Abbott’s in Laurel Gets to the Root of Farm-to-Table Cuisine
Chef Ryan Cunningham wears his love of Delaware agriculture on his sleeve.
Abbott’s on Broad Creek 300 Delaware Ave., Laurel, 280-6172, www.abbottsgrillde.com
Recommended dishes: Crispy chicken livers, grilled salmon, short-rib ravioli
Prices: Starters $5.95-$12.95 Entrées $15.95-$25.95
Even in the throes of Snowmageddon and the seemingly endless winter of 2014, Michelle Moore loved driving to her job at Abbott’s On Broad Creek, in Laurel.
How could she not? After weaving through the frozen farmlands of rural Sussex County from her home in Houston, Moore arrived for her shift at Abbott’s, which sits on a tranquil little slice of town where Delaware Avenue intersects with Broad Creek. Outside the windows, the gently flowing water and the sloping, snow-covered banks created a peaceful tableau. “I feel like I’m on vacation when I’m here,” Moore says. “It’s calm. It’s quaint. It’s charming. I think we all have become friends with nature here.”
The natural beauty that surrounds Abbott’s Grill tends to have that effect. It’s an automatic mood-enhancer. By late summer, the scene had turned Rockwellian, with barefooted kids dropping fishing lines into the creek, and homemade kites swooping overhead.
Like its forbears in Milford, Abbott’s on Broad dives headfirst into localvore love. As one of very few restaurants in the quiet town of 3,500 residents, Abbott’s seems dutiful and devoted to its site-specific neighbors and surroundings. The food, the atmosphere and the hospitality are meant to reflect the essence of the area back to its inhabitants—from the Evans Farms watermelon to the shrine of local football hero Ronnie Waller, who scored five touchdowns for Laurel High in its Thanksgiving Day game against Seaford in 1950.
Who better to lead the charge than owner Kevin Reading and chef Ryan Cunningham, Nage Restaurant acolytes, the sensei and new master, respectively, of Delmarva farm-to-table cuisine. Cunningham’s French chops and whimsy could blend in at the Green Room, while his devotion to pro wrestling (which inspired a “Briscoe Brother” brisket sandwich) lends infinite blue-collar cred. He’s the perfect avatar for Abbott’s, and its mission to suplex the divide between approachable family dining and high-end cuisine.
The chef wears his bromance for Delaware agriculture on his sleeve, and his menu is built around the season’s best from Fifer Orchards, T.S. Smith & Sons, Russum Farm and others. At the height of Evans Farm watermelon season, the fruit lent its sweetness to a twangy mozzarella-white balsamic salad, and its freshness and bite to buttery bone marrow bruschetta. Next to a glass of citrusy German kölsch from nearby Mispillion River Brewing appeared crispy fried green tomatoes, their tartness offsetting the low-smoldering heat of Tabasco mayo.
LEFT: EVANS FARM WATERMELON SALAD IS MADE WITH HAND-PULLED MOZZARELLA, CUCUMBERS, RADISHES AND IS DRIZZLED WITH BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE. RIGHT: SERVER SAMANTHA BALLENTINE READIES A TABLE.
Abbott’s needs to appeal to all corners of the foodie spectrum, and Cunningham is at his best when mixing edgier, uptown flourishes to a recognizable blueprint: the watermelon radish and watercress among the mixed greens, or the chateaubriand and country pâté beside the porterhouse and kettle beans. Or best yet, the eye-popping smear of spicy black mustard that added incredible dimension to a plate of crispy chicken livers. The vivid color and aroma of the black mustard permeated through sweet cherry tomatoes, arugula, and impeccably crisp, salty, creamy nuggets of liver to create a beautifully composed, balanced, and plated dish.
Elsewhere, Cunningham returned to the richness of bone marrow to reinforce a tasty jus pooling beneath short-rib ravioli. With the beefy depths plumbed, he turned to bleu cheese and slivers of shiitake mushrooms to turn the flavors on their side. Another night he transformed make shark steaks into something that was equal parts brawny and elegant, like a seafaring pork chop. On a bed of warm grilled eggplant, squash and tomato, the mako absorbed veggie freshness, and the poppy accents of chimichurri sauce.
But the man who set Milford aflame by replacing slippery noodles with herbed-gnocchi in his chicken and dumplings showed that, yes, he can do traditional, too. And although ground bison meat isn’t exactly everyday fare, it is when you’re neighbors with Colvine Bison Farm in Greenwood. The ultra-lean bison was less juicy and ungainly than your standard 80-20 beef, but when complemented by grilled portobellos, smoked onions, applewood bacon, and white cheddar, it emerged as one hell of a cheeseburger.
LEFT: A GRILLED 14-OUNCE NEW YORK STRIP STEAK. RIGHT: EXECUTIVE CHEF RYAN CUNNINGHAM PLATES FISH AND CHIPS.
While traditional crab-and-corn chowder didn’t elicit more than a ‘meh’—its Haas bacon smokiness couldn’t quite overcome its gloppy texture—Abbott’s homespun desserts always ended things on a good note. Reading’s heralded Key lime pie recipe is the only dessert whose spot on the menu is guaranteed, and rightfully so, but I found the same soul-soothing quality in Oreo cookie-studded layer cake, where sugar coma lurked in every Smith Island stratum. Less bombastic, a queue of local berries in Amaretto Chantilly and candied oats displayed, again, Abbott’s elegant side.
It’s no easy trick, this balance, but the Abbott’s family is making it appear so. It stems from the staff’s genuine affection for the local way of life, and a desire to create something that community can be proud of. Small-town charm can’t be faked. By embracing the indigenous with open arms, Abbott’s is poised to become part of the backdrop of yet another scenic small town, along with the remnants of its 19th-century sweet potato houses, the bald cypresses at Trap Pond, and the soothing currents of Broad Creek.
 It felt like a place where the locals eat apple pie with sliced cheese on top.
 Waller eventually carved out a great career in football. A running back, he was drafted in the second round out of the University of Maryland by the Los Angeles Rams, and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1959.