Steak frites, Berkshire porchetta, steamed mussels
There’s something weirdly incongruous about gourmet cheesesteaks. It’s a fun concept for this area, and some kitchens pull it off in neat ways. Sampan in Philly, for instance, does short rib cheesesteaks on Asian bao buns. Our own Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant makes sinful cheesesteak egg rolls.
But why go messing with a cheesesteak? It’s like hearing a symphony orchestra cover The Clash; it sounds classier, maybe more expensive, but it’s just not as good as the real deal.
Rigby’s Bar and Grill in Rehoboth Beach had a gourmet cheesesteak on its menu earlier this spring. As of late May, it hadn’t appeared on the summer menu, and as a result, the menu was much improved.
Rigby’s became Rigby’s last year when first-time restaurateurs John Black and John Glenstrup purchased popular GLBT-friendly Partners Bistro. Partners was famous for comfort food such as fried chicken and prime rib.
Black and Glenstrup brought to the table a more upscale menu, so Rigby’s is, by their definition, a “neighborhood place,” but one that offers such dishes as prosciutto-wrapped monkfish and short rib risotto.
Though the name is changed, Rigby’s still serves a mostly gay clientele. The new name is a bit of a misnomer, however, more bistro than bar and grill. Genre stalwarts such as steak frites, French onion soup and charcuterie prove the point. And those dishes were very good. Happily, the summer menu is loaded with similarly simple and delicious food.
I emphasize delicious. I hadn’t loved the “gourmet” cheesesteak of my first visit. Having swapped top round and Whiz with chunks of filet and manchego foam, it added frizzled black trumpet mushrooms and caramelized cipollini onions. Those are nice building blocks—and the culinary wit was most commendable—but the result was a mess. Meat juice seeped into the brioche, turning it into mush, and the cheese foam fizzed away into nothing.
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Similarly, most items on the original menu were overly complicated. A firm filet of cedar-roasted wild salmon was moist and well-seasoned, but it was misplated terribly. Watercress purée pooled at the bottom of its bowl, soaking every bite of fish in green guck. It tasted fine, but it had all the visual appeal of a “Men in Black” prop. Is it sauce? Is it soup? Why serve salmon in a bowl, anyway?
A dish of seared sea scallops was matched with a gorgeous tangle of rainbow chard, wild mushrooms, toasted pine nuts and golden raisins in a sherry reduction—such a perfectly balanced flavor profile that the thought of it automatically elicited a smile. Yet the scallops were both overcooked and over-seasoned.
Even dessert was a bummer. The chocolate soufflé was undercooked and drippy. I like my soufflé as runny as the next Frenchman, but Rigby’s was a chocolate soup-lé. I was doubly irked when the chef reported via the waiter, “It’s supposed to be like that.” The waiter took our side, however, and quickly remedied the situation.
Service outshone the food on the first visit. Our waiter was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and beaming with pride while describing Rigby‘s dishes. He seemed like a total foodie, and that’s a good thing for a waiter to be, so I wasn’t ready to give up on the place.
Upon returning a week later, I discovered the new menu. And I was delighted to discover that whatever bad mojo the kitchen had going on had been squarely corrected. Visit No. 2 was a complete 180.
The spring-summer menu is loaded with unfussy bistro cuisine, and chef Theo Lipkins, a former protégé of Sodel chef Matt Haley, nailed every dish. A narrow plate of poached tuna, for example, was striking in its minimalism. Ample white space separated quarter-inch thick slices of rare tuna. The clean lines of the plate begat a clean flavor, with bits of shaved celery and Mandarin oranges enhancing the delicateness of the fish. A few kalamata olives added a bit of saltiness. Nice, clean, simple, elegant: Where was the dish last week?
It was the same with rustic French onion soup. A hulking bowl, picturesque with toasted cheese oozing over the rim, held flavorful broth bolstered with rosemary and deep, richly caramelized onions.
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Flavors were spot on, too. The juicy hanger steak was nicely charred and topped with roasted shallot compound butter and flatleaf parsley. In a show of consistency, the accompanying frites—hand-cut and perfectly crisp—were just as good. Lipkins’ steamed black rope mussels were arranged architecturally in a heavenly broth that was so buttery and bacony, I fantasized about brushing it onto corn on the cob. The liquid got a pop of citrus and heat from Serrano chili peppers, with a cooling note of parsley and celery greens.
Lipkins’ kitchen is clearly a smart one, one that’s capable of integrating more complex flavors. I also appreciated the mileage he got out of his ingredients. Celery stalks popped up in one dish, celery greens in another, like slow-roasted porchetta, a forever-ago Roman dish that’s gained steam in the United States thanks to places such as the aptly named Porchetta in New York’s East Village. Rigby’s stuffs and seasons a whole boneless suckling pig, then roasts it to crispy, fatty brilliance. The result is a tender pork that’s equally smoky, salty and sour, thanks to anise, kalamata olives and marinated anchovies.
Dessert was again a struggle. Even after frying, the cold, firm fruit of the apple beignets battled the steaming hot crust. Beignet may be an umbrella term, but I expected something more like the doughnut beignets.
So maybe simpler isn’t always better, but Rigby’s seemed at its best when it didn’t try to reinvent the wheel or the cheesesteak. It is especially welcome in Rehoboth, where the distance between pricey highbrow faves and reasonably priced family places can seem vast. In this neighborhood, an authoritative, foodie-friendly menu at prices that rarely touch $20 is simply a good deal.