1812 Marsh Road
Grilled tuna is served
on an especially spicy Thai salad—a Culinaria trademark.
Culinaria stays on top because
it stays true
elaware’s dining scene has changed a lot since 2000. At least two of the restaurants I reviewed that year have closed. Several lost chefs to competitors. A few restaurateurs with high hopes have moved on.
But Culinaria keeps on cooking. And sautéing. And roasting. And packing them in, though it takes no reservations, won’t seat you until your entire party arrives and offers no cushy waiting area. Customers line up on Tuesday nights in winter and on Saturday nights in mid-summer.
Indeed, the 70-seat Brandywine Hundred restaurant is among Delaware’s greatest and most understated success stories.
And here’s why: Ezio Reynaud and Pam Grabowski are hands-on owners who oversee every detail. I’ve never visited when they weren’t in the open kitchen. When they vacation, they close the restaurant rather than leave the kitchen in the hands of another.
The partners wisely haven’t messed with Culinaria’s distinctive style. It is still dressed in burnt sienna, copper and black, with rustic cupboards standing out like peaks amongst the sea of contemporary black tables. Fruit-and-vegetable still lifes hang on walls, and painted squiggles still snake across the floor.
But like a New York socialite, Culinaria periodically changes its look with accessories, which in its case include shimmering swags, lush fabrics, leafy plants and tiny, sparkling lights.
As with its decor, the menu retains some static items. Regular diners would howl if the tomato parmesan soup left the menu. Every spoonful delivers a medley of textures, from the chunky tomatoes to the gooey parmesan to the crouton soaked with basil-scented juices. The elegantly prepared roasted salmon, dusted with salt and pepper, is another old favorite. It comes with the ubiquitous mound of creamy mashed potatoes.
At Culinaria, calf’s liver remains downright trendy, its dusky flavor given the spotlight with only sweet caramelized onions as accompaniment. But two longtime dishes have been relegated to Tuesday nights. If you want the flaky catfish baked in a crisp potato crust or grilled lamb chops, schedule dinner before “Dancing with the Stars.”
Culinaria is adept at tweaking ingredients several ways. Snappy asparagus is a side dish, but it’s also paired with salty curls of grilled prosciutto and splashed with a sprightly lemon-oil dressing. Rainbow trout greets pesto or lolls in an almond butter. My favorite trout is adorned with a decadent tumble of crabmeat and wild mushrooms. Perhaps the only dish that tops it for the rich quotient is the roasted Maine lobster tail in a crawfish sauce.
Culinaria has served just about everything on a Thai salad, including grilled tuna and softshell crabs. Warning: The kitchen stays true to its principles and its spices. Sensitive mouths should avoid the heat. If you’re prone to bloating, order your dish with less salt.
Though prices have increased, Culinaria remains affordable. The tenderloin is $25.75. The wine selection is equally within reach, and the pours are generous.
But Culinaria’s main claim to fame is its reliability. Order the trout this week and it will undoubtedly taste the same the next week. Hopefully, area diners will be able to count on that consistency for years to come. D