hen I first began reviewing Delaware restaurants more than 20 years ago, the dining scene looked far different than it does today. Most of Wilmington’s highly regarded restaurants took their cues from private dining clubs: The cooking was French or Continental, the service dignified, the atmosphere somber and dressy. Fine dining, in short, was many things, but a rollicking good time wasn’t among them. The experience wasn’t centered on the food; it was an occasion, something between a visit to a museum and a state dinner.
At the time, a new breed of dining spot, more casual in the dining room and more adventurous in the kitchen, was making inroads. But anyone who was serious about food and wine, and who had the budget to afford the indulgence, booked a table at the Hotel du Pont’s Green Room. Even those of more modest means were able to experience the splendor thanks to Sunday brunch and Thursday dinner buffets.
That the Hotel du Pont would house the city’s premier restaurant was natural. Its owner, the DuPont Co., was the state’s largest private employer, and the hotel was the city’s cultural centerpiece, an Edwardian-era showplace whose lofty ceilings, sumptuous wood paneling and ornate detail work represented the opulence of a bygone era.
The intervening years have made clear just how bygone that era is. Though the Hotel du Pont’s ballrooms have remained a favored locale for special events, the Green Room has long since fallen from favor as a destination restaurant. Tableside cooking seems as old fashioned as a steam engine, and classic French food has become passé even in France, where restaurants of the Green Room’s sort have been swept aside in favor of a new sort of epicurean experience—one where décor and atmosphere take a back seat to the food. Even the standards by which we judge a fine kitchen have changed. No longer do chefs strive to perfect a roster of classic dishes, a canon of gastronomy. Today’s gourmets celebrate exotic ingredients and novel preparations in unexpected combinations. What once was classy now seems stuffy. What once was formal now seems stiff.
The change in public taste isn’t the only thing that has taken a toll on the Hotel du Pont. As the power and influence of the DuPont Co. have waned, the hotel’s odd and precarious position—most fine hotels are owned by hospitality specialists, not chemical companies—have made it the target of periodic rumors of sale. When DuPont was riding high, the hotel and its restaurants were accepted as assets that added value to the company even if they didn’t turn a profit, an attitude that has changed as the company’s fortunes tumbled. As a result, the Green Room has been periodically refocused over the years in an attempt to return it to its former prominence.
Its latest incarnation, unveiled in mid-2006, has a back-to-the-future feel to it. The décor has been overhauled; crowd-pleasing features such as the buffet brunch and dinner are back. The restaurant still requires men to wear jackets on Friday and Saturday nights, though business casual dress is now permitted the rest of the week. The result isn’t quite a rebound to its former glory, but it does mark the return of talented chef Patrick D’Amico to Wilmington’s dining scene.
The most striking change for the new Green Room is the décor, which nearly banishes its namesake color. Past managers of the hotel always rued the need to decorate a dining room in green, a color thought to dull the appetite. This time the decision was made to bite the bullet, and the result is a deep, rich crimson that runs through almost everything in the room, from the thick draperies to the plush, embroidered wingback chairs to the boldly patterned Versace china. The only trace of green is the background color in the coffered ceiling, a muted shade of mint. The new color scheme, unlike the old, tends to draw attention away from the ceiling and the oak-paneled walls, but the overall effect is, as intended, warmer and more welcoming than before. Combined with the live music from the balcony overlooking the dining room, the feeling is one of aristocratic luxury.
The décor isn’t the only thing that has changed. In the restaurant’s heyday, Continental tableside preparations were a popular feature, and many of them have returned. Customers can order an entire meal, from salad to entrée to dessert, without ever having a dish cooked in the kitchen. Those dishes are some of the most enticing on the menu, especially a succulent rack of lamb for two in an understated mustard sauce. But the menu is much shorter than it used to be, and though it was never entirely given over to French cuisine, today it’s hard to find a Gallic influence anywhere.
Perhaps that’s due to the hiring of D’Amico as executive sous chef. Dating back to his years at Portofino in the Devon, D’Amico has been one of the state’s best Italian chefs. He branched out into modern cuisine when he opened the kitchen at Eclipse, the bistro on Union Street, but his bold, confident style has always found its best expression in the intense flavors of Italian peasant cooking.
That’s still true, judging by the standout dish of a recent meal, a spectacular grilled veal chop—the tastiest I’ve ever had in Delaware—served with a perfectly cooked risotto and a richly oiled, garlicky broccoli rabe. Granted, the plate was dressed up to make this earthy fare match the surroundings; the veal was served atop the risotto, with the greens perched above to create a towering pile.
