Good things come to those who wait. And yes, we waited ... and waited ... through the summer of 2013 as Joe and Megan Churchman meticulously restored the old South Pacific flower shop on Rehoboth Avenue, adding a huge professional kitchen to serve their fine-dining venue, Bramble & Brine. (Click here to make reservations through Open Table!) It was a massive undertaking, but it's done, and fortunate early adopters (none the least of which myself) are already reaping the rewards. Whippin' up vittles is not new to Joe Churchman. Joe cooked not only at Eden, JAM Bistro, Planet X and Venus on the Half Shell, but he also honed much of his Abruzzese culinary style at none other than Le Virtù in Philadelphia. He was also the opening chef at the now long-gone Luca in Millsboro.
Megan is the proprietor of the tiny but elegant Poor Little Rich Girl store in Rehoboth Mews, and much of her taste is reflected in the restaurant's decor. Whimsical antiques and food-related tchotchkes are scattered throughout, and it's a rare table that isn't illuminated by a sparkling chandelier. The high-backed dining chairs suggest a dinner party in someone's home, and with the restaurant divided roughly into three separate dining areas, a comfortable sense of private conviviality makes Bramble & Brine a cozy experience.
I usually don't write about a restaurant so soon after they open, but because it's so late in the season, and because this is certainly not Churchman's first rodeo -- and because we have all waited so patiently for this to come about, I figured I'd just jump in and let the (homemade) chips fall where they may. It's not often that a restaurant of this caliber opens right smack on Rehoboth Avenue. And this one does not disappoint.
The menu is short and simple. Joe's decided dexterity with duck is legendary, and Bramble & Brine's menu contains several shoutouts to the delectible bird. But let's remain calm and take things in order.
Without actually using the words, Joe remains true to his training by adopting the traditional "Antipasti," "Primi Piatti," "Secondi Piatti" and "Piatto Principale"- style menu layout. Bramble & Brine is, after all, not an Italian restaurant, but you can see Churchman's Le Virtù chops shining through with the anglicized "beginnings," "salads," "soup," "pasta" and "mains." Before we dive into particulars, I must warn you that, like most better restaurants nowadays here at the beach, Churchman regularly rotates menu items depending on what's growing, swimming, flying and grazing around Sussex County at any particular time of year. So don't email me next May if something with pumpkin isn't on the menu.
"Beginnings" starts off with a Savory Pumpkin and Sunchoke Paté [pictured, right]. (Note that a sunchoke is not an artichoke. It's a tuber of the sunflower plant and resembles ginger in appearance.) Crispy speck (think bacon jerky with a delightfully salty edge) adorns parmesan and thyme crostini. A little molecular gastronomy is evident in the addition of balsamic "caviar." The crostini-to-paté ratio was a little off, but our server was happy to bring more so we could shovel up every last bit of that delicious dip. I suspect that more parmesan crisps will accompany that dish in the future.
The Ribeye Crown [pictured, left] is one of the most lavish appetizers I've seen in a long time. Perfectly medium-rare sliced ribeye rests on a bed of roasted red onions and sweet corn sautée. A red wine reduction and honey vinaigrette drizzle is simply delicious. The carnivorous among us will love this one.
Things go from lavish to playful with the Butcher Plate [pictured, right]. Yes, that is a cannoli you see there on the left of the plank, and it is stuffed with a pleasantly mild foie gras mousse. Center stage is a square of chopped liver perched on a little crouton. The kicker, however, is what the chef calls "pork puffs." And yes, they are homemade chicharrones dusted with a mouthwatering combination of spices. They are simply delicious, and I think they should be an appetizer plate on their own, served with some sort of Sriracha aioli for dipping. Hint, hint. Joey, are you listening?
On the lighter side, the Cheese Board [pictured, left] is one of the most generous I've seen for the moderate $13 tariff. A brightly aromatic camembert shares a wooden plank with a hulking chunk of Stilton blue and a creamy, crumbly cheddar from Jasper Cellars. Candied walnuts and honeycomb round out this dish that's perfect for sharing.
On another visit I started with the Chestnut Smoked Ricotta Salad [pictured, right] adorned with thinly sliced beets, cukes, micro basil and a bread and butter pickle dressing that I would have happily ordered in a wine glass and sipped through one of those squiggley straws. Shirking my duties as a food writer, I had to order this one twice. I promise I will try the other two salads and add an update. But that dressing!
Both entries in the "pasta" section are equally worth trying. The first is the Shrimp Tagliatelle [pictured, left]. I include this course in the same category as the Ribeye Crown app, as either could qualify as a main course (though I don't know why you would ever want to do that...). Perfectly spiced and grilled shrimp march in lockstep atop a swirl of tagliatelle (wider than linguini, but not as wide as pappardelle) stirred with chunky favas, cherry tomatoes and red pearls. Red pepper flakes sparkle both visually and on the tongue. This one's a winner. We can only hope that it stays on the menu!
