Any fresh fish special (especially halibut, when available), rockfish, roasted chicken, pastry chef Rebecca Krebs’ desserts
On the surface, Salt Air seems like a simple enough affair, another nice, solid entry in Rehoboth Beach’s already nice, solid roster of restaurants. But hidden beneath the simplicity is a very interesting idea.
Steered by restaurateur Jonathan Spivak of the excellent Sedona in Bethany and the former Fusion in Rehoboth Beach, and by chef Nino Mancari, formerly of Fish On and Solstice Grill, Salt Air attempts to distill Delmarva cuisine to its essence.
The menu, loaded with foods that define our agricultural and littoral output, describes the fare as a “Delaware beach picnic.” Think lots of fresh corn, free-range chicken, local fish like rockfish and porgy, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries and more. Here are our area’s best ingredients, the menu seems to say, and here are the best ways to enjoy them.
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Several elements of Salt Air can be attributed to Highwater Management, the food service consulting company run by area gurus Matt Haley, Bryony Ziegler and Scott Kamerera. Highwater was responsible for recruiting and training Salt Air’s excellent servers, and Zeigler assisted with interior design.
This confluence of talent, with manager Lauren Huey, results in a dining room that is clean looking, well-run and unfussy, maybe even minimalist. Local art, including several abstract pieces by Spivak and beach scenes by Ziegler, hang on white walls, which, curiously, are tapered and tattered before they reach the ceiling, as they were when the space still housed Fusion. Beach towels hang on a clothesline on one wall. From an adjacent wall hangs a sizable tangle of driftwood. Full-length windows face relatively peaceful Wilmington Avenue and Confucius Chinese Cuisine.
Highwater-trained staff is one of the restaurant’s strengths. Servers are impressively well versed on all dishes, from ingredients and their applications to preparation, tastes and textures. Most were young, friendly and enthusiastic, a good combination for the beach. And I never waited long for food or drinks, though the place was jammed.
The food falls on Mancari’s able shoulders. Here is a talented chef who clearly loves to shake the menu up and take advantage of quality ingredients, especially when it comes to fish. As a result, many of Mancari’s daily specials were too tempting to pass.
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On one night, perfectly fresh local porgy was the catch of the day. Straightforward broiling yielded tender white meat, which separated from needlelike bones to form fluffy bundles on the fork. Another night featured plump grilled oysters on a stick. The flesh was sweet and tender, not at all chewy, and smoky, briny flavors got a bit of pop from a brush of green aïoli.
Salt Air has a few standby munchies to share. Sweet, oily sardines arrived in their tin accompanied by crunchy, cheesy homemade flatbread. A complimentary basket of said crackers, with a spread made from goat cheese and roasted red peppers, was nice. Another cheesy offering paired chunks of Parmesan-Reggiano with plump figs and a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction.
Perhaps the most impressive shared appetizer was a burrata—an Italian-influenced dish of cheese and fresh cream that has trend-seeking foodies buzzing. A mantle of mozzarella surrounds a delicious inside that oozes with fresh cream and mozzarella scraps. The creation shares textural space with a soft-boiled egg—creamy, rich and buttery. (“Burrata” translates to “buttered” in Italian.)
With only a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a grilled crostini, it would have been an amazing dish. But Salt Air takes it to a new level with all that, plus a scattering of sweet heirloom cherry tomatoes fresh from the garden of revered custom grower Bob Russell of Milton.
Sharing is encouraged at this picnic, but a few dishes were so good, I wanted to keep them to myself.
Chowder made from bacon, hominy and local corn was sweet and creamy and disappeared quickly. The dish conveyed beautifully the distinctive sweetness that comes only from corn in the peak of its season.
A treasure of an entrée—which my table ordered on multiple visits and loved—was roasted halibut. If you enjoy filet mignon with compound butter and sautéed mushrooms, this is the seafood equivalent. The thick, juicy piece of white fish was topped with huge chunks of smoky bacon, sauced with a honey-laced tomato jam, then served atop vinegary black lentils. The play of sweet, salty and sour was masterful. The dish was listed among daily specials on our visits, but a server hinted that it’s been received so well, it wasn’t disappearing anytime soon. Wise move.
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Seafood dishes persisted as Salt Air’s strong suit. Grilled ahi tuna and pan-roasted day boat scallops were handled expertly, both just barely cooked in the middle and paired with, respectively, mixed veggies and woodsy crimini mushrooms.
A crab cake entrée paired two fried mounds with a mustardy rémoulade. The kitchen seemed to aim for a more interesting mix of meats instead of the jumbo lump-only cakes preferred by purists. Salt Air’s cake was flavorful and dense, but lacked that break-apart-with-your fork tenderness you get with the simplified versions. Yet the cakes were seasoned perfectly with a bit of citrus.
In the earthen realm, London broil is served backyard barbecue style, which means grilling flank steak, slicing it into inch-thick pieces, then serving them with a mélange of grilled and raw tomatoes and marinated grilled red onions. A peppery, vinegary, tomato-based barbecue sauce pooled on the plate, making an eye-popping backdrop to all the magnificent reds, maroons and burgundies of the dish. The beef itself had some issues, however. A medium rare order arrived closer to rare, and a few of the slices, cut much thicker than London broil is typically cut, were chewy. Other pieces were cooked perfectly. It’s a risk you run with a long-fibered cut of beef.
