At a Glance
109 Main St., Odessa, 376-0600, cantwells-tavern.com
Starters and small plates $4.99-$10.99
Braised pork shank, she-crab soup, burgers
The solution was practically staring Debbie Buckson in the face.
As executive director of the Odessa Historical Society, Buckson had uncommon insight into her once-bustling little town, and knew it had potential to live again. It had history. It had pretty, tree-lined streets. But there was still one thing Odessa didn’t have—a great restaurant.
At least, it hadn’t for a long time.
During the 1820s, Cantwell’s Bridge Hotel and Tavern was one of several thriving taprooms in Odessa, serving proudly as the town’s country inn during its profitable years as a busy shipping port. The hotel’s Federal-style architecture and warm atmosphere denoted sophistication, and it supplied boat captains, businessmen and important visitors with a place to cool their heels.
To reawaken the glory days of Odessa, the historians needed their tavern back. And after a grueling, six-year overhaul, the modern-day Cantwell’s opened in late fall.
Running the show is Bob Ashby, a man who knows a thing or four about historic pubs. As the longtime owner of The Deer Park Tavern and McGlynn’s, Ashby brings a proven track record and four Delaware restaurants that share a knack for pub cuisine with huge flavors.
Cantwell’s continues Ashby’s tradition admirably, with a modern, seasonal flare. That, and Ashby’s habit of producing some of Delaware’s most outstanding hamburgers. Culled from grass-fed Angus cows from Crow Farm in Kennedyville, Md., Cantwell burgers were impeccably fresh tasting, bursting with robust, unadulterated beef flavor. The house specialty Cantwell’s Burger elicited smoky bouquet from two thick slices of homemade bacon, which, unfortunately, gave way to huge sections that were burnt to a cinder.
But house-made bacon, as well as homemade pickles, mustards, sausages, hand-cut fries, (and even house-cured gravlax) are admirable and tantalizing feats. Many of the house-made niceties are gathered on salmagundi: a Colonial-era chopped salad antipasto with prosciutto, andouille, tomatoes, Cabot cheddar, deviled eggs, chick peas, roasted peppers and romaine lettuce. Chef Dan Sheridan, a Hotel du Pont alum, parlays his superior attention to detail into other plates, especially his gratifying braised pork shank, a meltingly tender hunk of shoulder meat that dismantled easily into a rich cassoulet of broad white beans, mushrooms and matchstick apples all bobbing in a rich, woodsy pool of jus.
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Given the surroundings, you can’t blame Ashby for flaunting a little fine-dinery, particularly because they usually succeeded at it. The old country inn seemed like a sensible setting to borrow some of Lowcountry South Carolina’s best culinary traditions, like etouffée and she-crab soup. The star of Sheridan’s etouffée is the homemade andouille, a blissful arrangement of smoky peppers and pork fat, brimming with paprika and spices. They made for a rich and satisfying etouffée, which drenched plump shrimp in a rich, aromatic lacquer, and arrived ladled over creamy polenta.
She-crab bisque, transformed from boilerplate fish-house familiar to transcendent nectar of Neptune, thanks to the inherent richness of crab roe and a dash of sherry, which draws out gentle notes of sweetness from bundles of crabmeat.
More great ingredients topped brick-oven-crisped flatbread, a cracker-thin vehicle that held fennel-specked salami, melted Vermont cheddar and matchstick Granny Smith apples. Flavor combinations this solid, anchored by the lovely pungency of salami, were appreciated, but the flatbread itself was frustratingly thin and unsubstantial. A larger dollop of palate-clearing apples would be another good adjustment. Or it could simply take notes from the nicely balanced basil tuna salad, a cool, relaxing burst of color on a plate that invigorated all the senses. Pink rectangles of tuna fanned over a stack of jicama, carrot, red bell peppers, and greens, all tossed in a piquant cilantro vinaigrette.
A testament to Ashby’s consistency, Cantwell’s executes the simple stuff with ease. Humongous baked oysters (at least five-inchers, on average, I’d guess) received a dusting of breadcrumbs to offset the perfectly briny and ductile oysters, which were again topped with scant celery greens. Cantwell’s raw bar lists bivalves from Chincoteague Island, Malpeque Bay and Blue Point, Conn., and are all available as shooters (which everyone should try at least once) floating in vodka, cool veggie broth and a wicked, horseradish-laced cocktail sauce. Your singed nose hairs will forgive you, eventually.
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But there were occasional glimpses of the kitchen overextending itself. Pan-fried snapper, a fish special on one evening, arrived coated in a starchy flour dredge. Only instead of forming a light, crispy crust, the starch created an impenetrable rubbery armor. Worse, beneath the fishy bulletproof vest, the meat was mealy and mushy.
Cantwell’s brick oven pizzas lacked the crispy, slightly-scorched addictiveness of great brick oven crusts, and instead arrived dense as tack and looking unappealing dark brown in color—signs the pie spent too long in an oven that wasn’t hot enough. A few minutes later, I overheard our waitress inform another table that the brick oven was acting up. Where was our warning?
Such slipups didn’t do much to sink Cantwell’s, and most were forgiven in time for the dessert course, where the kitchen again shined. Decadent chocolate pecan pie zapped all the same pleasure zones as a perfect chocolate chip cookie, chewy and crunchy in all the right places. Colorful French macaroons, sandwiched around whipped butter cream, were inhaled ruthlessly.
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Judging by the rapt crowds in the dead of January, Ashby and the historical society are well on their way toward reigniting Odessa. Cantwell’s is indeed an easy place to root for, a daring intersection of good intentions and a great idea. And if it succeeds, it will help the town flourish and continue its work as a vibrant, living link to the community’s past. It’s a big-time risk, too. With full respect to Lorenzo’s Pizza, Cantwell’s becomes the only game in town, so it’s fair to wonder whether there’s enough of an audience among the proud M.O.T.ers to keep packing the old hotel.
“We needed to look for consistent revenue instead of waiting for the next tour bus,” Buckson said. “We’ve talked about it for so long, and everybody realized how important it was. It’s a major milestone for Odessa.”
With its refined country menu and a dedicated team at the helm, Cantwell’s has all the ingredients to usher in another heyday in this sleepy enclave. There’s something almost hypnotizing about the place. The gentle creaking of the hardwood floors, the ancient, hand-sketched renderings, the fireplaces and hidden side-cabinets flung in every corner—the elements all combine to create an incomparable atmosphere, one that evokes the weight of history and the vitality of today.
Before long you find yourself looking up from your plate of oysters and staring off into a faded map of the Appoquinimink waterways, wondering whether everyone cured their own bacon back in 1822.