Savor, The Review: A Sure Bet
At the Rail puts a twist on country club fare, making it one of the best dining options between Newark and Wilmington.
The short rib is braised in a tomato and roasted garlic jus and served with a horseradish pea risotto.
Photography by Thom Thompson
When slot machine parlors opened at the state’s horse racing tracks in 1995, nobody knew what to expect. Officials hoped the new games would bring in a few million dollars for the state. They were stunned when the take soon topped $100 million a year.
Beyond the financial windfall, though, Delaware’s casinos are far different from those in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. It’s not only the lack of table games. Delaware’s casinos have never emulated their big-city cousins in another important area—fine dining.
In Atlantic City and Las Vegas, casinos have come to dominate the restaurant scene because no stand-alone operation can compete with the dining rooms that gaming moguls can subsidize as loss leaders. They know that gamblers who have filled their bellies at bargain-priced buffets are bound to give back the savings at the one-buttoned bandits, so they entice visitors with a panoply of dining options—varied cuisines, a wide selection of price ranges, anything to keep the customers on the premises in hopes they return to the gaming floor.
By contrast, Delaware’s gambling emporiums are miles apart. Once people are there, they’re not likely to leave for a meal, so there hasn’t been a premium on premium dining. That’s changing, though, now that Pennsylvania racetracks are opening slots parlors of their own. As gambling loses its uniqueness, tracks will have to compete on amenities.
Luckily for Delaware Park, it began branching out a few years ago, carving the White Clay Creek Country Club from the sprawling grounds surrounding the racetrack. And the country club’s restaurant, At the Rail, gives the racetrack a restaurant that should help distinguish it in the newly competitive gambling scene.
Of course, that presumes people will be able to find the restaurant, which is connected more to the golf course than the racetrack or casino. It’s most easily reached from the Delaware Route 4 entrance, far from the grandstand and slot machines. In fact, the name is a bit of a mystery. At the Rail would be a fine name for a dining room overlooking the track, but nothing beyond the name connects this dining room to horse racing. Consider it a missed opportunity to give the restaurant some character.
At the Rail occupies a large, nearly square space that flows from a bar and lounge at one end into an open expanse of dining room. A bold patterned rug and heavy furniture give the room a substantial feel, but a few of the touches come off heavy. What to make, for example, of a row of gold-painted golf bags holding up a velvet rope, a touch Rodney Dangerfield’s “Caddyshack” character might appreciate? Or the roaring fire in the corner, courtesy of a video screen?
Chef Joe Joyce (left), and manager Mike Pham.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
The restaurant, managed by Michael Pham, doesn’t lack for ambition. Several members of the staff are veterans of the Hotel du Pont, and At the Rail has borrowed the idea of a Sunday champagne brunch. That meal has attracted a following for a bounteous spread that encompassed everything from hand-carved prime rib and pork loin to a full array of breakfast favorites, from brunch standards like eggs Benedict and made-to-order omelets to Belgian waffles and cheese blintzes.
At the Rail’s dinner menu isn’t as ambitious. It reads like a cross between an upscale-casual restaurant and a steak-and-seafood house, but it places At the Rail among the best dining choices in the area between Wilmington and Newark. Chef Joseph Joyce has come up with some worthy flashes of inspiration, such as New England clam chowder jolted with a shot of chipotle powder—just enough to make you wonder what that flavor is, not to wonder why it wasn’t called Southwestern clam chowder.
Much of the menu mirrors that approach, sprucing up familiar dishes with trendy ingredients or unusual flavor pairings. If a few of the decisions seem tired or forced—marinara sauce for calamari, for example, or an ill-considered wedding soup with ingredients chopped fine enough for the stockpot but far too large for a soup spoon—chalk it up to the size of the menu. It’s not easy coming up with new wrinkles for more than a dozen entrées, not counting a list of daily specials.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment on our visit was a lobster risotto that wasn’t made from Arborio rice; it appeared instead to be a short-grain white rice. It still made a pleasant backdrop for meaty chunks of lobster and strands of wilted arugula, but the dish bore no resemblance to the creamy but chewy texture of authentic risotto.
I don’t mean to make too much of the lapse. This pilaf by another name was still quite tasty, and it wasn’t the only evidence of a kitchen that knows how to treat lobster. A different recipe for the king of crustaceans is offered among the specials each night, but the menu lists a spectacular lobster tail dish among the appetizers, where it’s easy to miss. That’s a shame, because the preparation, with the shelled meat covered in a crisp macadamia-nut crust and saffron-scented butter, is one of the best dishes on the menu, and a more worthy treatment than lobster usually gets.
Almost half the menu is given over to seafood, from the requisite crab cakes to two different treatments of pan-seared scallops, one as an appetizer, another as an entrée.
One winner was a plate of jumbo shrimp served over fettuccine after a jaunt in the sauté pan with fresh artichokes, pancetta, sun-dried tomato and chili peppers. The ingredients were nicely balanced, all pulled together by a rich truffle butter that acted almost like a cream sauce.
The smoked salmon roulade is served with tarragon soy reduction.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
Perhaps the weakest seafood dish was Chilean sea bass in a wasabi-lemon broth with noodles, mushrooms and vegetables. The preparation didn’t work for me. Fish in broth always runs the risk of tasting like soup, and this one wasn’t distinctive enough to make much of an impression. The fish—which was known as Patagonian toothfish before the marketing department got involved—is firm-fleshed and glow-in-the-dark white, but much less flavorful than a true bass. The wasabi and lemon grass in the recipe would seem to provide more than enough support, but the bold flavors were watered down in the liquid, and the subtle vegetables and vermicelli left the dish without the strong unifying taste it cried out for.
Despite all the seafood, this is still a golf-course restaurant, so there’s plenty of meat on the menu, too. Beef-lovers can opt for a rosemary-grilled Delmonico with a bacon-blue cheese butter on the side or a filet mignon wrapped in apple wood smoked bacon and served with onions reduced in veal stock and red wine. But that would mean passing up the New York strip with its taste-grabbing sauce, a silky mix of brandy and cream aggressively studded with green peppercorns and mushrooms. It arrived cooked as ordered—on the rare side of medium-rare—and its flavor rose above even this assertive sauce. Throw in a side of grilled fingerling potatoes, cooked to the point where they were yielding but not soft, and you’ve got a can’t-miss dish.
The menu is rounded out by a rack of lamb stuffed with broccoli rabe and feta cheese, as well as duck breast, also offered as an appetizer. The duck entrée was nicely cooked, medium as requested. More notable, its skin was cooked to a crisp glow, most of its fat rendered away.
The coconut curry scallop bisque is served with sugar cane and lime.
Photograph by Thom Thompson
The “wine bar” designation might raise expectations too high for thrill-seeking oenophiles. The list is neither particularly long nor tilted toward rarities and high-end choices. Its strength lays in easy-to-appreciate bottles that retail in the $25 range. The mark-up doesn’t double that price.