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Delaware’s own Donny Merrill brings his passion for big flavor to Skipjack in Newark

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The mango-rum grilled mahi mahi is served with  mango salsa, key lime mustard and jalapeno-infused sweet potatoes.

Skipjack

401 Louviers Drive, Newark  |  456-1800 | skipjacknewark.com
Prices: Appetizers $6-$12, sandwiches $8-$12, entrées $18-$26
Recommended dishes: crab cakes, pan-seared salmon, crispy “pork and beans” pork belly

The line that separates chef from rock star gets fuzzier all the time.

Even after you bypass the mohawks, tattoos, ear gauges and countless opportunities for hammy self-promotion and z-list reality stardom—chefs and musicians share more than a few strands of DNA. Their bodies and brains grind through a rigorous creative process, after which they promptly offer themselves up for public, often mindless, consumption. Theirs are projects of passion, performance and chops. The steady stream of panicked adrenaline, the kind that only hits in front a live crowd, unites their worlds.

Donny Merrill is one of the few who travels between both[1]. For six years, the head chef steered the ever-eclectic ship at Krazy Kat’s in Montchannin, while somehow finding time to hammer the drum kit behind Delaware’s legendary party band, Fat Daddy Has Been[2]. With a penchant for big, percussive flavors, the drummer’s rock star wiles translate exceptionally well to the chaos of the kitchen.

Espresso-grilled antelope

At Krazy Kat’s, with its perma-kooky feline couture and upscale clientele, Merrill tested the limits of his imaginative, hyperactive songbook. His uptown spin on bay-area cuisine pivoted around local ingredients, even before it was de rigueur. And behind every blood orange “caviar” or key lime gelée stood a fantastic crab cake or a fresh oyster. It wasn’t hard to imagine Merrill, with his inked-up arms, trucker hat and flowing beard of rock—going Dave Grohl on some jalapeno mousse, or buzzing some frothy anchovy emulsion to smithereens. Flavors ran wild and free—even a little unhinged—and the hits followed.

Thankfully Merrill didn’t forget the rock kit when he renovated a Newark storefront to open his own restaurant late this summer. At Skipjack[3], in the sleepy Shoppes at Louviers, the chef still found ways to slide mango pickles or chipotle gouda onto someone’s plate. But Skipjack also revealed a more matured, more soulful side. Hidden beneath Merrill’s love of zany were some bracingly traditional offerings.

As the cold set in for the year, he frizzled blocks of pork belly into crispy-tender perfection, and set them atop scoops of soul-warming, smoky bacon- and caraway-baked beans. As enormous fried pork chops, bone-in and dribbling with tangy apple[4] chutney, delivered waves of nostalgia to the brain, delicious jewels of roasted beets and carrots hastened their breaks.

Stout-braised hunks of beef shortrib, smothered in gravy, radiated with the same wholesome, homestead glow, and the eternally autumnal butternut squash found a reliable home inside oversized homemade ravioli, made better as always with mascarpone, basil, and plenty of butter. Smoked pears, boozy cranberries and a molten stream of brie foreshadowed the flavors of the holidays on top of crispy flatbread, along with salty, jellylike flecks of foie gras.

Skipjack’s crab cakes There were those rare occasions where the chef seemed to trip over himself adding one last, superfluous pile of tomatillo salsa or sambal aioli to a dish that probably didn’t need it. Mango-rum mahi mahi had at least two tropical-Technicolor window dressing too many. Mango salsa, key lime mustard and a jalapeno-infused sweet potatoes ganged up and ambushed an overmatched piece of fish. And while runaway flavors and frills didn’t doom espresso-dusted slices of antelope filet, the meat’s overly chewy texture[5] just about did, with no thanks in kind to the pile of undercooked potato wedges underfoot.

Considering the owner’s amplified flair, the actual inside of Skipjack felt strangely muted and stale. Even when lively crowds packed in, the dining room’s collection of nautical marginalia—fish tanks, model boats, host-stand captain’s wheels, and mounted bass[6] trophies—served as cluttered, slightly dated distractions. A motif handled like a blunt instrument, rather than an idea. Even on a practical level, the tchotchkes overshadowed some of the house’s best features, like its pubby wood stained wainscoting and refurbished bar.

But over-exuberance for our local seafaring lore, all things considered, is never really a bad thing. And when a style of cooking is held in esteem this highly, the results can be fantastic. Take Merrill’s razor-sharp rendition of the archetypal Chesapeake crab cake. Fried gingerly, and built proudly of jumbo lump, the cake came expertly assembled with just the right dash of flavorful binder, and allowed for a button of lobster cream to enhance its richness. Elsewhere, briny oysters on the halfshell were lovely by their naked selves, or embellished with a reverent nod by smoked-tomato cocktail sauce or cava-splashed mignonette.

And while crispy lobster rangoons, and crab-and-gouda tater tots strived mightily for nouveau-meets-homespun synergy, it came through best on a blistered hunk of pan-seared organic salmon. Cooked beautify to radiant pink hues, the salmon dripped its sinful tarragon-butter patina onto a sweet-and-salty bed of corn, tomatoes and potatoes wickedly crisped in duck fat.

Surprisingly, this crew kept the duck fat and chili paste[7] away from the desserts (though I’m sure they’re working on it). Somehow that didn’t keep a brandy-moistened slice of drunken-cherry clafoutis from achieving tender greatness, or a flourless chocolate torte from fudgy nirvana. The dizzying combination of toasty English toffee, salted caramel, and mocha ganache took a few tastes to register, but the crunchy house-fried donuts holes they adorned made it time well spent.

Like any good musician, Merrill will continue fine tuning. When tastes run as eclectic as these, finding just the right balance, level and sequencing is vital.



[1] But certainly not the only one. As a teenager I identified with Emeril and Jaimie Oliver because, like me, they drummed. Tom Colicchio can play the guitar, though if his signing is any indication, his bandmates might give him the Sid Vicious treatment. And Bordain, well, his loathsome NYC self-seriousness and drug abuse he’s more analog to Lou Reed than Louis Diat any day of the week.

[2] Which, sadly, announced a hiatus in October.

[3] Named for Chesapeake Bay-dominating oyster vessels that caught some 15 million bushels in 1884.

[5] Especially for $26.  

[6] Luckily (or disappointedly, I’m not sure which), none sang. 

[7] Sambal Oelek, which we can all safely infer is a lot like sriracha, because roosters.