Duck confit pizza, pan-steamed mussels, tuna carpacchio flatbread
They had to be laughing.
In fact, I like to imagine Sean McNeice and sous chef Anthony Carnevale laughing maniacally over a griddle as they gave rise to the Dirty Burger—a breaded and deep-fried hamburger patty topped with fried scrapple, bacon, a fried egg, cheese slices and roasted pepper sauce.
Sound delicious? Disgusting? Either way, unless you’re a cardiologist, the Dirty tends to elicit a smile. And it’s a sturdy symbol for Chelsea Tavern, where food can be fun—even funny.
Crafted from the upscale-casual blueprints of Gramercy Tavern in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood (the Wilmington tavern’s inspiration and quasi-namesake), Chelsea is at its best distilling and reinventing Southern comfort favorites for a class of modern diners.
There’s fried catfish, recast here as a Reuben sandwich with a shaved Brussels sprout and bacon coleslaw pressed between grilled honey wheat bread. The bread, made in-house, hummed sweetly to match the crispy, thick filet of fish.
Witness homemade pickles. McNeice blankets them in beer batter, then—plop—into the deep fryer they go. And because one kind of french fry simply won’t do, Chelsea created the Trio, which combines Idaho spuds with sweet potato fries and fried leeks.
With a recent wave of upscale-casual dining hitting Wilmington like a squall, Chelsea distinguishes itself with these and other culinary theatrics.
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Of course, much of the buzz surrounding Chelsea is because of its address: 821 Market Street, former home to Restaurant 821, a popular and acclaimed eatery that closed in 2008. The street has been yearning for a replacement since then. Chelsea stands directly across Market from The Grand Opera House—a tantalizing location, but one that’s saddled with the pressure to appease the pre- and post-theater crowds.
Chelsea Tavern makes it clear that it is not Restaurant 821. The owners stripped away some of the ornate aspects of the room to achieve a comfy haute-tavern vibe with a prominent bar and an economically decorated, pleasant dining room. For a few weeks after opening, the plain white walls were bare, but they have recently been adorned with local artwork and photography.
The decree: Chelsea is a place of the people, and not strictly the theater people. It welcomes the happy hour crowds and ballgame crowds to its great bar, which taps a very strong beer list.
It also helps that Chelsea can serve at its bar one of the better pizza pies in Wilmington. Thanks go mostly to McNeice’s crust, which he makes using Belgian yeast, a strain typically used in brewing beer that imprints a distinct citrusy-sourdough stamp on the flavor (the dough being, inarguably, the backbone of a great pizza).
With a million-dollar canvas in the crust, the kitchen keeps pace with the toppings, which range from the austere (sopressata, Provolone and pesto on one pie) all the way to crazy (ground beef, queso poblano sauce, bacon, onion, french fries, cheddar and a side of ketchup for dippin’ on another). My favorite was the duck confit pizza, a pie that oozed flavor while keeping a crispy crust. Sweet and tender shreds of duck meat collapsed into melty goat cheese and found a dance partner in swirls of balsamic reduction.
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All of this fried, salty and fatty goodness serves a purpose, and that’s to sell more beer. It turns out to be a welcome manipulation, since Chelsea opened with a scary-good beer program that was immediately one of the city’s best. In addition to great micros such as Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale and Southern Tier Hop Sun, Chelsea boasts two exclusive beers: Chelsea Brown Ale, an Indian brown ale brewed by Dogfish Head, and Chelsea Lager, brewed by Victory Brewing of Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
There are some lighter suds (like Saison Dupont’s Farmhouse Ale) and a decent wine list that pairs best with McNeice’s more sophisticated dishes, such as Hudson Valley foie gras with sun-dried cherries and cherry gastrique. Dishes like the foie gras and a tuna flatbread starter reveal the kitchen’s considerable finesse. The grilled flatbread, also made with the Belgian dough, set a warm backdrop for piquant truffle dressing, wilted spinach and wasabi-infused goat cheese. Draped over the top were thin sheets of succulent tuna carpacchio that was so tender, it tore apart with a bite instead of sliding off in one huge mass.
Another uptown calling card is the kitchen’s duck confit, which it deployed in three separate dishes—on a pizza, on a salad and in a corndog. McNeice must like his shellfish purveyor, too. The menu features four versions of moules frites, pan-steamed in either mushroom duxelles cream sauce, in Sauvignon Blanc and garlic, in chorizo and wheat beer, or in plum tomatoes with white beans and basil.
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Balancing gourmet and comfort food isn’t always easy. I was excited to try McNeice’s new take on chicken and waffles, a dish that’s criminally scarce in these parts. The chef had fired a chicken and waffles dish during his time at Washington Street Ale House that I really liked. (Caked in sticky mango chutney with pink peppercorns, it was a bit over the top, but very tasty.) Yet Chelsea’s chicken and waffles fell flat for me. A tiny plate cradled blocks of waffles stacked vertically among crispy fried chicken thighs. It was a promising start, but the chef’s choice for a sauce—a grainy, gloppy, Gorgonzola crème—turned to mortar after a few chews. Chicken and waffles hankers for a bit of sweetness to take it over-the-top delicious. Gorgonzola crème might be an upgrade in the grandeur department, but this felt like soul food that had lost some soul.
We suffered one minor snafu in service, a mixup involving the presentation of the lunch specials at dinner time that resulted in us being served an unwanted dish. But the experience was a blip in otherwise exemplary hospitality.
Armed with a promising location, a good bar scene and a chef who’s bonkers about food (he owns an ’81 Benz that runs on used vegetable oil), Chelsea Tavern could gain a rapt audience, whether that turns out to be the theater people, the lawyers, the bankers, the jocks, the foodies or whoever. It’s not just versatility. It’s fun.