If someone told me that they went to the circus and saw an elephant in a tuxedo dancing like Fred Astaire, then I would want to see a freakin' dancing elephant in a tux if I went to the circus. No substitutions allowed. And if someone — make that several people — blathered on about the "fabulous duck pâté with carbonated grapes" at the Delaware Café and I paid a visit, there had better be at least one bubbly grape on the plate, right?
Wrong. Not even a single uncarbonated grape dotted the gaily decorated plate that was otherwise nearly as festive as a circus. There were cute little squares and triangles of toasted brioche (not warm, as the menu promised) and four winsome marbles of creamy pâté rolling around between dabs of amber-colored onion jam and tissue-thin curls of shaved pear.
"Are there supposed to be carbonated grapes on this plate?" I asked the server, a nice young woman who radiated such peace and happiness that I felt guilty for asking about the mysterious missing fruit. I mean, for all I knew, the carbonation caused the grapes to evaporate before they arrived at the table.
The waitress looked down at my plate. "Gosh, the chef must have left them off. I'll bring you some."
My dining companion that evening, Carol Ann, winked at me. She had been quietly chuckling from the moment we sat down in the attractive, sparsely decorated, front dining room. And she had been seriously amused since the moment a server brought us each an amuse-bouche, a petite portion of something pretty but unrecognizable. Squiggles of raw calamari in a fresh herb marinade, maybe?
Carol Ann took a hesitant nibble. "It looks like seafood. And tastes like, well, I don't know."
"It's beef carpaccio," the server explained when she returned.
"But it's white," Carol Ann gasped.
We all looked down in silence at the dollop of carpaccio. "I've heard the chef here is very creative," Carol Ann said diplomatically.
It's true. Even before we set foot in the old River Market storefront, we'd heard nothing but raves about Delaware Café and its talented young chef, Joe West. His excellent credentials include stints at 40 Sardines and Bluestem, but his ambitions appear greater than the River Market. Word is that he's moving to Las Vegas.
"The menu is ambitious," Carol Ann said, looking over the sheet of dinner options. "And artistic, too. Listen to the description of the pan-basted diver-caught sea scallops: It's served with cauliflower purée, foie gras pierogi, huckleberry 'paint' and foie gras crisps. Doesn't it sound delicious?"
It certainly did, and we even ordered it. But, alas, the kitchen was out of scallops. Out of the olive oil poached cod, too. Happily, the acorn squash soup was available, and Carol Ann was most impressed by the presentation, which began with a white bowl and a theatrical pouring of the soup from a white porcelain teapot. "It's absolutely delicious," she said. "Hot and creamy and perfect on a cold, rainy night."
I was spreading a bit of the extraordinary pâté on one of those artfully carved brioche toasts when the waitress returned with a tiny bowl of sliced red grapes. They looked and tasted like regular old grapes to me. When she returned to clear away the starter dishes, I asked what a carbonated grape was supposed to taste like (Nehi soda, perhaps?).
"Didn't you hear them hissing and sizzling when I brought them out?"
No, we said. They just sort of quietly sat there — like sliced grapes.
"I guess the chef didn't pump them with enough carbonation," she said brightly and vanished.
"I can read your mind," Carol Ann laughed. "You hate novelty food."
But "novelty" isn't the right word here. Pretentious, maybe, although Delaware Café's devotees insist that West more than lives up to his artistic sensibilities, which include mushroom "paper" on one of the salads and persimmon foam — hasn't that affectation gone out of style yet? — on the confit of spaghetti squash.
I'll leave carbonation and flavored foam to the soft-drink manufacturers of America and instead admire West's more conventional fare. That includes the fantastic prime rib-eye steak and braised short ribs, which were so fork-tender and delectable that I all but wolfed them down before you could say crème-fraîche whipped potatoes — those were outrageously good, too. I had nearly stopped the server from pouring what she insisted was guava jus over the meat when I thought it might be too sweet, but it was delicately subtle. Carol Ann, meanwhile, had one of West's best-known dishes: slices of moist roasted Berkshire pork loin splashed with a robust fennel jus and sided with a crispy-soft fritter of polenta flavored with smoked bacon. It was one of the most excellent pork dishes I've had in some time.
After such a satisfying meal, I wasn't particularly interested in dessert. But Carol Ann, now enamored of West's creativity, pored over the short list of sweets. "There's a Concord grape cloud with peanut-butter powder and a chocolate spray-painted brioche," she said. I stuck out my tongue. A little too creative. "How about the roasted-pumpkin French toast?"
It sounded awful, but the dish was quite beautiful: spongy puffs of lightly fried brioche — without much pumpkin taste — sided with a surprisingly wonderful curry ice cream and bits of pecan praline candy. Carol Ann thought the ice cream was heavenly, the toast less so. "It was so pretty but didn't taste like anything," she said.
I returned a few days later for lunch with my friend David. The Delaware Café is better-known for its daytime business, and I understand why. There's nothing too fussy or artistic on the menu, unless you order the exquisite Yukon gold potato cakes — light, airy patties of fried, mashed spuds draped in melted cheddar, crème fraîche, bacon and scallions. David, who is perpetually dieting, couldn't resist these beauties. He even raved over his tuna salad sandwich: "A little quirky, a little sweet, but memorable. You can't say that about tuna fish very often."
The Kobe beef burger wasn't so memorable, but a tomato bisque was intensely flavored. And the Philly steak sandwich was almost as good as the last one I ate at the iconic Pat's King of Steaks in Philadelphia — but without the molten Cheez Whiz, which I love but is probably too déclassé for Joe West.
Cheez Whiz or no Cheez Whiz, show me a chef who can make a perfect cheesesteak and the best braised short ribs in town, and I'll gladly sing his praises.
Or, as David put it, "This place is ambitious, but it has the balls to back it up."
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