How Planet X and Venus aligned for comfortably stellar dining
In spite of the seemingly endless drama that can characterize the restaurant scene of any small town, there are always the stalwart few who quietly toil away to keep their establishments running smoothly. It’s a 24/7 endeavor if you choose to be successful.
One of those steadfast restaurateurs who made an indelible mark on our little beach town is Justine Zegna. Several years ago her landmark Planet X Café on Wilmington Avenue gave way to the expansion of the Avenue Inn. Lots of parking, renewed sidewalks and fresh landscaping were some of the happy side effects, but many of us still miss the unusual cocktails, the purple Buddha, the ancient chandeliers, the bobbing Japanese lanterns, the mirror-studded mosaics and pretty much anything Justine did with curry.
Are you new in town? Here’s a bit of history: Planet X Café was first conceived in Maryland as a coffee house, replete with poetry, music and all the smoky images that “coffee house” evokes. In 1995, Justine moved it to its (now former) home on Wilmington Avenue. This wasn’t her first beach rodeo, however, and inhabitants of Dewey Beach still remember her equally eccentric Venus on the Half Shell, where Ivy restaurant now stands.
While all this was happening, the little town of Berlin, Md., was quietly reinventing itself. In fact, Berlin has since been recognized as having the Best Social Media Campaign by the Maryland Tourism Council for its efforts to brand itself as America’s Coolest Small Town. Just 10 minutes west of Ocean City, Berlin was also part of the Visit Maryland Award given by the Maryland Office of Tourism to destinations that help further tourism in the state.
So, if my algebra is correct, and we agree to call the old Planet X Café (one of) the coolest restaurants in Rehoboth, and if Berlin is American’s Coolest Small Town, then it makes perfect sense that Justine would reinvent her cool dining concept there. The friendly neighborhood eatery is called Blacksmith, with lots of craft beers and low lighting. Justine’s talent for putting a twist on pretty much anything is reflected on the menu and in the art on the walls.
One of my favorites is her Eastern Shore Bánh Mì. Traditionally, a Bánh Mì is a Vietnamese hoagie, with roast pork loin, crunchy daikon, cucumbers and carrots, cilantro and peppers on a warm French baguette. Zegna’s Eastern Shore version leans in the BBQ pork direction. Though the mandatory pickled veggies, cilantro and cucumbers are there, the addition of scrapple and crunchy chicharones validates the Eastern Shore moniker. And her Famous House Burger with homemade pickles and melted cheddar is one of the best I’ve had. Wait ‘til you taste the sauce.
Memories of Wilmington Avenue remain on the menu in the form of Justine’s famous Thai style meatballs, pappardelle pasta with roasted mushrooms and butternut squash, and roasted cauliflower steak with veggies and balsamic-laced butter. Slices of potatoes Anna add the finishing touch. Be forewarned: as with pretty much every restaurant in the area, the menu varies with the seasons, the tides and moods.
Fans of Rehoboth history might want to take a little field trip to Berlin to let Justine know that she’s still loved. Seems only right that one of the coolest restaurants in Rehoboth is securely nestled in what is touted as America’s Coolest Small Town. Blacksmith is open from 11:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day except Sunday. Call 410-973-2102 if you’re bringing a crowd.