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Savor, The Review: Jack of All Trades

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Photgraphy by THom Thompson http://thomthompson.com

Smith & Co.

Restaurant and Bar
249 NE Front St., Milford
422-7750

Recommendations
New York strip, ahi tuna, broccoli rabe, gnocchi with beef tips, apple crisp

But master of none, Smith & Co. in Milford tries to be all things to all people. The effort is appreciated, but the relatively new restaurant needs to find itself.

The distribution of good restaurants in Delaware mirrors the rest of the nation’s: The best spots cluster at the edges, in Rehoboth Beach and northern New Castle County. Those are like the East and West coasts, where trends flash in and out of style and culinary standards are high, as are the prices. The rest of the state is like the American heartland: The trends arrive later, if ever, and finding good food is more of a challenge.

Delaware has no large cities in its heartland, just small towns. The old ones are on its rivers. In Milford’s case, it’s the Mispillion, a modest enough waterway whose heyday passed with the arrival of the railroad. But it’s always enjoyed some prosperity, leaving it blessed with a little history, some nice old houses and the usual struggling, small-town commercial district.

Someday the beach real estate monster will gobble up Milford the way it did Milton a little farther south. Those old homes will be bought and upgraded by rehab-happy Washingtonians looking for a quaint getaway within reasonable driving distance of the ocean. But those days aren’t here yet, and, in a way, the town is less ready for big-city visitors than it was for years. The new millennium has seen the passing of a pair of restaurants that stacked up with any in the state—a problem in a location that’s still too far north to capitalize on the sophisticated clientele drawn to Rehoboth Beach, too far south to profit from the rapid growth of northern Kent and southern New Castle counties.

But Milford is too big a town to go without a Saturday night restaurant, which is the situation that existed until last spring, when Smith & Co. opened.

The history of dining out in Milford isn’t a long story. For many years there was Geyer’s, a family restaurant that drew loyal legions for its winning way with classic country cookery. In what was once a mainly rural area, knowing how to fry chicken or whip up slippery dumplings better than the local housewives was no mean feat, and it made Geyer’s the restaurant for just about any occasion.

The old favorite was joined in the ’80s by the Banking House Inn, a smart, high-quality operation in a renovated 18th-century building. Despite its location in the old downtown historic district, it felt like a country inn, an impression heightened by the kitchen’s skill with a limited but refined menu. In the years when the dining scene in Rehoboth Beach, just 25 miles away, had begun to draw attention and renown in Washington, the Banking House offered food that could be mentioned in the same conversation—and enjoyed on the same trip.

Then came the Library Square Café, a funkier, far less formal room with a wonderful spirit of joy and creativity in the kitchen. It occupied a decidedly more modest building down by the river and, for a little while, in what now seems Milford’s Golden Age of Dining, all three coexisted.

It didn’t seem a calamity when the Banking House converted to a bed-and-breakfast format and closed to the public at large. But as time wore on, Geyer’s was sold to a slick city operator who declared that Delawareans were going to have to learn to eat classier food than chicken and dumplings, leading to its prompt demise. So when the owners of Library Square threw in the towel, Milford was left with nothing fancier than the fine but plebian Milford Diner.

The situation couldn’t last, but the solution was as unlikely as the idea of a town the size of Milford going without a real restaurant. The main problem at Smith & Co. is that it’s trying to fill the niches all its predecessors did but hasn’t found its own.

At first blush, Smith & Co. seems like a strange choice for a restaurant. It sounds more like an accounting firm or a corporation serving as a CIA front. In truth, the name is simply the owner’s, but “and company” doesn’t exactly stimulate the appetite.

Neither does the location. In a town with so many historical resources, and plenty of opportunities to restore them, Smith & Co. instead anchors a new strip mall on the scraggly edge of downtown. Having neighbors like a billiards bar and a dollar store a few doors down doesn’t do justice to what patrons find inside.

Because Smith & Co. is situated at the oblique angle, where the center’s two wings form a wide-mouthed V, it fans out inside, and what you find there depends on whether you turn left, toward the high-tech bar and lounge, or right, to a more formal dining room.

The dining room is the hot ticket on Saturday night; a late reservation was accepted, but the room was overbooked. Its popularity is understandable. The room’s tasteful, understated earth-tones suit its contemporary décor. Half the 100 seats are in banquettes, giving certain seats an air of privacy.

A glance at the menu (you won’t see it online, because the restaurant has no website) gives the impression that Smith & Co. might be trying to project the brawny image of one of those lush, big-city steakhouses. Certainly the meat, whether filet mignon, skillet steak or aged beef, holds pride of place on the menu, and deserves it. But rather than let the steaks shine, the kitchen dresses them all in an herb-based dry rub reminiscent of Mrs. Dash.

The menu says the meat is served to temperature, and our order showed skill at pulling the fat from the fire at just the right moment. Our New York strip was served a perfect medium-rare. The meat was very good, almost tasty enough to overcome the over-aggressive herb coating. It isn’t bad if you care for that sort of thing, but meat-lovers might be happier having the kitchen hold the herbs. If I were cooking I’d give something with ancho chile powder a try.

Further testament to the range man’s skill was a piece of ahi tuna that was cooked exactly the way I wanted it: medium, not the rare or medium-rare most chefs opt for these days. This was perfect—the center red but warm, the fish’s moistness on the verge of bursting out as soon as it hit my tongue.

The only exception to this careful cooking was the pork chop. It, too, was coated, in its case by Italian cheese, and though it was thick enough to have retained some juice, it had been cooked a little too long. This wasn’t helped by a gummy sauce, supposedly based on bok choy, that added nothing.

In its aim to fill every empty restaurant niche in Milford, Smith & Co. also serves some Italian food, and it is surprisingly good. A side dish of broccoli rabe, in particular, could stand alongside anything in Wilmington, in every aspect, from freshness to garlicky kick. Another happy surprise among the Italian dishes on the lunch menu: a bowl full of impressively light, pillowy gnocchi with beef tips. Its truffle-brandy sauce wouldn’t pass muster on the Riviera, but it was better than some of the alternatives.

Salads were good, especially one composed of sausage, portobello mushrooms, strips of red pepper and fresh mozzarella atop romaine lettuce. It would have been excellent if it hadn’t been drenched in a balsamic vinegar dressing, which would have been quite good had it been applied with a lighter hand. The same was true of a similarly pleasing Caesar salad.

The crab cake wasn’t bad, exactly, but barely reached the local standard. They were large, but not especially fresh, seasoned, but not boldly enough to mask the tired flavor of the crab. Crab bisque exhibited the same problem, this time putting scraps of seafood—and few of them—in a pasty, slightly gritty cream soup. About the best the crustacean came off was in crab-artichoke dip, and that was no better than passable. Neither of the headline ingredients exhibited much flavor.

The final sign that Smith & Co. is trying too hard came on the dessert menu: a deep-fried Snickers bar in pastry. Yes, you heard me right—a candy bar deep-fried in dough, a delicacy I previously had seen only at carnivals. I suppose I was expecting something more overtly disgusting, but this was simply a warm candy bar in what seemed to be phyllo dough, a distinct let-down. By contrast, the apple crisp was terrific, full of fruit that wasn’t overly sweetened and topped with a burnished crunch.

Table service was good—after all, most of the waitresses in the area trained in good restaurants—but the hostess needs lessons in booking a dining room on a Saturday night. She took reservations as if it were Saturday night at Geyer’s, but the kitchen isn’t as fast. Nor does it have to be—unless someone gets the bright idea to add chicken and dumplings to the menu.

D

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