Ernest & Scott Taproom
902 N. Market St., Wilmington, 384-8113, ernestandscott.com
shrimp and lobster risotto, chopped brisket burger, Cuban-style pork tenderloin
Appetizers $6.50-$14.50, entrées $17-$24
In Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Owen Wilson hops into a magical cab, emerges in 1920s Paris, and pals around with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the movie, the pair come across like a literary Laurel and Hardy. Hemingway, brusque and macho, is a primordial picture of masculinity. He refers to things he likes as “noble and true.” Fitzgerald meanwhile is portrayed as polite, fey and sophisticated—and frequently overwhelmed by his nutty wife, Zelda.
Ernest & Scott Taproom, named for the American literary giants (one of whom, Fitzgerald, spent a few years living in Delaware), doesn’t bonk you over the head with such dichotomies. But the Market Street “beer-garden,” which debuted in January, harbors a few interesting contrasts of its own.
Owner Scott Morrison and his team overhauled the former Public House into a mishmash of old and new. Regal purple and gold drapes separate the bar from the dining area, and lend chic, while a towering sculpture in the main dining area hugs mammoth oak beer barrels, with the old Delaware Trust griffin logo blazed into the heads and staves. (The griffins, naturally, have hop cones for tails.) Outside, a light-up scoreboard-style sign lures Wilmingtonians inside toward the sparkling LED archways.
Fine, so Flashing Lights v. Coopery doesn’t have quite the same zing as Fitzgerald v. Hemingway. But what about Beer v. Food? Or Wilmington v. Rehoboth?
Helping to sort it all out is Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione, who consulted with Morrison on the E&S concept. The globetrotting Calagione had not only his cachet and celebrity to loan, but an arsenal of world-changing beer artistry.
The results of the collaboration are clear: E&S has taken the next big leap in Delaware’s gastropub revolution. Its weapon is a strong rotation of cask- and bottle-conditioned beers. The unfiltered and unpasteurized brews are known as “real ales” to beer nuts because they contain live, natural yeast, which over time helps to develop deep, rich flavors in beers. Served room-temperature and without extraneous gases to get in the way, conditioned beers are literally alive with fermented essence.
From one cask dripped DFH’s 75 Minute IPA, brimming with dulcet maple flavor and the bite of bitter hops. Cask offerings rotate four at a time, and brewers represented on my visits included Yards and Evolution. An even longer list of bottle-conditioned beers exists. (Same concept, different vessel.)
The E&S bar is stocked additionally with bottles and kegs of strictly American craft beers, and its tenders are happy to line up four-pour samplers for the indecisive.
Clearly E&S invested heavily in its beer program, so it’s fair to wonder whether the food can keep pace. Like Chelsea Tavern, Morrison’s cross-street venture, E&S subscribes to comfy, bistro-style cuisine, with a shake or two of uptown flare. His chef is Kevin Torpey, whose previous posts include Harvest Grill. He’s upped his game at E&S, subbing headstrong flavors in place of Harvest’s low-cal minimalism. Though at times, it seemed like the kitchen couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be big and bold like Hemingway, or elegant and poetic like Fitzgerald. Often, the dishes with the most flavor arrived in less-than-stellar condition.
Flounder Francese, for instance, could’ve used a bit more primping at the expediting station. The tender filets soaked up loads of zest from a citrus-butter sauce, but the plate’s many disparate parts—unruly mounds of polenta, crispy cauliflower florets, and splatters of sauce—comprised a mess of a plate. Far more egregious were the dozen or so pin bones I had to pull from my teeth.
Still, the E&S kitchen produced way more hits than misses. A far more focused (and Fitzgeraldy) dish was the house-smoked salmon starter: the fish, flaky and subtle, reposed around spinach greens, fried capers and crispy leeks inside a flaky puff pastry shell. Shrimp and lobster risotto united around a luscious, buttery lobster broth, plump shrimp and lobster claws, and an unmistakable burst of saffron that perfumed and enlivened every morsel. Rich and savory beef brisket made a luxurious filling for empenadas, and an even better foil for a garlicky green salsa that popped with delicious tartness.
Yet Torpey saved his best for the Cuban-style pork tenderloin, tender and majestic over a bouquet of crispy bacon, saffron rice, black beans and tomatillos. Its succulence was just barely overshadowed by the fried mini-doughnuts with chocolate stout sauce, and the chopped brisket burger with razor-sharp provolone.
I didn’t expect the side of steak with my steak, but that’s what made short rib and bistro steak frites such a puzzler. In one corner of the plate, tender hunks of braised beef short rib; in the other corner, sliced sirloin. Between was piles of fries and salad greens. The resulting plash of Béarnaise, demi-glace, salad dressing and meat juice that pooled on the plate was less than savory. The short rib, tender in the middle, was dried out at its surface. The bistro steak, drizzled with a heavenly rosemary-kicked Béarnaise, was cold.
Maybe a little unevenness is appropriate for a place named after two guys who shared a turbulent relationship. And most of all, beer-lovers should rejoice in the E&S beer garden. The craft beer tide hasn’t just shifted—it’s risen above our noses, and with Ernest & Scott, Morrison (and Calagione) has upped Delaware’s acumen. It’s an endeavor one could only describe as, well, noble and true.
As the real Ernest said: “I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure.”
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” Scott might say back.