Ulysses American Gastropub
1716 Marsh Road, Wilmington, 691-3456 ulyssesgastropub.com
Smoked baby back ribs, BBQ pork sammy, mussel pots
Appetizers $7-$14, burgers and sandwiches $9-$14, entrées $16-$26
The whispers and echoes resonated from Chalfonte to Bellefonte; from Talleybrook to Talleyville. up Marsh, down Silverside, through Foulk and past Naamans.
The sprawling, amorphous suburban blob of North Wilmington—well-populated, well-compensated, with all the casual shopping, chain restaurants, dental offices and community swimming pools you could ever need—seemed to collectively come to the same realization: There’s nothing like this around here.
Last winter, when brothers Steve and Michael Lucey wedged Ulysses American Gastropub into a faceless strip mall on Marsh Road, it felt like an exotic new species had been dropped into the suburban ecosystem. Striking and urbane, Ulysses’ walls popped with Scotch-tape plaid and black-and-white Beetlejuice stripes. Brilliant white porcelain animal heads (moose, ram and deer by my count) dotted the walls, creating instant conversation pieces, while youthful and tattooed staffers pulled taps containing the latest in craft microbrews. Elvis Costello crooned on the speakers, and the Flyers skated on the dozens of TV screens.
Sure, the area offers plenty of places to eat. Besides the chains, there are staples of comforting fine dining—Harry’s Savoy, Culinaria, Corner Bistro—that are as good as they’ve ever been. But nothing quite like this.
A week into service and it was already clear that Ulysses’ strength was what it represents: a casual, stylish pub brimming with great beers and a fun, place-to-be-seen vibe. Most impressively, Ulysses made it look effortless.
The Luceys, who clearly have a knack for creating revered cult hangouts like Wilmington’s Dead Presidents Pub and Hockessin’s Six Paupers Tavern, recruited chef Sean McNeice, formerly of Wilmington’s Chelsea Tavern and Washington Street Ale House.
And like the modernist novel it’s named for, Ulysses isn’t exactly light reading. It dives hard into the beer-centric landscape that’s dominating the state, and builds its concept around a solid, 24-tap bar and a rotating list of craft brews. All of which makes it easy to navigate McNeice’s cache of burgers, wings, sandwiches, nachos and quesadillas.
Ghosts of restaurants past return. Dead Presidents’ famous Chicken Nixon reappears, blackened and tender as all get-out, oozing cheddar and beer-spiked barbecue sauce. And McNeice’s wicked “dirty burger,” a Frankensteinian tower of meats and cheese that debuted at Chelsea, is slightly tweaked here as the Mile High Burger: an astonishing combination of a deep-batter-fried burger patty, cheddar, sauerkraut, grilled bratwurst, and a fried egg. The best of the bunch was the Joyce Burger, a juicy half-pounder left to soak up the sweetness of caramelized onion marmalade and smoky bacon.
Besides a barrage of American pub grub, McNeice’s greatest contribution to the program might be Bertha, a hand-welded steel smoker box that resides out back. With her billowing fog of oak and cherry smoke, Bertha is capable of fantastic things. In fact, she’s already producing some of the best baby back pork ribs in the area. Tender yet firm, smoky yet tangy, the ribs struck a remarkable balance in flavor and texture. A slather of dijon, a peppery dry rub and a top layer of ale-infused barbecue sauce tessellated into a mosaic of crust and flavor. Bertha’s smoke imparted subtle wisps of smokiness which, thankfully, didn’t overwhelm the ribs’ carefully plotted seasoning. And unlike imitators who slow cook ribs into grandma’s-pot-roast oblivion, these maintained their structural integrity, allowing for a solid bite and mouthfeel.
Much of the same could be said for McNeice’s pulled pork, particularly in its “sammy” application: piled into a buttery roll along with crisp, chipotle pepper-splashed coleslaw.
McNeice unveiled his assortment of mussel pots—individually sized steamer pots busting with bivalves in a variety of flavors—at Chelsea Tavern, but it wasn’t until I tried them at Ulysses that they truly clicked for me. After a few slurps of coconut red curry mussels, I realized how well their briny jolt pairs with a nice, crisp beer. In this case it was Brooklyn Brewery’s Companion Ale, a sweet and aromatic wheatwine, that provided equilibrium.
Ulysses’ attentive staff was generally spot-on with beer recommendations—an important distinction here, where the beer list changes almost daily. To counterbalance the excellent crab cake sliders with vibrant, lemony tartar sauce, it was Magic Hat’s Elder Betty, a malty weiss-style ale with fragrant hints of elderberry. For crispy calamari and its robust sriracha and lime aioli, the staff poured Blanche De Bruxelles, an imported witbier with calming notes of citrus and coriander.
But for all the bounty that Bertha, beer and burgers provided, the rest of Ulysses’ menu sputtered through some inconsistency. Margherita pizza, despite its flakey, slightly scorched crust, fell flat in the flavor department. And the sheer enormity of Atlantic cod filets that comprised fish and chips made for a cumbersome and poorly composed plate. A forlorn filet of rockfish slumped its way into menu lowlight status, thanks to its chewy, overcooked flesh and broken, indecipherable sauce.
Alas, in the quest to synthesize pub grub and fine dining, such missteps will occur, and it’s been clear to anyone monitoring the first few months of service at Ulysses that McNeice and his team are willing to tweak and adjust as they learn what works best.
With eager North Wilmingtonians as its captive audience, and with a steel-framed secret weapon named Bertha on its side, Ulysses’ stature in the area can only grow.