Bonus Coverage: Roundup of the Old and New Stars on the Restaurant Scene
Hockessin’s Padi changes its name, Café Napoli family expands to Trolley Square, The Drip Café is more than just coffee and more.
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Every year brings a wave of restaurant openings and closings, but changes of the past 12 months have a different tenor. With new styles of food comes a new attitude or, at the least, an attitude that’s never been expressed so clearly.
“We want to be a part of the community for a long, long time.”
The words belong to chef Bryan Sikora, owner of the much-anticipated La Fia Bakery + Bistro + Market on Market Street in Wilmington, but some version of them has been spoken by all the new owners this year.
The trend, with a few exceptions: smaller, cozier, approachable and homey, with an intent to be not just a business, but a vital, longtime part of a community.
And by homey, we mean just that. Jacques and Kellie Macq, owners of Mona Lisa Euro Bistro in Wilmington, live with their toddler daughter upstairs from the restaurant. Meghan and Joe Church spent months renovating their new home—their first—on Rehoboth Avenue into Bramble & Brine, the hottest thing to happen in Rehoboth Beach in a couple of years.
As for chef Donny Merrill, owner of the wildly popular Skipjack in Newark, “People are thanking me for being here. It’s been wonderful.”
Driving the attitude is the realization of a dream or long-term plan to open one’s own place, accompanied by the desire to put down roots.
Sikora, a native of Western Pennsylvania, kicked around the country through his 20s and early 30s before opening the acclaimed Django in Philadelphia, then Talula’s Table in Kennett, a place so popular, its one large table was booked a year out. In Wilmington, he saw a place to call home: a town with a supportive community that would respond enthusiastically to his culinary approach: sophisticated food that seems simple, all made in-house, meaning the bread served with your white bean-squash ravioli and duck ragout was baked that morning. A charming space with large storefront windows, a tin ceiling and warm wooden floors adds to the comfortable feeling.
“The experience doesn’t have to be a one-time thing,” Sikora says. “I want people to know this is a nice, warm, welcoming place you can enjoy often. I want people to feel at home here.” (La Fia, 543-5574)
One of the big surprises on the dining scene has been Pochi Chilean Cuisine and Wine Bar in Wilmington, where chef Patricia Millan and husband Braulio Roja have won a loyal following for the food of their native land. Millan, whose recipes come direct from her mother and grandmother, had family in the business at home. When she followed her brother, a psychologist, to Philly a few years ago, she discovered Wilmington. In it, “I saw an opportunity in the people,” she says. “I believed my food would change a little bit what people think.”
The warm, cozy dining room with honeyed oak floors hosts newcomers and regulars who have responded to fare such as pan-seared Chilean sea bass over sautéed garlic spinach with blackberry reduction and sautéed sweet potatoes. The dish is typical of Chilean cuisine, which employs many of the ingredients American diners love, but in different ways. Other than a few early patrons who sent their dinners back to the kitchen because they didn’t understand that ceviche is chilled, the city has responded enthusiastically. (Pochi, 384-6654, pochiwinebar.com)
Also from South America comes a second The Chicken House Charcoal Grill. In Claymont, owner Nancy Pacheco is building on the success of her original Peruvian Chicken House in Newark. The star is charcoal-grilled chicken, marinated according to a recipe developed by her husband’s family in Huariaca, Peru, 70 years ago, like the beef and pork. But The Chicken House also serves seafood a la several delicious ceviches. Sample the national drink, pisco, in cocktails or sours, as well as favorite beers like Cusqueña and Cristal, and South American wines. (Chicken House, 793-1504, thechickenhouserestaurant.com)
Mona Lisa reinforces the international presence in Wilmington. Jacques Macq, a native of Belgium and the general manager at the Wilmington Country Club for seven years, had been looking for a place to buy until finding Mona Lisa. “The goal was to buy a small place we could handle,” Macq says. “We wanted to do it the European way. We wanted to live and work in the same place. We wanted to create a true European bistro.”
Keeping the name Mona Lisa, formerly an Italian restaurant, kept the faithful. Adding “Euro Bistro” attracted new fans. All visit for classics such as veal schnitzel with späetzle and lamb chops with Dijon-Parmesan crust. Appetizers include escargots and shrimp Lejon. Other European touches abound.
“I always wanted my own place, Macq says. “I’m here 25 years, then I’ll give it to my daughter.” He laughs. “I’ll sell it to my daughter.” (Mona Lisa, 888-2201, monalisaeurobistro.com)
Meghan Church grew up in Rehoboth Beach, and she misses old favorites such as The Seahorse, The Avenue, Chez La Mer and The Garden Gourmet. With Bramble & Brine, she wanted to revive the vibe of those places, along with the favorite foods—but with a different flair. Husband Joe, the chef who helped put popular places like Eden and Jam Bistro on the map, thus gives the twice-baked potato and ribeye steaks new life, as well as surprising diners with dishes of rabbit and venison. “Organic, locally sourced—those are things which we think are a given,” Church says. The kitchen is open to the dining room so patrons can see everything in the works, and because the place is also the Churches’ home, it’s furnished in their own casual way.
“I hear this a lot: ‘I feel like I’m in my grandmother’s dining room.’ I love that, because I feel like I’m in my grandmother’s dining room,” Church says. “This isn’t just a restaurant. It’s a house. Joe and I are here for a long time, so just come visit. We’re having a good time.” (Bramble & Brine, 227-7702, brambleandbrine.com)
Speaking of game, “I can’t keep the venison chili in the house,” Merrill says. And he may never be able to remove antelope from his ever-evolving menu at Skipjack. Some iteration of antelope has been a mainstay since his Krazy Kat’s days.
Skipjack’s nautical decor—model ships, trophy fish, ring buoys and brass instruments—suggests the Eastern Shore, as does the name Skipjack, so fish is a big part of the experience. But Skipjack isn’t easily pigeonholed. “It’s all over the place,” Merrill says. “We’re doing whatever we feel like.” And that has proved popular with locals. So has a Sunday brunch with fun fare such as Monte Christo sandwiches of turkey scrapple, Black Forest ham and Jameson-maple applesauce. “The quality is there, with a different attitude,” Merrill says. “We’re about comfort.” (Skipjack, 456-1800, skipjacknewark.com)