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Savor, The Review: Chew Chew Train

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Royal Zephyr

27 Atlantic Ave.
Ocean View
541-9555
www.royalzephyr.com

Prices Entrées $21 to $35; appetizers and salads $9 to $12

Recommended dishes
The house salad, crab balls, fried oysters, cornmeal-crusted rockfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cornmeal-crusted rockfish is served with roasted red onion relish and tartar sauce spiked with green chili peppers.
photograph by Keith Mosher www.kamproducations.com

 

 

These are tough times for theme restaurants. After years of expansion across America’s Disneyfied landscape, restaurateurs seem to have reached the limit to how much entertainment the public will accept in lieu of good food.

Let’s face facts: The Hard Rock Café isn’t a bar and grill with rock ’n’ roll decor. It’s a memorabilia collection whose owners can squeeze a lot more out of customers by selling them drinks and hamburgers than it ever could for admission tickets. Or, to put it more simply and more bluntly, nobody goes to Hooters for the menu.

But just when it seemed that nobody would ever again visit a moderately priced restaurant for food alone, the trend has begun to fizzle out. Publicly traded, heavily hyped eateries like Planet Hollywood ran into financial trouble. Mid-priced chains are scrambling to win back disillusioned diners. Locally, the best evidence is at the New Castle Airport, where the Air Transport Command, a restaurant with a World War II aviation theme, was grounded for good.

None of that, however, has stopped the Royal Zephyr in Ocean View from chugging ahead. This might be the ultimate in a theme restaurant. Patrons actually eat in vintage railroad dining cars.

Anyone younger than a Baby Boomer must be wondering, What’s up with that? After all, it’s been a long time since trains evoked feelings of adventure, a break from the everyday for the romance of travel. For anyone who rides the rails in the Amtrak Age, a meal aboard a train means a microwaved sandwich in a snack bar. A Metroliner dining car has all the culinary appeal of a lunch wagon on a construction site, with atmosphere to match.

Well, young’uns, sit down here by my rocking chair and believe me when I tell you things used to be different. Once upon a time, before the spread of the interstate highway system and the jumbo jet, trains were the classy way to travel, and they had dining cars that made a meal something to look forward to. They weren’t working-man’s diners. They were first-class restaurants on wheels.

 


Chef Tammy Mozingo
photograph by Keith Mosher www.kamproducations.com

 

OK, that seems like a slender thread to hang a theme restaurant on. Americans have lots of opportunities to indulge whatever warm feelings they have for trains. The countryside is thick with tourist railroads, vestigial bits of track left over from an earlier age that operate as diversions for nostalgia buffs and parents with kids of a certain age. Model railroading has a loyal following, but most of its hardcore practitioners are Baby Boomers reliving the childhood dream of a choo-choo under the Christmas tree. When a hobby’s new blood is 60-something rocker Neil Young, who bought out the dying Lionel brand of toy trains, a burst of popularity seems unlikely.

On the other hand, while the glory days of railroads aren’t likely to entice the Dewey Beach nightclub crowd, the population in Ocean View contains more retirees than party animals. Besides, dining at the beach isn’t necessarily all about the food. It is, after all, a vacation. How many people play miniature golf when they’re somewhere other than the beach? If you’re not within earshot of the pounding surf, how often do you get a craving for salt water taffy?

To increase the chances of success, the Royal Zephyr consists of two dining rooms: one casual, the other fancy. The casual car serves breakfast and lunch, along with dinner for families and anyone else looking for a light meal.

 


Coconut cake
photograph by Keith Mosher www.kamproducations.com

 

The fancy one doesn’t allow children younger than 13, a feature that all by itself qualifies as a selling point for some people. The red-dominated decor is formal but not stuffy, with the kind of touches that will appeal to anyone who misses the days when you could tell a classy restaurant by the small touches: plush chairs, substantial cutlery and customized china with the restaurant’s name as part of the design.

Naturally, the so-called room is long and narrow, with tables for two on one side, tables for four on the other. The atmosphere is established by what was once known as dinner music, in this case Sinatra-era ballads. The railroad theme is further enhanced by a soft, recorded background sound of rail cars trundling down the tracks. When I jokingly told the hostess, “They should have installed the cars so they could rock back and forth, like the real thing,” she responded, “They thought about it, but it would have cost more than $25,000.”

