How Does the Exchange Rate?
It depends what you’re looking for. With influences from Greek to soul food, the place is about a cultural exchange of
food—and a few great brews.
Delicious roasted duck is served with
cranberry compote and sweet potato purée.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
The Exchange on Market
905 Market St., Wilmington
Sandwiches and light entrées $9-$15
Recommended dishes Chopped antipasto,
fish and chips, roasted duck
Don’t you wish you had a dollar for every time down- town Wilmington was going to come back?
This time, though, there’s a new hope: a built-in clientele that lives downtown. The old Delaware Trust building, reborn as The Residences at Rodney Square, has brought dozens of people into a district notably short of residents. Naturally, it also has a ground-floor restaurant, a big space in the middle of the 900 block just past the Wilmington Library. If it’s going to revive nightlife in downtown, it has its work cut out for it.
What excitement exists in the city is in Trolley Square or at the Christina Riverfront, both out of walking distance from Rodney Square. On top of that, fewer people work downtown these days, diminishing the lunch trade and therefore exposure to potential dinner customers. Performance nights still generate business, but those schedules are erratic, so they go only so far in generating business. It’s not that a restaurateur or bar owner can’t make money downtown. He’s just going to work harder for it there.
The space The Exchange occupies is only about three years old, the former home of the National Restaurant and Lounge, and The Exchange is practically a clone. The new operation has retained the look and feel of its predecessor. Soaring exposed ceilings drop enormous straw-colored paper lamps. The expansive dining room is interrupted by a series of pillars covered in mirrors etched with all the brands of liquor stocked by the bar.
That seems an indication of the priorities at The Exchange. It’s a great bar, especially for beer lovers. As a dining destination, it’s not bad if you’re looking for a quick or casual meal, or something to nosh while you quaff. If you stick to the lower-priced sections of the menu—say a salad and an appetizer, which come in large enough portions to make a small entrée—and your expectations are modest to match, The Exchange won’t disappoint. It’s meant to supplement, not replace, the better downtown dining spots. After all, it’s owned by the same folks who have Costa’s, and they’re not interested in cutting into their flagship’s territory. It’s the same basic relationship the Columbus Inn once had with Kid Shelleen’s.
The comparison only goes so far, though. Where the 1492 restaurants were warm, dark and clubby, the very essence of old Wilmington, The Exchange embodies the urban corporate culture of the banking industry.
The Exchange’s menu, like its decor, owes something to its predecessor, but the new kitchen has toned down the emphasis on Asian fusion cuisine, though it lingers in the background.
The latest changes have reduced this concept to a few kitschy Asian touches, like fried shrimp plated in take-out Chinese food cartons and Thai beef salad served with disposable chopsticks, along with a few other appetizers derived from the Asian-fusion branch of modern American restaurant cooking—items like curried chicken chunks on skewers with pineapple salsa, as well as chicken in a sweet-and-sour sauce served with chow mein noodles and big romaine leaves for wrapping. All these dishes are reasonably good, though not on a par with the real versions you’ll find at the upscale Asian places.
Carmen Hernandez, executive chef Patrick McMahon
and sous chef Robin Johnson staff the line.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
So another direction makes sense, though The Exchange doesn’t exhibit much evidence of having settled on one. The rest of the menu gathers influences as diverse as Greek (the Greek salad comes with stuffed grape leaves), South American (a Brazilian shrimp stew) and soul food (the barbecued ribs come with a side of collard greens), but it never adds up to any kind of multicultural whole.
But then, food alone isn’t really the point, as those etched mirrors make clear. The bar keeps up with the latest trends in flavored martinis and mojitos, but what caught my eye was one of the best-selected beer lists around. Premium beers from Belgium, Britain and the best American microbreweries are featured, mainly bottled but also on tap. If you’re out only for brew, the Washington Street Ale House has a wider selection, but The Exchange equals its attention to high-end beers and ales.
Four beers are available fresh on tap, and not a single one was a mass-marketed American brand—just the buttery smoothness of Boddington’s cream ale, the soft bite of Hoegaarden Witbier and the hoppy snap of the locally made Twin Lakes Route 52 lager. The closest thing to a plain beer was Stella
Waiter Sam Abdelguelil serves the banana-walnut
Photograph by Thom Thompson
The wine list is concentrated on full-fruited reds, mostly from the Americas, and an eclectic mix of whites, almost all for under $40 a bottle (a better buy than the per-glass price for those on offer). There aren’t many truly cheap ones, but one night a week The Exchange sells them all at half-price, one of a number of specials the restaurant offers to encourage repeat business.
The best bets on the menu are the salads. In addition to the Thai beef, the menu features mixed greens with goat cheese and an excellent arugula, bacon and blue cheese salad in a mustard vinaigrette. But the real eye-catcher is something the menu dubs chopped antipasto.
