The Bramble & Brine Breaks into Rehoboth Restaurant Scene

Owners Joe and Megan Churchman posses reverence for the past, present and the future of culinary excellence.

The Bramble & Brine’s seared scallops and clam entrée is served in a roasted lobster broth.

The Bramble & Brine

315 Rehoboth Avenue, Rehoboth Beach, 227-7702
Recommended dishes: Ribeye crown, smoked duck with gnocchi, porchetta, veal sweetbreads, cured duck platter
Prices: Beginnings $9-$13, Mains $23-$34

Joe and Megan Churchman have become unstuck in time[1].

- Advertisement -

Or maybe that’s just the simplest way to explain The Bramble & Brine, a place that defies the conventions of time and space, warps the sensibilities of old and new, and somehow emerges from the wormhole as one of Rehoboth Beach’s best and most intriguing new restaurants.

To wit: These proprietors are fresh-faced Gen-Y’ers—Joe is 29; Megan, 28—and both own the sort of breezy smiles and dimpled features that make them appear even younger. But haven’t these two been around forever?

For more than a decade, chef Joe has jumped between a half-dozen of the beach area’s finest restaurants,[2] weaving his self-taught chops and reverence for old-world cooking into soulful, slowly-bubbled duck ragouts, pork roasts, and heavenly homemade pastas. Megan, meanwhile, is part owner of Poor Little Rich Girl, the Shirley Temple-referencing boutique tucked into Rehoboth Mews, where vintage clothes, accessories and housewares—the spoils of estates sale and online auction prospecting—are sold.

Husband and wife each possess an uncommon reverence for the past, and relish the opportunity to blend it with creative, modernly mindful whims. Together, they time warp again. It only adds to the wonder that is Bramble & Brine.

In the cozy dining room, awash in antique typewriters, heirloom portraiture, mirrors and reliefs, ornate chandeliers emit a dim, tranquilizing glow, as Lime Rickeys and Old-Fashioneds zip by on the hands of handlebar-mustachioed servers. An unseen Victrola[3] hisses and pops through jazz and Big Band standards, and as you sit holding the silver-plated flatware and half-expect an interjection from President Hoover about the latest in egg creams and stick ball.

- Partner Content -

The place must be a century old, right? Maybe it’s always been here. Not quite, Megan Churchman says.

The Churchmans purchased the former South Pacific flower shop last spring, gutted the insides and refaced it completely. Today, the building’s second floor is their home.

“What we’re trying to evoke is a dinner party,” she says. “Anybody can sell food. We wanted it to be more of an experience, like I’m taking you to my place for dinner.”

A comforting aura of culture and atmosphere, mixed with a healthy dose of nostalgia is the result. (“When people come in they say it feels like they’re visiting their grandparents’ house,” Megan says with a laugh. “I’m still not sure how to take that.”)

For all of Megan’s antique acumen and atmosphere-building, it’s Joe’s cooking that gives Bramble & Brine its heartbeat. When Churchman hits his mark, a lofty nexus of rustic Italian, modern American, and traditional mid-Atlantic coastal cuisine, the results can be transcendent.

- Advertisement -

He’s already proven to me that he can play the duck like Django Reinhardt played the guitar, with an almost uncanny mastery of what can be such a difficult protein to wield. At Bramble & Brine, he commanded the lean, easily overlycooked meat, and the bounteous and treacherous subcutaneous fat expertly. Atop a hill of impossibly tender, cheese-blasted and butter-basted gnocchi, slices of cumin-rubbed duck breast, its skin blistered and blackened and perfectly complementing the soft and twangy meat.

Delicious but conventional sliced duck breast was just the warmup. Churchman’s victory lap was his cured duck platter—a dizzying array of molecularly altered duck parts, and so far, the best thing I’ve eaten in 2014.

