Food critic eats crow at four Rehoboth eateries!
James Diehl’s voice was uncharacteristically shrill. “Did you read the comments in the Old Town Crier newspaper about Delaware beach restaurants?” Southern Delaware Tourism’s media relations manager was feeling the need to share. “Listen to this!” [Insert sound of paper rustling indignantly.] “‘Most local eateries produce pricey, mediocre food.’” He wasn’t finished: “The critic called our restaurants ‘blah and uninspired!’ I think we need to do something about this guy.”
James is not a violent man, so I immediately ruled out explosives, horse heads in beds and raw mackerel on doorsteps. I assumed he was referring to a battle of word processors and forks. “‘Blah and uninspired,’ huh? We’ll show him!” The gauntlet had been thrown.
As James coordinated with food writer, chef, restaurateur and author Charles Oppman, I lined up a “critics crawl” of five Rehoboth Beach restaurants, warning each that the portions were to be small helpings of menu items, and no alcohol, please. It was going to be a long night. Turned out to be a lot longer when Hobos’ chef/owner (and culinary diva) Gretchen Hansen offloaded a tray of particularly potent margaritas.
Charles turned out to be a nice guy, but he was not ready for what Hansen and Chef Marcus Green had in store for him: A crispy softshell stuffed with lump crab, perched atop a Silver Queen/poblano masa cake nestled alongside nectarine, sugar baby and heirloom tomato salsa. Apparently she had missed the “small” part of my instructions. James was getting happier and more self-righteous by the minute. One down, four to go.
Next stop: Hari Cameron’s a(Muse.). Gretchen and increasingly apologetic food critic Oppman had bonded over that masa cake, and she joined us as Hari’s brother Josh sent over a frosty bottle of white. Thanks, guys. It’s still daylight, y’know. Then it appeared: Seared scallops with corn, bacon and cilantro arriving alongside flaky snapper framed by yellow tomatoes, lemon-marinated cucumber, tomatillo marmalade, teeny weenie basil leaves and … wait for it … a tomatillo chip. (Curious? Order the Green With Envy.) Charles was now browsing Realtors’ websites on his iPhone, mumbling something about moving here. Mission accomplished. Pass the wine, please….
Not so quickly! James suggested we include a more informal spot, and I thought of the fish tacos at Leo Cabrera’s Modern Mixture. We each got our own (how the heck do you split a taco?) and they were delicious. Leo’s crunchy red cabbage/mango slaw is the perfect foil for the crispy wahoo. We were an hour behind schedule, but Cabrera was unconcerned. After bowls of cool gazpacho, he offered his house-made tamales. I began to explain that we were getting full and … Charles told me to pipe down. Who would have thought that the food critic and chef would go ballistic over Modern Mixture’s tamales? Next thing I knew, Charles disappeared into the kitchen. Three down. Two to go. Maybe.
No Rehoboth seafood crawl is complete without Henlopen City Oyster House. When we dragged in around 9:30, they were packed with a half-hour wait. On a Tuesday, yet. But co-owner Joe Baker was ready for us - armed, of course, with wine. Within minutes we were facing a family-style portion of Chef Bill Clifton’s kona kampachi poached in coconut milk with leeks, carrots and shitake mushrooms. The velvety tuna-like fish was perched atop green bamboo rice infused with cilantro and ginger, surrounded by tempura figs (!). Our efforts to save room for Clifton’s cooking had not been in vain.
If James Diehl had had a towel, he would have thrown it in. We were now 90 minutes late to our final destination, Jay Caputo’s Espuma, which means “fine-dining” in Rehoboth-speak. But we could barely walk. Sorry, Jay, I tried. But Charles was looking increasingly pekid, and Diehl had wandered off into the night. Four out of five. Not bad.
Delaware dining has been vindicated! And the friendly food critic from Virginia now knows that Rehoboth is neither blah nor uninspired. For me, I plan to resume eating sometime around mid-October.