The menu is out of the same mold: not stodgy, but on the old-fashioned side. With a limited menu—steak, filet mignon, chicken, veal cutlets, crab cakes and a couple kinds of fish—the food at the Royal Zephyr is designed for nostalgia buffs more than thrill-seekers, but the kitchen does them well enough to make a meal satisfying.

The kitchen does throw in a few modern wrinkles to keep things interesting. Cornmeal-crusted rockfish, for example, comes with a roasted red onion relish and tartar sauce spiked with green chili pepper. The basic dish, though, would be familiar to any angler. The small filets were coated in coarsely ground cornmeal and pan-fried, a treatment that showed off the farm-raised fish to good effect.



A vintage railroad dining car serves as one of Royal Zephyr’s dining rooms.
photograph by Keith Mosher www.kamproducations.com

 

Crab cakes are made in the modern manner, with lump backfin meat. Frankly, I prefer the traditional method, that is, with shredded crabmeat rather than big chunks of lump backfin. It might sound like heresy these days, but making cakes from backfin is a waste of good crab. Old-time cooks had other recipes to show off big, white hunks of sweet meat: crab imperial, crab Norfolk, and other dishes that seasoned the crab lightly and baked its meat gently. Crab cakes, on the other hand, were the preferred treatment for smaller shreds of meat from the claws and legs. Such meat is a little darker and tastes stronger, better able to stand up to added ingredients and pan-frying.

Luckily for me, that dish is on the menu, too, only it’s an appetizer. What the Royal Zephyr calls “crab balls” are what some old roadhouses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore still serve as crab cakes, usually with saltine crackers. The Zephyr dishes them up on a bed of lettuce with tartar sauce, a classy treatment for a down-home dish.

Fried oysters get a similar treatment, though the cocktail sauce tasted like the traditional kind. I was expecting more kick from something that supposedly included wasabi, the Japanese horseradish.

Salads were the one part of the meal that looked and tasted fully modern. Caesar salad carries a classic name, but it’s much modified from the Romaine-and-crouton standard. The Zephyr’s also features red leaf lettuce, seedless red grapes and hearts of palm, giving it a lot more plate appeal than usual.

The house salad was even more modern. Dubbed “field of greens,” the mesclun mix was enhanced with walnuts, dried cherries, applewood-smoked bacon and Gorgonzola cheese, then dressed with a maple-sherry vinaigrette. It was delicious, and, like the Caesar, was large enough to serve as an ample first course.

The one menu item that needs serious rethinking is the aged New York strip steak. I know that aged beef is all the rage these days, but it’s not cheap, and its presence on this menu is puzzling. The New York strip steak, aged for 21 days, is the most expensive entrée listed by more than $10. On top of that, it’s not generously cut. It’s far too thin, making it difficult for the kitchen to get it to the table at the proper stage of doneness. Under those conditions, it’s hard to discern enough difference in the flavor to make the aging a worthwhile expense, especially since the beef was served with a tasty helping of sautéed mushrooms and topped with cognac butter.

Desserts are also throwbacks—especially moist, luscious slices of cakes that would do any bakery proud. I’m not much of a cake fan, but I make an exception for coconut cake. Anyone who prefers chocolate won’t be disappointed either.

Like the menu, the wine list is on the short side, with a couple dozen each of reds and whites. But while most short wine lists are built from nothing beyond well-advertised brands, Royal Zephyr’s contains a few well-chosen surprises. The Qupe Syrah was a good complement to both the steak and seafood dishes, a medium-bodied red from the Central Coast of California with plenty of fruit to stand up to the beef and a slightly spicy varietal character.

Service was surprisingly good considering the restaurant’s layout. You might think that a long, narrow space would create foot-traffic nightmares, yet the restaurant was three-quarters full during our visit, and everything reached the table without undue delays. Our waiter suffered a couple of short-term memory lapses—it shouldn’t be hard to remember who ordered what at a table for two—but his calm, friendly demeanor more than made up for it.

If a mealtime novelty is all you’re looking for, Royal Zephyr’s casual car should do the trick nicely. But if you want a unique theme restaurant experience, don’t be afraid to travel first class. 

D

 

 

 

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