Margaux Brings Contemporary French Cuisine Upstate

With its casual approach to French cooking and welcoming atmosphere, the Wilmington brasserie excels by simply being itself.


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Tartare de Thon.// Photo by Joe del Tufo

 

Why don't I ever trust my gut?

As I weighed the menu options at Margaux, I was tempted by the description of gnocchi à la Parisienne: local mushrooms, bacon lardons, shallots and brie de Meaux in brown butter. The chef had me at brie. The mushrooms made it even harder to resist.

I am by nature, however, wary of extravagance, so all that richness, all that butteriness, all that nutty, mushroomy earthiness—so very French—seemed a bit much to team with a pasta that is too doughy for my taste. I passed.

Normally, I would have passed happily, or at least blissfully ignorant of what could have been. Then my partner, a single forkful into his meal, made one of those deep, happy yum-yum hums and said, "You just have to try this." So I did.

My choice of entrees suddenly paled.

The dish as a whole was delicious—how could it not be, with those slabs of warm brie on top?—but the gnocchi was nothing less than a revelation: pillowy and flavorful, exactly like the only other gnocchi I actually enjoyed (20 years ago, at the long-gone L'Osteria on Philadelphia Pike). Only a dumpling so light could handle such a heavy load, and it did so beautifully.

 

Gnocci a la Parisienne.// Photo by Joe del Tufo

 

The moment was the high point of a recent visit to Margaux, a welcome addition to a state that had long been without a proper French restaurant until La Fable opened in Rehoboth Beach two summers ago. That's not to say other restaurants and chefs haven't employed plenty of classical French technique in their preparations, or that properly continental places past and present haven't written menus that approached the Gallic (here I shed a tear for the old Bistro Jacques in Wilmington's Little Italy), but none has attempted to be as thoroughly French as Margaux.

If the concept seems off-putting, loaded with the kind of baggage that sunk the popularity of haute cuisine and the short-lived nouvelle that followed, don't give it another thought. The restaurant's style of food is less Auguste Escoffier than Emeril Lagasse. It offers dishes served without attitude or pretense, fun signature cocktails and down-to-earth wines—most of them French—in a relaxed, contemporary setting. White table cloths aside, it is pure brasserie.

It's the kind of place that fits comfortably in a space that once housed The Exchange and The National, two short-lived places born during a spurt of restaurant development a dozen or so years back. La Fable retains their contemporary appeal, but with its own spin. Owner Soufiane Lailani had it redesigned to be deceptively elegant, with fewer design edges than the old places. Christopher Montgomery, formerly a chef at what seems to have been half the places in Trolley Square, as well as the esteemed Talula's Table in Kennett, throws down in the kitchen. Talula's, apparently, was good to him. At Margaux, he brings some flash that wouldn't play well at the Trolley Square places.

At a brasserie, why not start at the bar? Cocktails named Brigitte Bardot and Charles De Gaule set the tone with ingredients such as maple syrup and vodka infused with Earl Gray tea. My partner sampled the Napoleon, a refreshing blend of bourbon with bitters and blood orange juice. It was perfect on a warm late-summer night.

 

Voltaire cocktail.// Photo by Joe del Tufo

 

The table called for wine. Having chosen an entrée of skate for dinner, I accepted the server’s suggestion of Reserve Durand Sancerre, and it proved a good one. The wine paired easily with a starter of tuna tartar, with enough citrus to stand up to an appetizer of foie gras.

The tartar of yellowfin was plated beautifully—a mound of fish tossed with diced mango and avocado in tomato oil with green onions—but the presentation set up an expectation of more flavor, a pop of contrasting texture. The fish, fresh and satiny, was lost among all that unctuous fruit. (My gut, which I again defied, leaned toward the beef tartar, with egg yolk and spicy cornichons, shallots and dijon, garlic oil and radish.) That’s a minor criticism. We enjoyed it just the same.

The foie gras was constructed more thoughtfully, with fig halves and honey. Like the tuna tartar, the ingredients offered little textural contrast to each other, but the pickled onions lifted the dish with a bit of crispiness and a touch of pucker.

 

From left: Tartine au saumon; sauteed skate wing with sauce vierge.// Photos by Joe del Tufo

 

The menu brims with things French—salads such as Niçoise and perigourdine, comforts like sole meunière, coq au vin, the too-rarely-seen fish in parchment and onion soup, of course. They were all hard to resist. I ordered the skate simply because I love it, I haven't seen it in a local restaurant in 25 years (and then only as a special), and it was there. The accompanying lentils may have been undercooked, the sauce vierge undistinguished, but the seared fish had a beautifully crispy edge that made every bite a delight.

In all, Margaux's kitchen takes on a big task in preparing even the most casual of French food. Despite its minor lapses (and my doubts that anyone there would spend eight hours on making a demi-glacé, for instance), it does so admirably well. And the menu stays utterly French, which is admirably bold. The pricing is admirable, too. Perhaps most of all, Margaux is to be admired for being itself. There simply isn't anything else like it in the county.


Margaux
902 N. Market St., Wilmington, DE • 929-7080
Recommended: tranche de foie gras, gnocchi à la Parisienne
Prices: appetizers:  $15-$19; salads: $14-$17; entrees: $14-$38; sides: $6-$8; desserts: $8-$10

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