The contemporary dishes aren’t bad. They merely paled in comparison. An appetizer of seared scallops was perfectly cooked, the shellfish as tender as custard, but the baby beet puree they were garnished with didn’t add to the flavor.
The cooking was a problem, though, with an entrée of grilled yellowfin tuna. Though the popular fashion is to sear the surface of the fish while leaving the interior as raw as sashimi, I prefer it medium-rare. Unfortunately, that’s a tricky stage of cooking to reach with a dense-fleshed fish like tuna, especially the 5-inch-thick slab at the Green Room. The kitchen missed the mark. The center contained only the barest hint of pinkness, and the fish was dry. More problematic was the decision to smoke the fish over apple wood, a strong flavor that overwhelmed the flavor of the fish. Though the entrée was served with a nice portion of seared foie gras and black trumpet mushrooms and offset with baby carrots, the dish was a disappointment.
Dessert was always a highlight in the Green Room’s glory days. Alas, the kitchen no longer offers the spectacular soufflés, but the pastries are still first rate. The smartest choice, though, is probably one of the flambéed desserts for two, either bananas Foster or strawberries Henry VIII.
The wine list, at least the one that’s initially brought to the table, is less daunting than it used to be. As always, it is built around top-shelf French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, with enough boutique California wines to keep serious wine-lovers happy. These are supplemented with a generous selection of mid-priced bottles from around the world, along with enough inexpensive but decent choices for those on a budget. The number of wines available by the glass is limited, and it might be nice to see some of the pricier bottles offered in that format, but the available selection is reasonably well matched to the menu.
The service, though better than what you’ll find at most restaurants these days, isn’t quite up to the old standards, either. The hotel’s servers, once as deferential as the help in a Merchant-Ivory period drama, clearly have been instructed to treat guests in a friendlier manner. Whether that works for you is a matter of taste. The problem on our Saturday night visit was a shortage of staff on the floor. Though the dining room was only about two-thirds full, we were shown to a table closest to the kitchen, then had a hard time flagging down someone to ask about changing locations. (We weren’t the only couple inconvenienced in this way, despite the fact that the room never filled.) It wasn’t as if we were stranded for long—the switch to a better table probably took about a minute—but a restaurant of this stature should pride itself on never letting a customer experience a minute of discomfort. Unfortunately, that’s a standard that might not be coming back. D
The Green Room
Hotel du Pont
11th and Market streets
Appetizers $9-$13; salads $9-$10; entrées $25-$40
Recommendations Rack of lamb in mustard sauce, grilled veal chop with risotto, strawberries Henry VIII
Famous Jimmy’s Jumps
Back to the Future
The 300-seat Bridgeville institution known as Jimmy’s Grille is acclaimed for fried chicken, homemade dumplings, sky-high meringue pies and 3-pound cinnamon rolls. It’s a bastion of down-home cooking.
It’s also a thriving catering business that recently opened a banquet hall that seats 280 and holds about 600 standing, making it one of the state’s principal banquet facilities.
“Jimmy’s is the busiest, largest restaurant and caterer in the state,” says Alex Pires of Highway One partnership group, which last summer purchased the restaurant for $2.5 million from Jimmy Tennefoss. “We’re the biggest producer of food anywhere in the state.”
Jimmy’s size and its strong community identity prompted the purchase, says Pires, whose group’s other restaurants include Dewey Beach landmarks The Rusty Rudder and the Bottle & Cork.
“It’s so much different than all our other places,” he says. “You have to have a lot of everything: lots of parking, lots of people, lots of trucks, lots of ladies—we probably have 25 waitresses.”
The banquet center, a natural extension of the restaurant, Pires says, was built when Highway One purchased the operation, though it had never opened. As soon as it debuted last fall, the facility booked a healthy number of affairs—due partly to Jimmy’s $1,600 wedding package, which is destined to become as renowned as its cinnamon buns. “It’s usually just a girl and a guy who don’t have much money to pay for the wedding themselves,” Pires says.
The facility has been equally popular for holiday parties, banquets, graduation parties and anniversaries. Yet fans needn’t book the site to celebrate with Jimmy’s fried chicken. Delivery is also available. “We go to Annapolis; we go anywhere,” Pires says.
All Jimmy’s food is prepared from scratch, using time-honored recipes. But the dishes get an extra pinch of that something-something when you taste them in the restaurant itself.
“You have to see these huge counters with 15 different big desserts, and the cakes are 10 inches high,” Pires says. “The menu is huge. The ladies wear black and white, with their hair on top of their head and a pencil stuck in it. The whole thing will remind you of that old school type of business that is really kind of dying.”
Another tribute to the old ways and old days: Be it banquets or breakfast, Jimmy’s only takes cash—though you can write a check for banquets. —Pam George