400 Justison St., Wilmington, 543-6732
Sushi rolls $5-$22
Stone pot bibimbap,phad thai, any eel-centric sushi roll, especially the Kooma special roll
Delaware probably was about five years behind on the sushi explosion. Maybe it’s a good thing—we now have about four years to prepare ourselves for the trend of turning human bodies into sushi plates.
Neighborhood sushi restaurants may not yet be as prolific as, say, neighborhood pizza shops, but we’ve gotten to the point of being discerning sushi consumers. Just as decisively as we can name our favorite place for an Italian sub, we can name our best pick for crunchy spider rolls.
And like those indistinguishable cheesesteak-n-pizza places, it’s sometimes hard to tell what separates a good sushi place from a so-so one, because chances are the menus will look pretty similar. Our favorites usually have something to offer that the others don’t, be it amazingly fresh sourced product, an addictive signature roll, inventive twists or flawless execution of the menu, or maybe just a neat atmosphere.
Which brings us to Kooma, an Asian fusion and sushi restaurant with considerably more on the line than most of its First State forbearers. In Justison Landing—the ambitious, multifaceted city center at the Wilmington Riverfront—and flanked by AAA Mid-Atlantic and Barclay’s Bank, Kooma seems like a hopeful hot spot for new residents and area professionals.
Going by first impressions, Kooma is exactly the kind of place developers wished for before they went to bed at night. Here is a sleek, ultra-hip, urbane place teeming with glowy lights, DJ nights, scandalously named cocktails and staffed almost entirely by sexy young people. There are frosted windows, low lighting from high-hanging lamps, a curvilinear bar and a cool silvery palette everywhere you look.
Page 2: Riverfront Roll Call, continues…
So Kooma will no doubt attract young professionals and become a popular after-work and late-night cocktail spot. It certainly has the arsenal: The much-ballyhooed French Whore martini is a potent mixture of Grey Goose vodka, Chambord black raspberry liqueur, pineapple juice and orange juice. Other titillating cocktails include Monkey Love, Dirtee Dirtee and Sweet Sixteen, made with real Tang. (They still make Tang?) I opted for a glass of Momokawa Pearl sake, a cloudy, roughly filtered pure rice sake that tasted fruity, almost pina colada-like, with dulcet traces of coconut.
Sharing sushi rolls is another thing young professionals love, but digging through Kooma’s menu can be a bit of a slog. It’s extensive. A less tactful description would be lengthy. I counted 49 varieties of what you might call Western sushi—maki creations such as the ubiquitous California roll, and others made with salmon or tuna with some combination of crabstick, fried shrimp, avocado and the like.
I needed a base reading. Kooma’s special sushi platter features a selection of nigiri-style tuna, salmon, eel, yellowtail and white tuna. Standouts were the white tuna, which was perfectly soft and delicate, and eel. Kooma’s eel was a strong suit in nearly all of its applications, and it’s used in a lot of dishes. The unagi (freshwater eel, as opposed to anogo, or saltwater eel) gets dipped in a soy sauce base and broiled to tender, flaky perfection.
Once I had a good idea what Kooma’s sushi chefs were working with, it was time to try some house rolls. The Rocky Roll puts eel in the spotlight, centering on an uramaki roll that gets the deep-fried treatment. Lotus Roll is sort of an interpretation of Mikimotos’ famous Hairy Mexican, with a base of shrimp tempura and avocado topped with shredded crabstick. The Kooma Special Roll swaps the crabstick for eel, then weaves it with the creamy avocado. The West Chester Roll—and, hey, can’t we get a Riverfront Roll or something?—layers a lattice of red and white tuna, plus a crunchy mixture of tobiko and tempura flakes, on shrimp tempura.
Page 3: Riverfront Roll Call, continues…
The well-traveled joke about Mexican food is that every dish is some combination of meat, beans, sauce and tortillas. Mexican food isn’t that static, and neither is the sushi at Kooma. But after tasting a half-dozen or so perfectly good specialty rolls, none truly stood out from the rest. Maybe I just missed Kooma’s soon-to-be-signature sushi, but I think the sushi bar, headed by Mr. Liu, would benefit from the occasional change-up. To illustrate, my favorite local fusion sushi hut, Johnny Cai’s wonderful Masamoto, breaks away from the monotony of spicy tuna with unique offerings such as fluke sashimi, textural surprises in the form of red leaf lettuce or salmon skin, and the ultimate don’t-knock-it-until-you’ve-tried-it roll, which combines fish and fresh apple. Different doesn’t always mean good, but in Kooma’s case, a little could go a long way.
I much preferred the hot dishes at Kooma. Asian starters such as gyoza and crab shumai—both steamed dumplings filled with veggies and lump crab, respectively—and simple but well-executed beef tataki alongside a cup of citrusy ponzu, were a cut above others I’ve tried.