Chopped antipasto, for those without much history in Wilmington, was a specialty under the original ownership of the Del Rose tavern and restaurant in Trolley Square. That longtime favorite consisted of lettuce, lunchmeat and a few condiments, thoroughly shredded and mixed into a convenient salad. The Exchange updates the concept by incorporating true antipasto ingredients—substituting soprasetta and capocola for salami and ham, adding roasted peppers and artichoke hearts, slicing most of it in julienne strips and arranging them around the edges of a lettuce-filled bowl with a light vinaigrette dressing. You start by sampling the ingredients individually, the way you would with a regular antipasto, but soon descend into mixing them with abandon.
Beyond that, the menu proved a bit of a crapshoot. Some difficult dishes were surprisingly good. Some that should have posed the kitchen no challenge lacked luster.
Duck, for example, usually shows up in hip American bistros these days as either grilled breast or confit made of the leg. A semi-boned half bird hasn’t been the common restaurant preparation for 20 years, but here it is at The Exchange, and the rendition is a revelation. Not only was the meat tender and full-flavored, the skin was impressively crisp, the subcutaneous fat almost entirely rendered. The cranberry compote wasn’t as fancy as the name makes it sound, but the sweet-sour chutney paired nicely with the richness of the meat. The fowl was accompanied by (well, actually, floated upon) a mashed sweet potato concoction that was sweet and rich but rather loose, about the texture of an Ethiopian yam stew.
Bartender Brandy Willever whips up
Soho and white-chocolate martinis.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
Fish and chips was another standout, mainly because the batter coating the fish was restrained enough to allow the flavor of the seafood to shine through.
Yet other dishes were utterly uninspired, such as penne pasta with porcini mushrooms and cream. In the right hands, that could be delicious, but this version had no zip at all. The pasta was on the soft side and dull tasting, the sauce surprisingly light on mushroom flavor, and no herb or spice rose up to steal the show. The first few bites, garnished with grated cheese, were passable, but when the cheese ran out, so did the dish’s appeal.
The most distressing lapse was a simple plate of steak frites, a classic bistro dish that ought to be idiot proof for an American kitchen. What could be simpler than a slab of beef and a side of fries? Not much, unless the steak is like the one we were served, which was so gristly, it should have been served with a jigsaw. The fries weren’t bad, but there was no redeeming the meat.
For a restaurant trying to claw out a niche in a competitive dining scene, missteps like that can be fatal. Victims of all those failed downtown Wilmington comebacks can attest to that.
5812 Kennett Pike, Centreville; 656-9776
Big Jake’s Catfish is served in spicy tomato gravy
with crispy artichokes, fennel and smoked bacon.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
The Original Upscale Casual
The tavern side of Buckley’s still hits its mark. by Pam George
Buckley’s Tavern has always billed itself as a place where Rolls-Royces rub tires with pickup trucks. These days, however, diners at the Centreville classic look homogenously well-heeled, even on Sunday mornings, when wearing pajamas earns half off the check.
The area’s income might have soared, but the menu has gone low key. The dinner list offers nine sandwiches, maybe because the tavern is often more popular than the Colonial dining room.
Entrée prices reflect the un-intimidating fare. Grilled filet mignon with blue cheese mashed potatoes is just $24.95. How then to explain the starters’ eye-popping prices? Crab and artichoke dip for $10.25? Onion straws with chile-garlic dip for $8.25?
The portions, however, are huge. “Cheesehead mac & cheese” is a pile of corkscrew pasta coated with cheddar, brie and Gruyère that could feed four. A dusting of crunchy breadcrumbs and shallots is a nice touch. Fried calamari and artichokes drizzled with parsley aïoli tumble across a rectangular plate, offering enough for three people. (I wouldn’t share.)
In a nest of spinach and arugula, roasted beets play peek-a-boo with ricotta salata and stain the mustard vinaigrette pink. Cumin-scented pecans and slices of pickled red onion give the salad a festive finish.
Buckley’s makes generous use of mushrooms, offering them on burgers, in omelets and on flatbread. I liked the medley of exotics that bobbed in chicken broth, but the broth was bland. The same medley packs an omelet that oozes piquant goat cheese. Though fluffy, the omelet was cool by the time we got it. Home fries were cold. You’d think the staff would have brunch down. However, eggs Arturo—crisp corn tortillas cradling black beans and two fried eggs—came with icy salsa. Service was excruciatingly slow.
There was also a wait between dishes on a Tuesday night, but the food did arrive at the right temperature. Curls of steam spiraled from fat, battered tilapia filets, which were stacked neatly next to the accompanying chips.
I liked the catfish, which was bathed in a tomato gravy punctuated by fried artichokes and bacon strips. But I wish the kitchen had shown restraint with a sherry cream that drowned otherwise good grits and made me go bobbing for shrimp. Both the Southern-style dishes could have used more spice.
