At a Glance
500 N. Market St.,
Wilmington, 994-1400, queen.worldcafelive.com
Crispy-skinned salmon, WCL burger, blackened chicken sandwich
Salads and appetizers: $4.50-$12
Pizzas and sandwiches: $6-$12
The cherry-red drum kit—DW shells, Remo heads, four cymbals (one inverted China)—shined for a moment beneath the lights of the World Cafe Live stage as the drummer raised his sticks in the air. CLACK. CLACK. CLACK. CLACK. On cue, the five other men on stage unleashed a scorching rendition of Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” The opening guitar solo shredded so hard that a graying gentleman in khakis and glasses in the front row surged to his feet and pumped his fist in the air proudly. Faces melted. Hoots were hollered.
And this was just open-mic night.
Yes, the gorgeously reappointed World Cafe Live at the Queen has had the benefit of some high-caliber (and consistent) live rock ’n’ roll programming in its first 13 months of re-existence. National acts like Citizen Cope, the Chocolate Drops and Aimee Mann lent instant credibility and attracted the lively, hip crowd organizers crave so badly. During the Blues Jam Wednesday mentioned above, a striking mix of young and old, hipsters with ear gauges, and grizzled rockers in Punkin Chunkin’ T-shirts filled the room.
And it was a well-fed crowd, because this upstairs lounge, called Upstairs Live, doubles as a full-service restaurant and bar, colorful and welcoming with smooth cement floors and exposed ducts. The industrial vibe is enlivened by color-splashed local artwork, concert posters and hanging stage lights. Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver pump through house speakers between acts.
It all makes for an impressive display. Along with its exemplary table-side and bar-side service and a great craft beer list (including the Dogfish Head exclusive, the Queen’s Golden Crown) World Cafe Live can boast a food and drink program that matches its musical offerings.
Executive chef John Jones’ menu is everything a rock club needs: It’s approachable, it’s casual, but doused with little next-level flourishes that make his burgers blossom and sandwiches shine. Several entrées stood out, too.
Take the excellent crispy-skinned salmon, which flaked gently into blanched hunks of Yukon potato, shaved fennel and frisée. A scrape of the fork across the plate was enough to dab a little limoncello syrup, which added a needed sweet note with its citrusy pop.
His WCL burger dripped tantalizingly through a buttery brioche bun, as a creamy mixture of caramelized onions and sliced mushrooms oozed down the sides. The bracing pungency of local ’shrooms balanced nicely against the thwack of crispy peppered bacon.
Cut loose from a crispy armor of panko crumbs, huge chunks of jumbo lump crab tumbled from a fried cake. Though the meat here was creamy and abundant (and yes, crab-heads, filler free), a nearby haystack of undressed watercress was largely superfluous.
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The kitchen did manage to bring out the best in humble chicken, mixed as tender chunks with cumin and white beans in a creamy bowl of white chili, or dusted with spice on a blackened chicken sandwich. The sandwich, constructed on house-baked foccacia, came adorned with roasted corn and black bean relish and snow pea shoots—a harmonious blend of textures and temperatures.
Jones and the Upstairs Live crew had some exciting ideas to galvanize their casual fare, but a few failed to fully materialize. Like the dull-brown, beer-onion gravy that pooled atop a petite New York strip, which didn’t enhance the meat much, and added only an off-putting visual component to an otherwise quality steak. The tender chop was quality enough to stand on its own, especially aside white truffle-Parmesan fries and grilled
asparagus spears larger than Shrek’s fingers.
At times, well thought-out dishes fell short because their flavors simply weren’t assertive enough. Others seemed boilerplate when compared to livelier plates. Colorful and aromatic Bourbon Street shrimp, flecked with bits of scallion, tomato and sizable pepper flakes, came up a little limp in the flavor department when no real strong voice rose above the sizzle. I would’ve loved a plate of fried calamari if it lived up to the punchy smoked tomato-and-peppercorn dipping aioli. Instead, the crispy rings felt characterless in their flat glaze of lemony herb butter.
Assertiveness was no issue for Cajun chicken pizza. A delicious mix of chorizo, tomato, roasted corn, and smoked cheddar perked all tastebuds like feedback fuzz on a speaker, and firm crust held strong beneath a creamy remoulade. But as the pie cooled, its crust took on an impermeable chewiness.
I struggled equally hard through a fried, curry-flavored rice cake, whose starchy outer layer took considerable elbow-grease to penetrate. The flavors worked, but the soggy bok choy-mushrooms mix that topped it didn’t, and a smear of Thai chili sauce strained to be heard amid the chaos.
Still, the creations of pastry chef Aileen Kranyak always presented a fun and playful closing track to a meal. She wisely built her rich, pyramid-shaped chocolate and peanut butter mousse structures atop a layer of feuilletine (crispy flakes of praline-like goodness) to lend a candy bar vibe to the composition. And her riff on coffee and doughnuts—creamy, coffee-infused panna cotta that jiggled beside a dense, maple-glazed doughnut—was perfectly cinnamony and cakey, even without the bacon sprinkles.
Jones and his crew have the World Cafe’s Upstairs Live off to a rocking start, and there’s room to crank up the amplifier even louder (dare I say, to 11?). A small amount of tightening could help, but so could more assertive flavors. Less drum rolls and more cymbal crashes. More AC/DC and less Air Supply. The fist-pumps will follow.