Years ago when I haunted the southern hinterlands (well, Bethany Beach), I used to enjoy chatting-up the energetic busboy at a long-gone Bethany restaurant across from Sea Colony. He always knew what was going on, and usually had more information about the eatery and the menu than the servers (and the owners, for sure). It wasn't until a few of years ago that I recognized that young whippersnapper at Port Dewey. He wasn't 17 -- or bussing tables -- any more. He was one of the owners, along with his uncle Mitch King. Of course, being an owner doesn't mean that you don't bus tables (ask any owner).
If there's such thing as a savant in the restaurant business, Zack King is it. He's a good bartender, and always finds time to visit with customers and offer the occasional complimentary cocktail while making sure everything is right. And if it's not right, he’ll make it so.
King likes the challenge of opening new places, so when he discovered that the former owners of The Roadhouse Steak Joint in Rehoboth Beach were tired and wanted to leave, he snapped it up. It was no secret that the food at the Roadhouse had become equally tired, playing second fiddle to the bar and the mechanical bull. So, in proper Robert Irvine fashion, he threw out most of the cans and frozen stuff in favor of in-house preparation. And thus was born Old Bay Steakhouse.
His next official act was to remove the huge concrete horse and rider that had guarded the front of the place for over 20 years. He replaced it with a red brick firepit.
But wait! There’s more! Zack dreamed of bubblin’-up his own whiskeys, rums, vodkas and gins, so after much license-getting, experimentation, trial-and-error and sign changing, Delaware Distilling Company was launched. And through it all, the mechanical bull remains (though he makes far fewer cameos).
By the way, our most recent visit to Delaware Distilling Company coincided with a Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival Summer Series concert featuring none other than tenor sax master Steve Cole. DDC is one of the official venues for the festival, so keep an eye on the festival schedule for the lineup.
The metamorphosis from Old Bay to Delaware Distilling Company included a revamping of the menu. Some of the favorites remain, but there are some new items that will tempt. The list of 20 appetizers and salads is daunting, and there are some gems lurking therein. The experience starts off on a high note with hot, buttery, salty dinner rolls [pictured below, left]. So many restaurants skip the bread event nowadays (and, sadly, with good reason) but DDC does not skimp on the quality or quantity.
One of the aforementioned gems is the MD Crab & Shrimp White Cheddar Nachos. The cheese sauce is sort of a béchamel, so it doesn’t immediately turn solid after being removed from the broiler. Topped with crab and shrimp, this could actually be a meal. When comfort, crunchy and colorful meet, it’s usually a good thing, and the Asian Cheesesteak Rolls [pictured, right] fill all three requirements. This cleverly conceived dish has all the crunch of a freshly prepared eggroll, but is filled with cheesesteak fixins’ featuring marinated prime rib. Order them to share.
Another comfort-food staple (they do have a mechanical bull, after all…) is the Fiery Chicken Tenders (with a respectful nod to Bethany’s Cottage Café) [pictured, left]. Chicken tenders (usually the meaty part of the breast, sans bone) are simply breaded, fried, and topped with buffalo sauce, ranch and chunks of blue cheese. Fine dining? No. Friendly, fun & messy? Yes.
The 1 lb. mussels appetizer [pictured, right] is particularly attractive (and generous for $8). We ordered it with white wine sauce. The happy bivalves are dished up simply sauced, with crostini.
Veteran Port Dewey-now-Delaware Distilling Company server Crystal urged us to get the Stuffed Cucumber Duo. Unbeknownst to her, I ordered that on one of my previous visits (incognito, or at least I tried), and it was quite good. Cool, deseeded cucumber halves are stuffed with cream cheese and smoked salmon and topped with a spicy crème redolent of wasabi (but it’s probably horseradish). The other half is layered with crab meat, and Sriracha mixed into a cream sauce.
On an earlier visit we sat at the bar and checked out the Jumbo Pig Wings. These are a popular item here at the beach, basically a small but meaty pork shank prepared in the style of a buffalo wing. DDC's rate right up there alongside the similar dish at Pickled Pig Pub across the street and Ivy in Dewey Beach.
One particular Favorite Foodie whom I trust always orders Maryland Crab Soup [pictured, left] and compares it to his favorite Baltimore seafood icon. Fortunately, this has survived the Old Bay / DDC menu makeover, and is still chock-full of veggies and crabmeat. When I asked if it measured up to the Maryland restaurant (we'll be cagey and call it "Gunning's"), he wisely announced that he would need at least one more try to come up with an exact grade. Actually, he just wanted more soup. People get that way when they eat with me. I don't know why.
The Caesar Salad [pictured, right] also made the cut, and is still generous for even a dollar less than it was. It's simple and straight-ahead with a bright dressing and about 700 croutons. The Crab Louie Salad is another survivor, and could even serve as a light meal in itself. A decent portion of fresh Maryland crabmeat rests in the middle of chopped romaine, carrots, egg, grilled asparagus, cucumbers and tomatoes. It is all lightly dusted with ... what else? Old Bay. You can top any of the salads with a crab cake, sautéed shrimp, chicken or Ahi for between $5 and $10. Then it is officially a meal. Nice touch.
