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Light My Fire

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The chili-rubbed Delmonico is served with a loaded russet baked potato and a salad. Photograph by Thom ThompsonFirebirds Wood Fired Grill
1225 Churchmans Road
Newark, 366-7577
www.firebirdsrockymountaingrill.com

Prices
Appetizers $7.25-$12.95
Entrées $16.35-$26.95
Wood-fired steaks $18.25-$26.95
Recommended Dishes
Anything steak, pecan-crusted trout, crabs cakes, tortilla slaw

The smell hits first. Firebirds Wood Fired Grill does in fact have several wood fireplaces that produce warm, unmistakable sweet smelling smoke. As first impressions go, it’s pretty wonderful. That is, if you’re lucky enough to make it inside the door.

Firebirds, a boutique chain restaurant, is situated in a trifecta of casual family dining chains, part of Centre Point Plaza on Churchmans Road, which also houses a Red Lobster, an Olive Garden and locals like Potstickers Asian Grill and Deerhead Hot Dogs. The cluster of restaurants creates a feeding frenzy effect that results in long waits and one giant, nightmarish parking lot at dinnertime (see also: Rocky Run Plaza in North Wilmington).

Yet it’s probably unfair to compare Firebirds to its unruly, more wipe-down neighbors when you consider the small size of Firebirds’ fleet (just 15 restaurants countrywide). A better comparison might be upscale chains like Sullivan’s Steakhouse, or our own Iron Hill. All of these strive for that gray area between casual family dining and fine dining, all have expertly trained staff and warm, sleek interiors.

Firebirds seems to fit this mold. The concept was born when owner Dennis Thompson visited the Rockies and brought the Colorado ski lodge-like vibe back to his native Charlotte, North Carolina. Today the restaurants feature oversized stone fireplaces, exposed wooden beams and stacked stone columns. There’s a wall of wine bottles (Firebirds bottles its own wine via Napa Valley’s Girard Winery) and a few rustic touches like pounded copper planters mixed with modern features, like the glowing backlit liquor bottles behind the bar.

Executive Chef Brandon Prazma works the wood-fired grill. Photograph by Thom ThompsonIs this what Aspen looks like? Can’t say for sure—I’ve never been. And I can’t imagine too many strip-mall hopping Delawareans have, either. But as my dining partner said on one visit, “I feel like I’m on vacation somewhere.” So there’s that.

I was more excited about the food. When I spoke to corporate executive chef Steven Sturm last winter, he swore by the wood-fired grill, powered by hickory and oak. The flavors and textures imparted into beef by an open flame can’t be matched on a griddle, he said, and the smoky aroma elicits primal and nostalgic feelings. He wasn’t kidding. Stoking a primal fire might be so easy a caveman can do it, but Firebirds’ steaks are handled with deft precision.

A seven-ounce center-cut filet mignon arrived with a perfect char on its surface and wrapped in bacon. The crispy black grill marks provided such a pleasing texture and contrast to the meat inside, which, even at medium doneness, was tender as a marshmallow. It came with a gargantuan russet baked potato encrusted in sea salt and topped with more of Firebirds’ apple-smoked bacon. My partner called it the greatest baked potato she’d eaten in her life, which is probably the nicest thing you could ever say about a baked potato.

Page 2: Light My Fire, continues…

 

When I talked to Sturm about his signature Delmonico steak (in this case, a boneless top loin), he said its chili powder-based seasoning rub might belie steak purists’ dogma, but the spicy crust that results truly enhances the flavor of the meat. I considered this as the Delmonico landed a legit punch to the tastebuds. I’m not sure salt and pepper wouldn’t fare any better with the juicy Delmonico, but as far as embellishments go, chili rub is a solid choice.

The Double Diamond (left) and the desert pear martini. Photograph by Thom ThompsonA peppery Pinot Noir from California’s Taz Vineyards was a neat complement to the Delmonico’s spice. Its inclusion on the user-friendly wine list was no accident.

An appetizer plate of crab cakes (and here’s some Delaware blasphemy) were coated in panko breadcrumbs for a crispy outside, and given muscle with jumbo lump meat. The side sauce, advertised as mango habañero chutney, was like a sweet, souped-up Chinese duck sauce that played well off the mustard mix used as crab cake binder.

But the real treasure was a small pile of slaw sitting harmlessly between the crab cakes and the sauce. At most places, this sort of thing is strictly decoration, but we found the mix of fresh and crunchy red cabbage, lettuce, carrots, pumpkin seeds, cilantro and a light citrus dressing delicious. It’s not an official side item (it should be), but several dishes come with the slaw, including the tempura-style coconut shrimp and pecan-crusted trout.