And while people will flock to Kooma for cocktails and sushi, its hot entrées are some of the strongest items on the menu, and the dishes I thought were most memorable. Take, for instance, Kooma’s version of Korean bibimbap—a one-bowl meal stuffed with julienne zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, spinach, beef, scrambled egg (traditionalists take the egg raw), sprouts and rice. It’s colorful, it’s crunchy, and it’s delicious, especially with a pour of the chef’s hot pepper sauce. I opted for the dolsot bibimbap, which is delivered sizzling in its stone bowl. New flavors emerge as you mix the sizzling ingredients, and the rice, when left along the sides or bottom of the bowl, bunch together into crispy, starchy, flavorful bundles. It’s January, it’s cold. Bibimbap makes for warming Seoul food.
Kooma’s phad thai is another unique interpretation of an Asian classic. Surely most of us are used to eating Thailand’s national dish with spicy chiles, a squeeze of lime and some peanuts, but Kooma’s version was sauced in a sweet, creamy coconut milk dressing. The way the sauce blended with the starch of noodles and barely crisp veggies, chicken and shrimp, this phad thai approached the same flavor profile of—believe it or not—a perfect Philly cheesesteak. And that’s a very good thing.
Double the size and thrice the upscale cool of its West Chester progenitor, Kooma is and will continue to be an important cog in convincing young people to hang out at the Riverfront. As nearby eateries have proven, the audience is certainly there. Daily half-off specials on wine, sake and martinis, plus live music and events, will go a long way, too. If the menu catches up with Kooma’s ambition—one or two micro-tweaks ought to do it—Kooma could be an anchor for years to come.
Page 4: The Queen Elizabeth
A few years into her membership, Betsy LeRoy approached Delaware Restaurant Association president Carrie Leishman with a pressing question.
“Is this a men’s club?”
LeRoy, owner of the wildly popular Pizza by Elizabeths in Greenville, loved the association for its ability to shape the local industry and its strength in numbers. She just didn’t see many women in positions of power.
Now LeRoy is the first woman to chair the DRA, a not-for-profit trade association that represents about 1,900 restaurants—the largest component of Delaware tourism.
The association has a strong voice in Dover, lobbying against legislation that could harm the industry. Members helped defeat a proposed alcohol tax increase last summer and have lobbied to increase state minimum wage and cash wages for servers.
“I think that’s what makes me a good voice—that I am very positive about the association and I get what it can do,” says LeRoy.
LeRoy opened Pizza by Elizabeths with her neighbor, Betty Snyder, in 1993.
“I’m not afraid to tell people about (the DRA), and I’m not afraid to get more people involved,” LeRoy says. “The more of us there are, the more changes we can effect.” —Matt Amis
Page 5: Going Public
The Public House is a hip, upscale pub and restaurant that has established itself in cultural meccas like New York and Philadelphia. Last fall, Public House owner Gary Cardi rode into Wilmington, hoping to inject the reinvigorated downtown area with some big-city cool.
Public House, which also has a location in National Harbor, Maryland, now occupies the old Delaware Trust building at Ninth and Market streets in Wilmington. The restaurant is part of The Buccini/Pollin Group’s $170 million Market Street Initiative.
Cardi and his crew—including chef Aaron Bukowski (whose credits include Iron Hill Brewery and Pennsylvania restaurants Amici’s in Landenberg and Mile High Steaks and Seafood in Glen Mills)—hope to capture downtown crowds with good, American pub-style food at a decent price. Entrées such as the hearty double-cut beef short ribs with white cheddar grits and truffled mushroom ragout clock in at $20 or less.
Dishes such as tavern-style meatloaf, dry-rubbed St. Louis ribs, and scallop and shrimp risotto, plus a full complement of sandwiches such as crispy cod and pulled pork, go well with Public House’s lengthy beer list, which includes local selections from Dogfish Head and Twin Lakes. Cheers. —Matt Amis
Page 6: BBC is Back
The pretzels are back. So are the homemade horseradish and apple mustards. The nachos are back, and an awesome beer list is once again the talk in Greenville.
But this is no ordinary restaurant reopening. Truth is, the BBC Tavern and Grill does not represent a reopening at all, though it feels like one.
Instead, “It’s like reuniting an old family,” says BBC owner David Dietz, whose previous restaurant, the beloved Brandywine Brewing Company, resided for 10 years just down the road. “Everyone is back together and having fun.”
Several staff members and plenty of former customers have made it back to BBC Tavern and Grill, as well as a few of what Dietz calls “legacy items,” like the famous soft pretzels, but the owner says similarities end there.
Under the orchestration of chef Mark Doto—whose previous credits include Iron Hill, Domaine Hudson, and the Inn at Little Washington—an award-winning luxury inn and restaurant in Virginia—the BBC Tavern and Grill kitchen produces much more than pub grub.
“We sell a lot of really nice 14-ounce Delmonico steaks,” Dietz says. “And pan- seared sea bass has been flying out of the kitchen.”
The BBC Tavern and Grill (4019 Kennett Pike, Greenville, 655-3785) sits in the spot formerly occupied by Pizza by Elizabeths, which last year moved into the space previously occupied by the Brandywine Brewing Company (one of those “only-in-Delaware stories,” Dietz says).
Gone are PBE’s sizable booths. They’ve been replaced by 150-year-old pews purchased from a Catholic church in Manhattan. Exposed stone walls, local artwork and an eye-catching white oak front door emblazoned with a custom-cut wrought iron logo adds to the atmosphere. —Matt Amis