Somebody posting on TwitAdvisor (who obviously doesn't get out much) complained about the Salmon entrée; horrified that the fish came out, and I quote, "all wrapped in aluminum foil." Really? What part of the menu-referenced “foil boat” did he or she not get? Is it possible they never heard of poaching? In fact, the French (they invented food) have been cooking en papillote since the Jurassic period. Sometimes it's parchment, other times it's foil. This is the sort of unmonitored drivel you get at TwitAdvisor. Stick with The Foodie. He lives here and knows stuff. DDC’s Salmon (still en papillote, thank you) might be one of the most delicious and moist pieces of salmon I've had in a long time. Garlic, dill, lemon butter and white wine helped make it that way.
While enjoying Steve Cole’s tasty sax licks on our most recent visit, I ordered the Hogzilla Pork Shank. This 1.5 lb. behemoth is fallin’-off-the-bone braised, crowned with a tomato-herb reduction and (on that night) served with asparagus and a spicy kimchee-like slaw. The grilled asparagus was delightful, but I felt that the slaw was too aggressively acidic for the dish, hogging center stage when the pork and the light sauce should have been in the spotlight.
The BBQ Baby Back Ribs [pictured, right], were perfectly prepared. The regulation rib must sport a dark crust across the arc of the bones, but still be moist and tender inside – almost fallin’off-the-bone, but not quite. Delaware Distilling Company’s white whisky flavored the slightly sweet sauce. This dish was a pleasant surprise in an area with few places that know good barbecue. It’s also served as a full rack.
Though Zack touts the restaurant’s penchant for game and unusual meats, I was disappointed that they were out of the Bison Steak of the Week. Colvine Farms is so nearby – just sayin'....
If you’ve never had a bison steak, cross your fingers that they will have it when you visit. It’s delicious, and lighter than beef (though there is certainly nothing wrong with beef).
One of the newcomers to the menu, and a rising star in its own right, is the Cornflake Encrusted Chicken [pictured, left]. Sounds simple, but the ever-so-slightly sweet and corny crunch created by pan-frying was delicious. A light, Asian-tinged orange honey glaze made it even better. If you love chicken, this one’s for you. They also prepare chicken strips (assuming these are tenders) in the same way and plop them on a waffle. Delaware Distilling Company rum and agave nectar top that one. I’m getting that next time we go.
The Shrimp and Crab Alfredo is still quite good, as penne pasta harmonizes with generous portions of bacon and cherry tomatoes. The Jalapeno Chicken Alfredo is similarly prepared, but with chicken, jalapenos, bacon and cherry tomatoes. We were treated to a creamy heat punctuated by bits of crisp bacon. Both of these remain on the menu from the Old Bay days. Another old reliable is the simple, generous and delicious Angus Beef Burger (with cheddar and bacon, of course) [pictured, right]. The toasty grilled roll is the icing on the cake.
King is justifiably proud of Chef Johnny Downs' preparations, and, truth be told, the consistency of cooking and presentation appear to have improved from what it was before the change to DDC. Though we were fortunate to get the experienced Crystal as our server, emails continue to suggest that the new Delaware Distilling Company still has the occasional service gaffes (perhaps training issues?), though the fixes are always friendly and prompt. It’s a big restaurant, and I don’t see that as a reason to stay away. I suggest you ask for Zack if something isn’t right and the server can't make it right. The buck stops with him, and he wants you to be happy.
By the way, speaking of happy, when you go to Delaware Distilling Company, ask for a Chill Dill [pictured, right]. Apparently some upstart guy who writes the restaurant column in the business section of the Cape Gazette wrote about his (mis)adventures with pickles, Jamison, hot sauce and tequila when DDC was still Old Bay. He didn't even know what a Pickleback was! His admittedly brilliant article (he’s buckin’ for a Pulitzer) appears in the June 29th, 2012 issue of Cape Gazette -- but who cares? You're better off following The Rehoboth Foodie’s reviews and my columns in the Beach Paper.
You can't miss Delaware Distilling Company at 18693 Coastal Highway in Rehoboth Beach. It's at the southernmost end of Midway Shopping Center (next to La Tonalteca), directly across from Tanger Midway outlets. There's virtually unlimited parking.
If the DDC signs were any bigger, they would attract aircraft, and the firepit leaps and flickers out front (when they remember to turn it on). They are open 7 days in-season, and celebrate Happy Hour from 4:30 'til 6:30. And yes, the mechanical bull remains, but Zack has restricted access to the frowning bovine to special late-night happy hours. And when the bands play, the poor creature wanders off and is nowhere to be seen.
The gins, rums and vodkas are available both on- and off-sale, and are also for sale in local liquor stores, none the least of which Outlet Liquors. Look for more varieties as Zack gets even better at keepin' that big copper still purring.
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