Culinaria's Secret to Success? 'An Unerring Sense of Restraint'
The North Wilmington restaurant remains consistently excellent by fiercely doing what it has always done.
Sautéed escargot with mushrooms, hazelnuts and garlic//Javy Diaz
Why, oh why didn’t I try the cauliflower tacos?
It is most definitely not the kind of menu item you see every day. It’s also not the kind of thing that, on the face of it, seems to fit comfortably into the repertoire at Culinaria.
Yet, judging by the escargots we are enjoying at this moment, the novelty makes cauliflower tacos the kind of dish that should spring naturally from the terroir of Culinaria just the same. They are somehow familiar, somehow unexpected and totally tempting—not unlike the escargots.
The appeal of escargots may wax and wane—their popularity seems to be starting a slow rise—but Culinaria does its own thing, lifting them above the caprices of the dining public. You will not find the traditional dish of garlicky snails broiled in butter and served on a dimpled plate with bread or crostini. You will enjoy a generous portion sautéed with mushrooms, hazelnuts and, yes, garlic—served with croutons, of course.
If you are among the squeamish, there could be no gentler introduction (not that there need be—the hurtle is all mental). If are a lover of escargot, it will satisfy a taste for the classic while changing your mind about what they can be.
AN APPETIZER OF SMOKED SCOTTISH SALMON WITH CAPERS AND ONION//Photo by Javy Diaz
Culinaria may describe itself as new American, but the menu is a translation that still bears traces of a vaguely European accent. In the traditional-ish, Continental-ish column, note entrées such as trout almandine, tenderloin of beef in green peppercorn sauce and shepherd’s pie. In the column headed American-leaning, with all the influences the label might imply, include roasted salmon in curry sauce and the ever-popular crispy chicken in a spicy chili glaze.
It’s a subtle dichotomy that reveals the philosophy of Culinaria’s creators. Before opening the restaurant in 1998, chef Ezio Reynaud had made his SilkPurse-Sow’s Ear in Wilmington, near Trolley Square, a success through an emphasis on consistently innovative, consistently well executed fine food. When it came time to move on, he and partner Pam Grabowski sought to re-create the kind of retail-dining places they had enjoyed in New York City. Culinaria was to be casually sophisticated, a place where you could dine on food that was really, really good without being labeled fine fare—or take it out. They set up in Branmar Plaza.
Culinaria was a bit of a pioneer. Good restaurants in strip centers were not unheard of in 1998, but they certainly weren’t as common as they are now. Suburban foodies still had to drive elsewhere for a so-called upscale dining experience. Culinaria’s location—densely populated North Wilmington—provided a large market of prospective diners, and they caught on quickly to Reynaud and Grabowski’s style of clean, comfortable fare.
Things changed a bit over the years. The couple eventually abandoned the retail side of the operation early on to focus on dinner service, and the recession of 2008 left a mark. But Culinaria remained popular, even through the biggest shift of all—its sale almost three years ago.
Since the transition to owner Fang Sun, little has changed. The deli cases, relics from the retail days, remain as a sort of focal point. The same images hang on the walls. Fang even kept two of Reynaud and Grabowski’s key kitchen people, which may help explain why—best of all—the food is as stellar as ever.
From left: Marinated lamb lollipops; pan-fried calf’s liver//Javy Diaz
The secret: an unerring sense of restraint. No one has ever given into that temptation to add a little extra something to a dish, nor have they catered to some taste for the trend du jour. Culinaria plays it straight, emphasizing quality and execution over culinary pyrotechnics. It is so good and so consistent, it makes you wonder why we are often so bedazzled by the trendy, the showy, the places that try too hard.
By Culinaria’s own standard, the escargots tend toward the extravagant, but there is still an underlying simplicity to the combination of ingredients and a light touch to the preparation that makes “extravagant” too large a description. An appetizer of smoked Scottish salmon is the definition of elegant. There is salmon. There are capers and a few slender rings of raw red onion. There is the bright kiss of lemon and fresh bread. Nothing more is necessary. The satin texture of the salmon shines.
SHRIMP DUMPLINGS WITH CORN HASH//JAVY DIAZ
Not that things don’t get a little wild. Potsticker-style shrimp dumplings sit on a bed of sweet roasted corn that was all topped with peppery sautéed onions. But the kitchen has the good sense to stop there. Like the escargots, three components is the charm. Every time I think about them, it makes me wonder all over again about the cauliflower tacos.
The kitchen shows the same good sense on the entrées. The garlic-rosemary marinade speaks through the subtle smoke of lamb lollipops that are grilled to tender perfection. Crispy leaves of sage, unusually sweet fried onions and a delicate crust gives new life to pan-fried calf’s liver. Both dishes were served with mashed potatoes. As pedestrian an accompaniment as that might seem, Culinaria, with great intentionality, makes those potatoes—rich with butter and smooth as silk—the best you’ve ever tasted. They are, in their humble way, every bit as good as the main event.
Add to the food a scaled-down but well-planned wine list (i.e.: not overwhelming) and excellent service. It must be noted that the servers are the best I’ve seen in ages—polite and helpful, with an ability to read your perfect pace. Even on a Wine Down Wednesday, when half-priced bottles brings diners by the droves, the servers strike a balance of warmth and efficiency.
All of which means Culinaria remains one of the very best restaurants in the state, and still a bit of a hidden gem. Of course, the regulars have always known that. The rest of us should be lucky enough to catch on.
1812 Marsh Road, Wilmington • 475-4860 (closed Sundays and Mondays)
Prices: appetizers, $7.25–$9.75; soups and salads, $6–$9; entrées, $17.75–$32.75
Recommended dishes: escargot, calf’s liver, marinated lamb lollipops