From rounds of duck mortadella, perfectly emulsified and speckled with fat and fragrant spices, to the scalpel-thin slices of silky and unctuous duck prosciutto, Churchman’s transforming of a familiar ingredient was thrilling. Best still was the “aerated” foie gras, a miracle marriage of classic technique and molecular gastronomy that renders rich foie gras terrine into a fluffy, velvety cloud. By whipping air into it, vacuum-suspending, and freezing everything in place (plus about 64 other steps I’m omitting), Chuchman creates something that looks like coral reef, but tastes like, well, foie gras cotton candy. The odd kumquat slice, pickled mustard seed, or balsamic drizzle, scattered around the plate, helped interrupt the richness.

Those same wiles went into matching scallion and turnip “kimchi” with the melty interior hunks of fried veal shortbreads. Churchman’s ode to the Korean staple[4] perked a vibrant and crunchy rejoinder to the rich sweetbreads, and the veggies’ chile-coated bite was another in a parade of bold, assertive flavors.

The briny, sea-salt pop of sturgeon caviar galvanized clean-tasting poached lobster medallions and a thicket of enoki mushrooms, which also sopped up exotic mushroom dust and curry-kissed beurre blanc. Juicy rib-eye deckle—tastefully rebranded at B&B as the “crown” —earned its regal status and reputation as a butcher’s best-kept secret. Juicy and dripping with robust beefy flavor, the crown[5] burst with summery brightness, thanks to a smattering of sautéed sweet corn, roasted baby red onions, red wine verjus, local honey vinaigrette and watercress puree.

For a young chef with so much vision and creativity, Churchman also shows considerable restraint with his menu, which is reprinted daily. The shaved truffles, house-fried chicharróns and any science-driven, avant-garde cookery gets its appropriate corner to shine, but the chef wisely keeps one foot tethered to traditional coastal Delaware dining, turning grilled oysters and seared scallops with the best of them.

A nicely crisped hunk of meaty rockfish was perfectly cooked, but probably needed a sauce. I found the accompanying fritters—little rosebud-shaped dumplings of fried kale and artichoke custard, which tasted tangy and aromatic, and carried a pungent, almost curry-like zip—more exciting anyway.

Churchman saved his homespun best for the porchetta, one of the tenderest and most flavorful versions I’ve encountered. Stuffed with confit garlic and olives and coated in a stubble of roasted fennel seeds, the tenderloin rolls burst with brusque, evocative flavors. Flavors which a woodsy medley of oyster mushrooms, Israeli cous cous, pine nuts, and dried cherries helped reinforce.

By dessert, the kitchen’s old-meets-new motif melted into a delicious refrain, where frozen mud pies, Little Debbie-inspired snack cakes and toasted marshmallows drifted diners into a sugar-induced bliss.

The Churchmans are the sort of Millennials that the old guard is most fearful of. As the pragmatic, multitasking children of the digital age began to infiltrate the American workforce and the needle-moving reaches of society, more like them will follow.

But this couple is anything but typical, and manage the impressive trick of respecting the past while exploring the future. “You can’t forget where you came from,” says Megan. “You can’t forget growing up here or working the broiler at the Summer House when you were 16.”

If Bramble & Brine’s triumphant opening, during which it saw 130 nightly covers,[6] is any indication, those memories are still fresh.

[1] Listen:

[2] Including Eden, JAM Bistro, Planet X, and the dearly departed Venus on the Half Shell, plus Luca in Millsboro. He’s also worked at acclaimed Le Virtù in Philadelphia, whose rustic, Abruzzese-style Italian cuisine seems to have at least partially informed Churchman’s culinary playbook.

[3] Or, more likely, the Artie Shaw Pandora station.

[4] Usually made with napa cabbage.

[5] Deckle is the outer muscle that run around the outside of a center-cut ribeye steak. It takes a skilled hand to rescue from the fat and silverskin that envelops it, and the yield is typically very small—which is why the butcher usually kept it for himself.

[6] During the off-season, no less.