go a long way. When our charming waitress came around for dessert orders, she was met with only doleful eyes.
“Does anyone ever even make it to dessert?” I asked.
Nope, she said, but the trick is to order them to-go. Dessert had to wait for next time. First we needed a few laps around the mall to regain a heart rate.
Page 4: Brio Tuscan Grille
Brio Tuscan Grille could be considered the crown jewel of Christiana’s new collection, since it is easily the most grandly appointed and gastronomically advanced. I can safely say that it is the only spot in the mall where you can order beef carpaccio.
“We’re not the typical mall restaurant,” piped our server, on cue, as he set down a plate of bruschetta and cocktails.
It’s true enough. Brio, a Columbus-based chain, is resplendent in Old World earth tones, bronze highlights, yawning palm trees and sepia artwork. The eyes are immediately drawn to the silky centerpiece that drapes down from the ceiling of the dining room.
Brio’s operation is big enough to support a menu that includes safe, Italio-American standards like chicken Milanese, lobster ravioli and veal Marsala, while also delving into more daring space. Raw beef is an obvious example, but the kitchen proved more than capable of turning out succulent lamb racks, creamy risottos and great house-made pastas.
In fact, I implore Brio ownership to open a secondary kiosk inside the mall just to sell its fabulous bruschetta, which, judging by the cheery guests around me, was going gangbusters inside the restaurant. Ours came stacked with peppery pesto, mozzarella cheese, balsamic reduction, a salsa of tart, yellow tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, shaved Parmesan and chiffonade of basil. Like only the best-formed chocolate chip cookies, the toasty bread base was simultaneously crunchy and chewy.
Such a happy explosion of flavors was the norm at Brio, and although there are occasional casualties (the mozzarella, for instance, gets completely lost in the shuffle), the results were usually good.
From the breezy stone-tiled patio and a round of people-watching, we dug into chicken-and-sweet potato risotto, studded with salty pancetta, pine nuts and grilled asparagus. This is hardly the simple peasant food of Tuscany, but I doubt anyone will press charges. Not when the chicken is this tender, flavors this fully realized and Arborio cooked to such righteous consistency.
Kudos, too, went to the well-executed braised beef tournedos, which dripped savory jus onto orzo, sautéed zucchini, grape tomatoes and fresh thyme while a light perfume of garlic applied a delicate zing.
Fettuccine Napoli, made in-house, took to smoked chicken, caramelized onions and sun-dried tomatoes like a champ, while crispy pancetta crunched over a light white wine sauce and a generous dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Maybe a sprinkle of cheese is all it took for me to look at the mall through less petrified eyes, although I still get lost circling around for the off-ramp. A few solid choices for food, be it pastrami on rye or fritto misto, helps big time.