Jay Caputo is a highly decorated chef who has prepared steamed fluke and braised veal cheeks for posh crowds at the James Beard House in New York, Spanish ragout and lecithin foam for the connoisseurs at Meals from the Masters, and cured “three-day” pork at his Espuma restaurant for the better part of a decade.
So what, exactly, is he doing with burgers, deviled eggs and pot roast?
Last year, Chris Becker, along with Jim and Rachel O’Hare, owners of the stately Hotel Rodney in downtown Lewes, approached Caputo with their mission: to resurrect their classic Lewes pub Rose & Crown inside the hotel. The original British pub lived for 20-plus years just down the road on Lewes’ busy Second Street, but for version 2.0, the owners knew they needed to go big. After an expansive remodel—which grew to include imposing black wainscoting and enormous upholstered booths set against ancient exposed brick—a chef of Caputo’s caliber was a logical place to start.
“Running a British pub was never on my radar,” the chef says with a laugh. “But when I saw some of the renovations they had done, it started feeling like something I could be a part of. And whether I’m making a pot roast sandwich or steamed fluke at the James Beard House, my principles don’t change.”
Whether he likes it or not, Caputo manning the controls of a corner gastropub is an idea that makes way too much sense. As the three-day pork attests (not to mention his superb smoked-pork tacos at the Latin-themed Cabo Tequila Bar), Caputo is a master of slow and low. And Rose & Crown—with its dark, cushy features and its heady list of microbrews—is slow country indeed. In here, beef short ribs bubble in vats of 16 Mile Old Court Ale until they slide off the bone. Thick hunks of bacon braise away before joining a rich mac-and-cheese patina of Gruyère, cheddar and Parmesan.
“Slow cooking is probably my favorite way to cook. I just love the way flavors develop over time,” says the chef, who says he aims for spoon-tender in his braised items. While anyone with a Crock-Pot can swing tender, Caputo’s finely honed ability to build flavors—like a mason layering brick—is what allows Rose & Crown to elevate familiar pub grub to fantastic heights.
Slow cookery doesn’t get more classic than duck confit, and R&C’s decision to use it in its re-imagined shepherd’s pie is perhaps the best example of layering flavors to twist a classic into more elegant terrain. Beneath puffs of Parmesan mashed potatoes, tender hunks of duck, salty and fatty in all their glory, swam with dried cherries, reduced Pinot Noir and charred flecks of carrot, whose nearly burnt surface pushed beyond caramelized sweet and to a slightly bitter, smoky campfire state.
His no-nonsense, no-shortcuts philosophy is part of what makes Caputo the chef he is. So it’s not surprising that even the homemade pretzels, chips and pickles at Rose & Crown are addictive. And with longtime collaborator Craig Clifton manning the kitchen, those same values imbue into hearty eats like the R&C bacon burger, a marvel of meat-dom cooked just enough to coax the perfect amount of juicy, smoky perfection from its ground chuck and apple-smoked bacon composite. A nest of deeply caramelized onions and melty farmhouse cheddar kicked in ample amounts of funk and tang, respectively.
A plate of crab deviled eggs took a different path toward reinvention: levity. Pulverized orange zest, parsley and sweet flakes of lump crabmeat replaced the mustard globs and paprika inside boiled egg halves, creating a subdued, refreshing aura. A woody mushroom and Parmesan salad, stacked open-faced on grilled bread with wilted arugula and a soft-fried egg, shared its DNA with a hearty breakfast sandwich, leading instantly to a recognizable, comforting sort of satisfaction.
The same sort of sensation emerged when Rose & Crown brought out the big guns. The biggest and best was tender grilled swordfish—fillets so break-apart soft you’d swear they were bathed in beer, too. The fish’s gentle, muted flavors tasted even fresher when paired with wilted tomatoes and spinach, while briny capers and olives did the heavy lifting in the seasoning department.
Equally sublime was a plate of grilled prawns, presented in a dazzling splash of colors and accoutrements that explored multifarious flavor and textural combinations. A creamy, cooling cucumber-avocado salad bridled the smoky prawns. Meanwhile an aromatic curry-infused tomato vinaigrette draped across it all like a downed power line, electrifying every bite with a warming curry kick.
No matter how simple or polished the dish, nothing in Caputo’s and Clifton’s Rose & Crown oeuvre felt superfluous or short-changed. Even desserts kept pristine composure. The buttery, flaky sourdough biscuit in the fresh-tasting strawberry shortcake was overshadowed only by the heavenly pastry cream that held it all together. The T.S. Smith & Sons apples in a bubbling cobbler barely maintained their crisp bite beneath an oats-laden shell and molten caramel sauce.
With its warm, open space, the new Rose & Crown represents another sterling notch in Lewes’ budding, under-the-radar dining scene. And the Caputo blueprints allow for every edible detail, no matter how tiny, to be experienced. They not only help R&C avoid the platitudes of traditional pub dining, they guide guests through a structure of expertly built flavors, brick by brick.