Spivak handles the wine program, and it’s a quality, modest and affordable one. A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley’s Dynamite Vineyards was so rich with oaky flavors, I later bought a bottle at Total Wine. Some creative drinks use more local produce. Take the potent cantaloupe martini and the fizzy, clean-tasting strawberry-lime Italian soda.
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Desserts were more than worth saving room for, as pastry chef Rebecca Krebs turned out some of the best sweets I’ve had in awhile. And she showed serious boldness in taking on a Philly classic—the TastyKake. Krebs’ interpretation of the company’s famous Kandy Kake was a layer of spice cake, an even layer of peanut butter mousse and a coating of rich chocolate ganache. I had to grin at the similarity in taste to one of my all-time favorite snacks. Next to the irresistible dessert was a scoop of even-more irresistible dulce de leche ice cream from famed Pittsburgh ice creamery Blue Bunny.
The blueberry buckle—layers of dense cake, fresh blueberries and crumbly streusel—was heavenly. The New England classic is so named because the streusel cracks and buckles as the cake rises during baking. It almost made my knees buckle, too.
Salt Air is a good, good restaurant. Considering its modest prices—most entrées fetch around $20—and the high quality of ingredients, it is certainly one of the best values. And it is an awesome showcase of Delaware’s finest harvests. Even the complimentary after-dinner taffy (saltwater, of course) came from boardwalk classic Candy Kitchen—Delaware beach grub through and through.
Page 6: Mmmmm, Cupcakes
October is National Cupcake Month, and a few local bakers are making sure it’ll be sweet. Proceeds from cupcakes baked at Lewes bistro Béseme (142 Second St., Lewes, 645-8108) go toward the Starrlight Fund, a non-profit that assists downstate women coping with ovarian cancer. Made from natural and organic ingredients, the cupcakes come in such varieties as mango-coconut with orange cream filling and ginger-lime frosting. Recognition local and national has made Sweet and Sassy Cupcakes (134B E. Main St., Newark, 368-2253) an in-demand commodity across the country. But special treats reward locals. Rotating daily cupcake specials are available only in-store, so grab yourself a white chocolate-pretzel cupcake on Mondays, cinnamon toast-flavored on Tuesday and s’mores cupcakes on Saturdays. At Cupcake Heaven (2117 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 426-0270), desserts of all kinds get condensed into cupcake form. Jonesing for a butterscotch sundae cupcake? Find it in Heaven, where 60 flavors include banana cream and German chocolate, among many, many others. Sample cupcakes to your heart’s content this month. You’ll get a break when National Pomegranate Month rolls around in November.
Page 7: Jackson 5 (Plus 75)
Little has changed in the life of the Jackson Inn, and that, perhaps, is the secret to its longevity. The beer-and-shot watering hole on the edge of Wilmington turns 80 this month. Owner Fred Bourdon says the Inn makes up for its lack of flash with a whole lot of heart and equal quantities of Budweiser. “I think the secret here is that we don’t change,” says Bourdon, a third-generation owner. “We give customers the experience they had when they were young, so I try to keep the place as they remembered it, like a time capsule.” Named after Old Hickory himself, the inn traces its roots to the late 1700s. Legend has it Andrew Jackson visited the place during a campaign stop. The Bourdon family bought the land in 1929. Fred and his cousin Jack Bourdon ran the inn together from 1985 until 2007, when Jack passed away. The place will celebrate its birthday October 17 with a beer truck, an outdoor party and live music. Festivities begin at 3 p.m. Just don’t expect plasma screen TVs, fancy cocktails or ergonomic barstools. The Jackson Inn is as old-school as the regulars want it to remain. “There are a lot of fancy new places around us, but I try to hold true to the old standards,” Bourdon says.
Page 8: Cran Daddy | On the verge of Thanksgiving, the state’s only cranberry grower prepares to harvest.
On the verge of Thanksgiving, the state’s only cranberry grower prepares to harvest.
As owner of the only cranberry bog in the state, Tim Johnson of Smyrna is preparing for his 11th annual harvest this month. Johnson fell into the business 14 years ago by selling sand and gravel from his property. The resulting holes were ideal for planting cranberry bogs. “It’s something I wanted to try,” Johnson says. Cranberries grow especially well downstate, where soil is sandy and well drained. “It’s a valuable crop per acre, so it makes sense to plant here.” Come harvest time, when new white berries have ripened into a healthy burgundy, Johnson will pump 1.5 million gallons of water—about three times the volume of an Olympic pool—into each of his seven bogs.
The berries will float to the top, where a machine will separate good from bad. Good berries will be sent to the Ocean Spray plant in Chatsworth, New Jersey, to be made into the company’s famous juice. Though it’s a year-long process to maintain, Johnson juggles cranberries with commercial development.
He believes the berry business could eventually be profitable, but for now, “We call it a hobby,” he says. “It’s
great for me and all of my men to get a break from what we are used to doing every day.”