Even when I was a kid, the beach was only partly about the sun and the sand and the surf. What enthralled me, then as now, was the eating. I remember trudging up from the water in Rehoboth one day, ravenous and baked, the taste of salt water on my lips leading me straight to the smell of fry that wafted from the Thrasher’s stand. I hadn’t had lunch; it didn’t matter. “We’re at the beach,” my mother said, handing over the money. Fries were permissible; all things were permissible—Kohr Bros. custard and Grotto pizza and Dolly’s saltwater taffy and Candy Kitchen’s fudge, too. The beach was a suspension, not just of time, but also of the boring, adult-imposed pattern of three squares a day. At the beach, you ate whenever you felt like it, according to whim or, more precisely, according to whatever whiff of something caught your attention.
So when I returned to Rehoboth with my wife a couple of weeks ago, I felt no compunction whatsoever at engaging in gluttony, hitting 17 restaurants in a single frenzied week. Besides, I was not indulging myself only for myself; I was indulging for professional reasons.
Rehoboth remains the only nearby beach worth talking about if, like me, you’re looking to spend as much time eating as swimming or tanning; but the fact remains that it doesn’t have that many places that warrant the steep, and steadily creeping, prices—entrees at the disappointing Celsius on Wilmington Avenue have edged into the 30s. A willful eclecticism carries the day at many high-end restaurants, the kind that so often gives fusion a bad name. Calling ahead to reserve a table at the recently opened, much-talked-about Venus on the Half Shell, over in Dewey, I inquired as to the style of cooking: “Oh, we do a little bit of everything—a little bit of Thai, some South American, a bit of French.” The remark was intended as evidence of the chef’s catholicism but turned out instead to indicate lack of vision.
Blue Moon, by contrast, does not lack for vision. A place that once raised eyebrows—for its mostly gay crowds, its exotic ingredients, its blithe mingling of casual and
formal—the restaurant, as it inches toward the quarter-century mark, feels almost reassuringly familiar. It remains the best of the high-end spots, a rarity in town in that it mostly delivers what it promises. Chef Peter McMahon’s Frenchified menu may borrow liberally from Southeast Asia and the American Southwest, but he prefers classical solidity to gaudy spectacle. A fan of spicy, crispy duck breast is succulent, a plate of garlic-and-chili shrimp almost as tasty, and the
tortilla soup is bright, thick, and sweetly vegetal. There is the occasional misstep—the wild rice that inexplicably accompanies the shrimp, for instance—and execution is not always equal to the quality of the ingredients, but especially in light of his slap-happy compatriots, McMahon is notable for his restraint. The lone exception is dessert—witness the Moon Pie, the cafe’s signature sweet, a towering, tottering creation of mint ice cream and meringue and melted chocolate, a sort of unbaked Alaska.
Like Blue Moon, the Back Porch Cafe has a relaxed, unforced quality that surely has something to do with having been around for a while. Among the handful of sit-down, full-service restaurants that are open for lunch—I also like the always reliable Dogfish Head, for its craft-brewed beers and smartly conceived sandwiches, and Jake’s Seafood, for its fried clams and
oysters—the Back Porch is the one that lends itself best to whiling away the afternoon. If there are no revelations in the cooking, there are no meaningless fireworks, either. What a dish of duck confit lacks in crispiness it makes up for with a lusciousness, and the turkey burger, though on the tough side, has a tangy, gingery boost.
The year-old Eden, just down the street from Blue Moon, is clearly aiming to duplicate the success of these two perennials, with a relaxed vibe and some appealing, nicely priced wines. Too bad it can’t resist the impulse to experiment with everything in the pantry. A walnut-mustard lobster salad is dressed with a vodka crème fraîche; an otherwise simple white-wine-tomato broth, in which the New Zealand green-lip mussels are steamed, is turned into a complicated concoction with the addition of leeks, artichokes, and capers.
I found Espuma’s cooking under former owner and chef Kevin Reading to be too busy, too unfocused. Jay Caputo appears to have retained at least some of his predecessor’s dishes—among them Reading’s salty, ingredient-intensive paella—but he has also made space on the menu for the sensibly simple: A roasted beet salad tastes as fresh as it looks, its pistachio pesto complementing as opposed to complicating; a crab salad in a cucumber consommé is brought into focus by the addition of some cubes of cool, creamy avocado.
Reading has turned his attention to the recently opened Nage, where his penchant for gratuitous piling-on continues unabated. A composed salad of vegetables (some grilled, some roasted, some raw) contains no fewer than 13 ingredients. A soft-shell BLT, though tasty, is overly tricked out, with its drizzle of cilantro aioli and its mustard-dill bread.
If I hadn’t tried the soft-shell po’ boy at the Seafood Shack, I might not register a peep of complaint at Nage’s. That po’ boy at the Shack, however, is not only the single best soft-shell sandwich I’ve eaten, it may also be the single best thing I’ve put in my mouth in years of going to Rehoboth. The soft-shells, brought in fresh from Crisfield, Md., are unusually plump and sweet, their meat firm and white like lump crab. The Shack doesn’t fry them but instead sautées them in butter and a few pinches of Old Bay. Although it could easily get away with serving up a single crab for the price, $10.95, it squeezes two of the suckers side by side onto a crusty French roll, the bright orange claws dangling from the bread like arms hanging out the windows of a pickup on a hot summer day.
The new Abstractions, on Rehoboth Avenue, won’t be challenging the Cultured Pearl, on Wilmington, for sushi supremacy anytime soon, thanks to its second-rate fish and prohibitively high prices. (A bowl of seafood soup, with fishy salmon cakes in a ginger-and-anise-scented broth, sets you back 10 bucks.) The prospect of small plates and a neat list of wines by the glass at nearby Taste may be cheering, but like a lot of places in town, this one is a lot more appealing on paper than on the plate. The grilled Caesar salad is fine, but a lobster-and-shrimp BLT is unworthy of its price tag, and a plate of toasted mushroom-stuffed ravioli in a too-sweet champagne-vanilla sauce is a helluva lot more Elvis than its description would have you believe; it seems only fitting that at the first press of my fork, the tightly packed ravioli ejaculated all over the candleholder.
It’s tempting to swear off the high-endy places altogether. At least with the down-and-dirty eats, you think, the disappointments are less disappointing—not to mention a lot less draining on the budget. This is mostly true, though I have to confess: I sank into a deep and profound funk at the realization that the pizza at Grotto has slipped so precipitously; the sauce, thick with tomato paste and lacking the familiar, garlicky kick, is now applied not once but twice, squirted on top of the gooey cheese like some kind of ketchup. Nicola’s, the other major pizza player in town, has many fans, but although I love the Nicoboli—a thin, beautifully blistered pocket of dough oozing cheese and seasoned ground beef—the pizzas leave me wanting. My new favorite: Louie’s Pizza, on Rehoboth next to Dolly’s saltwater taffy. I’ve always been fond of their hoagies, and now I’ve come to love their pies, too. Make mine pepperoni: thin, crispy crust, judicious saucing and cheesing, coins of the spicy sausage curling up at the edges and pooling with grease.
The night we had Louie’s, my wife and I took up residence on a bench on the boardwalk, soaking in the cool air as we ate our pizza and watching the waves roll in. When I thought we simply couldn’t force any more past our lips, my wife pulled out a bag of fudge she’d picked up at Candy Kitchen. My stomach was groaning, but my mind of course said yes. This was the beach. All things were permissible. And so I kept on eating. Besides, I could always skip breakfast. —Todd Kliman
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