There is one item that remains tried and true: beer. A whole menu page is dedicated to brews. No doubt Buckley’s menu has been tailored to reflect its star attraction. But unless it steps up its service and seasonings, the food will always get second billing.
Mulling is as comforting as it is traditional.
In summer, a crisp white wine is a welcome treat. But in winter, your guests want something more comforting.
Enter the mulled wine. “It’s very soothing, very aromatic,” says Lee Miller, co-owner of Chaddsford Winery in Chadds Ford.
If you need an excuse for a mug of mulled wine, consider that our ancestors thought it was a healthy beverage. Considering that wine was then safer than water, they were probably right.
For a quick pick-me-up, simply heat up Chaddsford’s Spiced Apple Wine, which is made with cinnamon and other spices. Or heat a bottle of red wine in a crock pot—some prefer a sweet wine, such as Sangria—then add fruit and spices. Miller likes to stud an orange with cloves, then toss it into a mix with cinnamon sticks. “It adds that zestiness—and it looks good, too.” Apple is another common addition.
Looking to cut the alcohol? Add cranberry juice to the Spiced Apple wine. Many recipes, however, go the other way by adding cognac or brandy. Either way, there are as many recipes for mulled wine as there are for Sangria.
Here’s one: Simmer the following ingredients for 20 minutes. If possible, steep in the refrigerator overnight. Serve warm.
1 bottle of red wine
1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
3 whole cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon toasted
whole black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole allspice
½ vanilla bean
1 star anise
1 sliced orange
1 sliced lemon
1 cup cognac or brandy
Depending on the occasion,
serve in punch glasses or mugs.
Winter means sausage, any time of day. These local favorites are tops for a reason.
Cold weather is like a green light to chow down on heartier food. What better place to start than with locally made sausage? Pull up your lederhosen and polish your bust of Otto von Bismarck—here are five of our favorite haunts for fresh links.
Kirby & Holloway Provisions in Harrington sends out heaping boxes of meat to local restaurants, including Helen’s Sausage House (4866 N. Dupont Hwy., Smyrna, 398-3705), where the mild pork sausage from K&H gets slammed into soft rolls with bell peppers. Customers love it. Manager Joan Thomas goes through about 25 boxes of the stuff every day.
Handmade sausages from
When Milton Sausage & Scrapple (17527 Nassau Commons Blvd., Lewes, 684-4964) changed hands in 2002, the new owners held onto an old butcher block, a sausage maker dated 1934 and the recipes for superb Italian sausage. Bethany Blues enlists the links for the barbecue treatment, and the Summer House restaurant in Rehoboth Beach serves them for Sunday brunch.
Tom Pawlikowski (Claymont, 540-1111) is the main supplier of spicy, handmade andouille sausages for N’awlins-themed Blue Parrot Bar and Grill in Wilmington. He grew up making 40-pound batches of Polish kielbasa with his father and uncle with a hand-crank and a simple recipe involving celery seed, mustard seed and plenty of garlic. His smoked andouille now makes the rounds in jambalaya, gumbo and red beans and rice.
At Christmas, Bachetti Bros. Gourmet Meat Market (
(top) Chef-owner Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Café
prepares sweet rice cookies in southern Thailand.
of The Buttery, shopped on holiday.
What I did on my Winter Vacation
World travel off-season means cosmopolitan menus at the beach.
Enjoying your paella? Digging that muffuletta you’re munching?
Thank a few beach-area restaurateurs who have the foresight (and, OK, free time) to pull a Marco Polo by trotting the world, then bringing back new spices, techniques and menu items to Delaware.
John Donato, owner of The Buttery in Lewes, travels to a different locale every year. His latest destination: a three-week clip through Southeast Asia. After a few culinary courses, Donato learned the secrets of an authentic green curry “that just blew everything else off the map,” he says. “We also learned a whole lot about philosophy and spirituality in their approach to food. It was very moving and changing.”
Donato has brought back tapas from
Keith Fitzgerald, who co-owns the Back Porch Café in Rehoboth Beach, visits a former colleague in Thailand nearly every year.
“We spent five trips exploring Thailand and its cuisine,” Fitzgerald says. “And we’ve since been to Vietnam several times, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Beijing. All those influences end up on our menu.”
For proof, check out the Back Porch’s Thai green curry duckling or the lunch-menu fave: scallops with red Thai curry and sesame noodles. “It’s not that we’re aspiring to be a Thai restaurant,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s just these subtle influences.”
Mark Steele, owner of Café Azafrán in Lewes, tells a different story. He lived in Spain for three years in the 1990s. He’s gone back almost every year since. The Mediterranean influences cover Azafrán’s menu head to toe.
“I make a very Spanish paella once a week, outside, al fresco,” Steele says. “We cook with jamón Serrano a lot. We cook with Manchego a lot. We’re Mediterranean cuisine with a nod
“People who have dined in Europe and then with us say we’re pretty close to that experience.” —Matt Amis