2216 Pennsylvania Ave. Wilmington, 571-1492
Surf and turf, milk-fed veal, peekytoe crab
The Columbus Inn closed in 2007, and that’s still hard to fathom. Even if you’d never eaten at the Columbus Inn, you knew it was an important place. You knew it had history, and you knew powerful people hung out there.
I associated the Columbus Inn mainly with special occasions. It’s staggering to think of all the anniversary, birthday, engagement and graduation celebrations those dark wooden walls had seen. Somehow, you felt those memories when you walked inside.
When Louis Capano & Associates bought the building and saved it from repurposing limbo (what ever happened to those condos, anyway?) it initiated an extensive physical overhaul and modernizing effort. Floors were refinished, ceilings were ripped out, new furniture was purchased and the kitchen was rebuilt.
Perhaps miraculously, after all that, the Columbus Inn still feels special, still feels important. The new owners shot for a compromise between Old Columbus Inn and New Columbus Inn, and it works. At its best, Columbus Inn strikes a remarkable balance between classic and modern. This is the Columbus Inn of the 21st century: contemporary and sleek with all of its signature brawn intact. The U-shaped bar remains untouched, and even some of the new features—a stone entrance, the (slightly brighter) dark wooden walls, the expensive whiskeys—have a stoic feel. Need more proof? There’s Old School Onion Soup on the lunch menu, and New School Onion Soup on the dinner menu.
The new owners hired wisely, too. Theirs is a very talented staff that includes general manager Richard Snyder, designer Ron Fenstermacher and acclaimed Philadelphia chef Chris D’Ambro. At 25, D’Ambro has built quite a reputation in the Philly restaurant scene for his work at Bocca, where he was responsible for such upscale culinary wizardry as citrus-cured foie gras torchon with blueberry mostarda and pink peppercorn-infused tapioca pearls.
D’Ambro doesn’t need to unleash such nouveau elements on Wilmington. He has wisely crafted a menu that’s both modern and accessible, with plenty of muscle. There’s still an element of meat-and-potatoes, which is smart, but now it’s grilled deckle with curried almonds, and surf-and-turf means seared scallops and beef short ribs. (The sacred Caesar salad, of course, does not get messed with.)
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That’s not to say the menu is heavy. One of the best dishes I had was a fresh summer salad made from watermelon, cucumber and peekytoe crab meat. The thin cucumber slices cloaked sweet hunks of melon, balancing each other enough to let the crab shine through. Small dots of miso paste across the plate provided perfect dabs of salt that illuminated each flavor.
Much like the inn’s interior design, D’Ambro’s dishes were consistently well-balanced. Be it ham and cheese sandwich or beef tartare, his kitchen rarely missed a mark.
New School French onion soup (“new school,” I suppose, because it doesn’t have the melty cheese and giant, soggy crouton in it) arrived in a mini cast-iron crock. Contained within was a deeply rich and flavorful broth that caressed like velvet. A single short rib ravioli hid inside, and miniature rounds of Gruyére grilled cheese lined the plate. (There’s your bread and melty cheese after all.)
Elsewhere, perfectly cooked veal medallions yielded a tender and supple pink center. Pooled beneath in a chestnut-colored jus was a delicious sweetbread and mushroom ragoût, whose nutty and woodsy notes rolled into the brightness of celery greens and pickled shaved carrot. The sweetbreads, whose preparation is one of the most painstaking processes in all of cooking, were rendered ductile and al dente with a creamy interior.
From the new-look bar, retouched in vibrant reds with decorative rivets and cushy hightops, I scooped marrow from a huge beef bone that was bisected lengthwise to boost its visual impact. A layer of breadcrumb-herb crust cracked like brûlé on top of fatty, gooey, salty marrow to spread on toast points. It was the sort of robust indulgence that suits the new Columbus Inn so well.
House-made agnolotti and Indian-inspired stuffed red bell pepper are light plates, but dishes that also fit the mold. The pasta joined sweet summer corn, chanterelle mushrooms and slivers of truffle to create a dish that was equally rustic and refreshing. The roasted pepper, one of the menu’s few vegetarian options, sheltered black lentils and homemade paneer cheese. A stack of panisse, or chick pea fritters, presided nearby.
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The fritters could’ve used some sauce, but that’s about as critical as one can be. Dishes that were less memorable (only because you can get them anywhere), like steak frites and croque madame, were executed perfectly. (One non-food gripe: What’s the point of valet service when there’s a perfectly big, open parking lot on site?)
Even desserts were impressive. One, an artful deconstruction of an ice cream sundae, molded a thin, semi-firm ribbon of chocolate ganache into the shape of a rollercoaster loop. Beside it were a quenelle of chamomile ice cream with homemade toffee crunch and marshmallows. Cherry jam pooled beneath. And while Arnold Palmer cocktails are en vogue at most taverns, it’s surprising so few have had the foresight to make iced tea and lemonade into sorbet. D’Ambro, also the inn’s pastry chef, makes it as good as it sounds.
It feels good to have the Columbus Inn back and humming along in steady hands. The buzz inside was palpable, and the dining room was fully booked each night I visited.
Between courses, I took a minute to soak in the scene. A woman nearby was opening a birthday present from her son. A very well-known Realtor was saddling himself onto a barstool. A round of Manhattans passed en route to a table with a server in suspenders and a tie. Suddenly I felt underdressed for such a special occasion.