The second pasta is the Duck Ragu [pictured right]. A perfectly saucy shredded duck breast mixture crowns a curly bed of fazzoletti (the flat squares are also known as "handkerchief pasta" or "pasta in the rough," because it's not formed into shapes). Anything other than thin shavings of parmesan and Italian parsley would be gilding the lily. Chef Joe may be young, but he has the wisdom to leave well-enough alone. Do not miss this dish. Nuff said?
"Mains" are simple, straightforward and no-nonsense. One of the stars of that show (wouldn't you know it?) is the Roasted Duck Breast [pictured, left]. Tender slices of the fortunate bird are rubbed with coriander, orange, lavender and thyme. They alternate with a crispy-on-the-outside-creamy-on-the-inside potato latke. Long-stemmed heirloom carrots stand tall, proud and caramelized in a carrot puree. The whole production basks in a lake of bracingly sweet/sour agrodolce. Like duck? You'll love this. Try as I might, I have nothing bad to say about it.
The Grilled Ribeye platter [pictured, right] is almost a 100% success. The salt-aged steak is perfect and must be eaten medium rare to take full advantage of the marbling. I thought I was cutting into a filet. Sauteed spinach was a nicely acidic foil for the meat, but the tallegio twice-baked potato is a disappointment. Rather than a potato skin refilled with cheesy potato filling and perhaps lightly browned under a Salamander, the potato was halved, mostly intact and somewhat dry except for a narrow channel that contained what might have been tallegio cheese. But there is so little of it that I couldn't taste anything. It might as well have been a baked potato cut in half.
UPDATE! Well, this article isn't even a week old and I already have an update. The twice-baked potato I whined about in the previous couple of sentences has been fixed. Apparently on the night I visited (they had only been open for a couple of days -- see why I usually don't review so soon?) one of the cooks was preparing the dish incorrectly. The correct preparation now promises to be perfect. We'll keep you posted! Now back to business:
One of the nicest food photos I've taken is that of the Bone-In Berkshire Pork Chop [pictured, left]. I would love to take credit, but credit must go to the dish itself. It is visually stunning, with the brown sugar and spice-brined chop lounging comfortably on an autumnal bed of sautéed hominy. A madeira reduction is drizzled about and the chop was crowned with a crispy herb salad. The meat is properly medium in the center, but seared on the outside like pork should be. Hominy, yet. Who wooda thought!?!
This is Delaware. Chickens are everywhere, and one of the places you want to encounter one is at Bramble and Brine. The Spring Chicken platter [pictured, right] is simple and honest. The skin is properly tight, crispy and studded with spices and a hint of pepper. The accompaniments kick this one up to feast status: cornbread gnocchi, green bean almondine and roasted beets. A BBQ & thyme vinaigrette works delightfully with a homemade ketchup that whispers of clove and allspice. Not sure they are actually in there, but I definitely heard it whisper. Of course it could have been that second Kettle & tonic with lime.
I don't usually spend much time on desserts, but I have to mention one major standout: The Mexican Hot Chocolate and Churro combo [pictured, left]. They might taste like churros (all cinnamony and sweet), but they are cleverly disguised as little funnel cakes! There is certainly enough to share, and the dark, chocolatey taste will stay with you. I guess this is another must-get.
The southwest front corner of the restored cottage is home to a bar of white marble. Adjacent to that is a solid chunk of what appears to be cypress spanning the entire length of the front window. Seating at the window is prime real estate. That candle-strewn chandeliered bar + counter corner is presided over by none other than barkeep-in-residence Rob Bagley. Locals will recognize Rob as the son of local baker extraordinaire Nancy Stout. In her words, he’s her “number one son.” (By the way, the magic that Nancy works with specialty cakes at Rehoboth’s Giant bakery is the stuff of legend. Go early and ask for her by name. She'll take care of you!)
There are lots of little touches at Bramble and Brine that I will not reveal. I have to leave something to surprise you! (Hint: DO order coffee after your meal. Trust me.)
Bramble & Brine is at 315 Rehoboth Avenue, on the north side of the 4th block, just a few doors west of the Hotel Rehoboth. Hours are still a bit up in the air, but word around the place is that a 6:00 opening will soon be replaced with a 4:30 - 6 happy hour with dinner thereafter. They don't yet have a website with a menu and all that, but you can click here to visit the Facebook page.
I strongly suggest you call first during this formative time. (302) 227-7702 (locals -- recognize that number?). Tuesdays will probably be the off-season dark day. But again, y'never know, so call. Reservations are not only accepted, but they are encouraged, and can be made through OpenTable.com directly from the latest update of the definitive travel app, Rehoboth In My Pocket. (D., Bar). Price range: Expensive -.