Disappointments were few. I was eager to try the lobster spinach queso dip, but it was a bit soupy and I couldn’t find much in the way of actual lobster, despite my excavation. The tri-colored tortilla chips that accompanied were tacky, and seemed beneath this place. Some crusty bread or toasted pita would’ve been a better vehicle. A cup of tortilla soup was not bad, but as one of Firebirds’ true Southwestern offerings, it could’ve been better with added spice, perhaps from poblano peppers. I’ve heard rumblings about food being over-salted at Firebirds, but on my visits, this was not an issue.

Carrie Ademski shows off the crème brûlée cheesecake that is topped with berries, drizzled in a raspberry sauce and served with crème fraiche. Photograph by Thom ThompsonOur server was friendly, knowledgeable and quick with a recommendation. The peach martini is her personal favorite, she said, but the pear martini is more popular with customers. We avoided controversy and got both. When we quizzed her about the buffalo meatloaf entrée, she explained that it is a mix of ground beef and buffalo meat, since buffalo is too lean to serve solo. Good to know.

Perhaps more than anything else, Firebirds’ small touches erased any thoughts of chain dining. Just about every dish contained either fresh herbs, fruit or underrated ingredients like the pumpkin seeds. The tasty pear martini was especially cute. A fresh pear slice floated in the drink, with a tiny Firebird insignia cut from the middle. The little pear bird perched on the rim. We had to smile.

So do Firebirds’ guests know the special treat they’re getting? Perhaps so, since a dinner for two rang up a $98 check. But in the chaotic parking lot, I overheard a family who had requested tables at Firebirds, Olive Garden and Red Lobster, then waited to see which pager went off first. The wait to get into Firebirds that night was 75 minutes. I think that family wound up at Olive Garden. They should’ve waited just a bit longer.
 

Page 3: Pho-get About It | Grab a spoon, or fork, and enjoy a classic Vietnamese soup at Pho Nhu Vu.

 

Photograph by Thom ThompsonPho-get About It

Grab a spoon, or fork, and enjoy a classic Vietnamese soup at Pho Nhu Vu.
In need of a quick defrost?

Pho Nhu Vu (1146 Pulaski Hwy., Bear, 595-2529) is devoted to pho, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It’s a perfect cold-weather dish that has a pretty devoted following.

Pho (say “fuh”) fans seek out steamy bowls, which arrive at their tables alongside an assortment of traditional side dishes of bean sprouts, fresh basil leaves, lime wedges and chilies, plus a meat topping of their choosing.

Customers pick meat toppings like thin slices of steak, brisket, meatballs, even beef tripe and tendons. In addition to pho, the menu at Pho Nhu Vu also offers a wide selection of rice and vermicelli dishes with chicken, pork, beef and shrimp.

The all-important pho beef base takes up to eight hours to make, says server Sokah Woodard, but the aromatic and delicious results are worth it, even if pho beginners aren’t quite sure how to eat it. Soup spoons, chopsticks and forks are at their arsenal.

“First-timers don’t always know what to try, so we just tell them we specialize in soup,” Woodard says. “And they usually love it.” —Matt Amis
 

Page 4: Back to the Beginning | Orillas does tapas the Old World Way.

 

Owner-chef Julio Lazzarini presents a glass of house sangria and a tasty tapas platter of Spanish meats and cheeses. Photograph by Thom ThompsonBack to the Beginning

Orillas does tapas the Old World Way.
Latin cuisine is certainly well represented in Delaware, but to truly pay tribute to Latin cuisine, you must first trace the roots back to Spain, France and Italy. “That’s where I’m coming from,” says Julio Lazzarini, who opened Orillas Tapas and Bar last fall. “I put that regional flavor into the cuisine I make without having to focus on burritos, pizza and pasta.”

Lazzarini hopes Orillas (413 N. Market St., Wilmington, 427-9700) instead illuminates the flair and value of true Old World tapas dining, which uses bold and straightforward ingredients for classic and modern tapas such as gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic) and empanada de carrucho (pastry stuffed with conch).

Fresh seafood and full barrels of sangria take center stage at the 40-seat restaurant, and Lazzarini thinks customers will find value in fresh bogatas (sandwiches filled with serrano ham, Manchego cheese and much more) and cocas, similar to flatbread pizza.

For the indecisive, there’s Orillas’ unique paella, made of saffron rice, chicken, pork, shrimp, calamari, white fish, scallops, clams, mussels, chorizo, green peas and peppers.

Orillas translates roughly to “shoreline,” which to Lazzarini represents both the beginning and the end, “depending on where you look at it,” he says. “I’ve been traveling my whole life. For me to settle down with my own restaurant, it’s like me saying this is my new beginning.”   —Matt Amis

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