A Season of Change

New places open, old ones close, and some simply move or remake their images. Here’s to a parade of variety.

Executive chef Ivan Torres specializes in innovative Spanish dishes at Olé Tapas Lounge and Restaurant in Newark. Photograph by Thom Thompson

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hange is inevitable, especially in the restaurant industry. To keep ’em coming, chefs and owners have to simultaneously keep their fingers on several pulses. Today, that means they must respond to the economy, the high price of ingredients and customers’ ever-evolving tastes.

The top trend has multicultural flavor. Delaware’s fervor for Asian cuisine, for instance, shows no signs of waning. Shanghai Buffet & Grill (18701 Coastal Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 644-2688) promises the “best prices at the beach.” Perhaps that’s because it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet with more than 100 items.

Beijing Buffet (18908 Rehoboth Mall, Rehoboth Beach, 644-7198) in December moved into space formerly occupied by Panda Buffet. Expect seafood—including crabs—Korean, Chinese and American dishes.

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In fall, Takumi (1601 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 658-8887) opened its doors in Independence Mall. The restaurant is owned by Hideyuki Okubo and wife Jessie, who have been gradually updating both the decor and the menu. Okubo for 13 years was a chef at Utage, so Takumi’s menu features many familiar dishes. “People will come into the same space and see the same sushi chef and the same waitress,” he says. “The kitchen chef is the same, too.”

In time they will see influences of Okuba’s training. He studied French and Italian cuisine—along with Japanese food—at Tsuji Culinary Institute, one of Japan’s largest professional culinary schools. Along with offering the familiar favorites, he plans to introduce some creative selections that blend various culinary traditions.

Utage’s owners, the Oka family, in fall began offering intimate group dining events at the Hockessin Athletic Club. Visit the restaurant web site, www.oka-restaurant.com, for updates.

Takumi’s new neighbor is Rasa Sayang (1601 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 543-5286), a 70-seat Malaysian restaurant that opened in September. “Malaysian food is quite rich in flavor,” says Aaron Kwan, the general manager. “It’s a mixture of Thai, Indian and Chinese cuisine.”

He recommends the roti canai, a rolled, crispy Indian pancake with a curried chicken dipping sauce; chicken and beef skewers; crispy calamari; and spareribs, which are fried. The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, seven days a week.

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Pho Nhu Vo (1146 Pulaski Hwy., Bear, 595-2529) brings Vietnamese food to Bear. It’s no surprise, given its name, that the menu is heavy on pho (beef noodle soup). Order it with steak and brisket, steak and meatball, brisket and meatball, steak and tripe, and just about every other kind of beef, including tendon.

In Trolley Square, the Dumpling House (1828 W. 11th St., Wilmington, 888-1828) is packing them in. The intimate 14-table restaurant, of course, features dumplings. “They’re a delicacy,” says owner Eileen Chao. But so are the spicy eggplant and the fried rice noodles. “The menu is so small, almost everything is popular,” Chao says. The third floor is for parties of 20 or more.

In other ethnic news,Olé Tapas Lounge and Restaurant (1126 Capitol Trail, Newark, 224-9378) is mining new territory with its tapas, paellas and Spanish wines. The owners are executive chef Ivan Torres, Joe Tis and Juan Manuel Aguinaga. Family introduced Tis and Torres, who met while working at Harry’s Seafood Grill, to businessman Aguinaga, who moved here from Ecuador.

“It was a unique opportunity,” Aguinaga says of the partnership. “It’s the area’s first real Spanish tapas restaurant, and tapas is one of my favorite foods.” The most popular dishes are anything tapas and the paella, which includes one made with lobster. The restaurant in December started featuring a classical guitarist on Saturdays.

Apparently, culinary minds think alike. Julio Lazzarini, formerly the chef at Deep Blue, in November opened the 67-seat Orillas Tapas Bar & Restaurant in downtown Wilmington (412 N. Market St., Wilmington, 427-9700). Along with tapas, the restaurant serves ceviche, soups and salads. “We have a wide selection of wine and simple, straight flavors with a beautiful presentation at good prices,” Lazzarini says. “We’re upscale but affordable.”

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Lazzarini says the crowd has been a pleasant mix of downtown workers, area residents and business travelers who appreciate proximity to the train station.

Another Dan Butler alum, Matthew Curtis, formerly of Deep Blue and Toscana, in September purchased Union City Grille in Little Italy (Eighth and Union streets, Wilmington, 654-9780). Before buying Union City, Curtis worked in finance, which served him well. He was determined to buy both the building and the business—not a bad move in today’s economy.

Curtis added a 52-inch plasma TV that’s been popular among banquet organizers. He’s also hired chef Robert Lhulier, who gave Curtis his start at Deep Blue. Curtis says the food will be straightforward, sans heavy sauces. The menu also includes fun appetizers and steaks, which have long been a signature at Union City. Homemade pasta is available both on the menu and for retail sale. Curtis promises a tribute to Little Italy on Sundays, which are new hours for the restaurant. No matter the day, he says, prices will remain moderate. “I have a cool landlord,” he says. “And I know what my overhead is.”

Also downtown is the 50-seat Southern- and Caribbean-influenced restaurant The Rebel (201 N. Market St., Wilmington, 658-2018) and the chain Qdoba Mexican Grill (837 N. Market St., Wilmington, 397-8851). The Philadelphia-based Public House is scheduled to soon appear in space formerly occupied by the Residences at Rodney Square’s great room.

Meanwhile, two city restaurants—C.W. Harborside Bar & Grille on the riverfront and Ameritage Bistro—have unveiled new personas. C.W. Harborside, formerly Conley Ward’s Steakhouse, (110 S. West St., Wilmington, 658-6626), has been rolling out the promotions. In November, for instance, kids could eat Sunday brunch for free, and there was a $25 filet mignon and lobster special on Saturdays.

Ameritage Bistro (Ninth and Orange streets, Wilmington, 427-2300) has brought in entertainer Tommy Conwell. It’s also turned the gourmet section into a coffee bar, added chef Nick Devine, and began offering new lunch and dinner menus.

In Greenville, Pizza By Elizabeths will soon move into new digs. Pizza remains the focus. “We are the pizza specialists,” says co-owner Betsy LeRoy, who recently won the Delaware Restaurant Association Restaurateur of the Year award.

A separate to-go area, Pick-up By Elizabeths, will offer canned goods and prepared dishes that reflect the multicultural staff. Find Thai spring rolls, Asian noodle salads and ropa vieja. An area for private events can seat up to 50. The new venue will also feature a separate lounge called Cork Bar.

In Sussex, Overstuffed Sandwiches (28266 Lewes-Georgetown Hwy., Milton, 684-4443) is the brainchild of contractor Rob Landon, who found it challenging to find a satisfying bite along that long stretch of U.S. 9. Overstuffed Sandwiches is open for breakfast and lunch.

Bob Cirelli has changed the name of his La Rosa Negra to Cirelli’s Fine Italian & Seafood Restaurant (1201 Savannah Road, Lewes, 645-1980). Too many tourists thought the cuisine was Mexican. The name is different, but the dishes are the same.

Finally, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Steak is popular, no matter the economy. Mile High Steak and Seafood (1102 Baltimore Pike, Glen Mills, Pa., 610-361-0855) opened in August.

Vincente’s, which moved from Little Italy to Independence Mall to Glen Mills, is scheduled to return to Delaware in the Library Plaza at 5914 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington.

When it comes to trends, what was old is new again.

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