“You guys are crazy!”

That’s what Scott Stein and Antimo DiMeo heard from a purveyor in 2017 when the business partners said they were contemplating opening a restaurant on North Market Street in Wilmington. They’d certainly shared hesitations about this quiet downtown district, having already pulled out of one lease in Wilmington a few years prior to open Ardé in Wayne instead.

But something felt different about Wilmington this time, thanks to a series of residential and commercial developments and the buzz of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign: “We just had a little faith,” said Stein.

After transforming a former Kennedy Fried Chicken into the glittering success of sprawling Bardea in 2018, where DiMeo’s modernist Italian creativity has since earned two James Beard Foundation nods and spurred them to open an ambitious new steakhouse later this spring, it’s clear that faith was well-placed. Because there’s an unmistakable hum of new dining energy in Wilmington and its outskirts right now, from a makeover of the historic dining room at the Hotel Du Pont to a surprising strip mall steakhouse on its northern edge, and the gastronomic home of two chefs in nearby Hockessin that also earned national recognition from the James Beard Foundation.

So, it was finally time to check out these Delaware gems for myself. And guess what? I’m the crazy one for waiting this long.


Bardea

The savory pop tart exploded at the poke of a fork with a gush of molten burrata. The flaky cannelloni tubes, which were filled with an intensely beefy stuffing of garum-laced ground Wagyu hearts and stacked over a creamy swipe of Cayuga blue cheese and a shadowy ring of onion ash, were essentially a fantastical cheesesteak. And then came the über avocado. Aged with koji inside a protective butter shell infused with yuzu kosho, it gets torched inside a lava stone bowl with chicharrón crumbles, pineapple mostarda, and a splash of tomatillo water. Biting into a spoonful of its impossibly rich green curves was like experiencing an avocado rendered in neon.

The stunners kept coming at Bardea, the glam 120-seater that has revived this North Market Street corner in downtown Wilmington. And I’ll admit to some surprise. I can’t recall a young cook who has improved as dramatically as chef-partner Antimo DiMeo, 29. When I first encountered him at his family’s restaurant Ardé in Wayne in 2015, he was over his head struggling not to overcook the chicken marsala. Flash forward seven years, with an inspirational training trip to Italy, two James Beard nominations, and a pandemic immersion into the magic of fermentation, DiMeo has blossomed into one of the region’s most exciting and creative chefs.

» READ MORE: Bardea chef Antimo DiMeo embraces fermenting techniques to deliver big Italian flavor

Some plates are almost too pretty to eat — like the cuttlefish shaved into tagliatelle. But that would be a mistake. It’s a wonder of subtle sea flavors and delicate textures, those snappy ribbons tangling with lemon agrumato over colorful dots of ‘Nduja sauce and bergamot-scented squid ink. The multilayered eggplant parm’s flavors may be inspired by DiMeo’s nonna, but it’s updated into a work of modern edible art, dusted with dehydrated tomato powder, dabbed with Parmesan cream, ringed by herb oil and crowned with an intricate Parmesan flower tuile.

If anything, Bardea’s menu is too large, its dishes woven with so many flourishes they can be impossible to discern. This chef could benefit from some restraint. Then again, with so much energy pulsing from this kitchen, this is no time for DiMeo and his Bardea team to ease up.

Bardea, 620 N. Market St., Wilmington, 302-426-2069; bardeawilmington.com


House of William and Merry

This quaint 1890s farmhouse on Old Lancaster Pike beside Mill Creek in Hockessin really is the house where William “Bill” Hoffman and Merry Catanuto live. The married chefs already had the first of their two children in 2010 when they moved into an apartment above this 50-seat restaurant. Hoffman says they’ve since achieved a rare balance between work and family: “We wanted to raise our kids, let them see their parents live their passion!”

Those who get a coveted seat at the cozy bar can see that passion firsthand by peering into the open kitchen, with its gleaming Jade range and fireplace hearth, where Hoffman oversees weekly menus that shift with the seasonal whims of ingredients from the Mid-Atlantic coast, Brandywine Valley, and his kitchen garden. Hoffman, previously chef de cuisine at the Hotel Du Pont, shows his classic French roots in the fresh-shaved truffles that rained down over a sublimely tender pork belly in mustard jus with shaved turnips. (”We can do really long braises because I’m always here!” he says. “We embrace slow food.) Beautifully meaty rockfish comes over an open-faced raviolo of pasta rounds filled with white asparagus and local mushrooms ringed by an intense froth of prawn bisque.

Hoffman has a sense of whimsy, too, with updated comforts like confit duck wings puffed into chicharrónes then glossed with Calabrian honey. Meanwhile, his bulgogi-marinated flap steak is an occasional homage to Hoffman’s Korean stepmother, served with house-fermented kimchi and black rice. Even the wine program here is a family affair. Catanuto, who runs the well-oiled service and operations, has parents who own Relyea-Wood Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Not surprisingly, the juicy spice of its syrah is a perfect match.

House of William and Merry, 1336 Old Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, 302-234-2255; williamandmerry.com


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Le Cavalier

It’s back to the future at the Hotel Du Pont, where the makeover of one of the region’s most historic dining spaces from the staid Green Room into the French-themed Le Cavalier began with peeling back the layers of carpet. The intricate original tilework floor revealed below has lent a glimmer of fresh life to this soaring Gilded Age hall of fumed oak paneled walls, Spanish chandeliers, and intricate ceiling sconces. Tufted golden banquettes lend a sense of plush comfort. A lively energy emanates from the newly installed bar, where beverage manager Robert Kidd delivers an enthusiastic spark to the service and an extensive repertoire of well-crafted cocktails with creative variations on pre-Prohibition roots. (Try the refreshing Scofflaw or Fernet Fizz).

I appreciate the choice of a modern French brasserie for the menu by chef-partner Tyler Akin, who was partly inspired by Parc. There’s both a timeless appeal and flexibility for updates, whether it’s a deeply steeped French onion soup sealed with a molten lid of three cheeses, a perfect omelette lavished with lobster and beurre blanc, or Le Big Cav riff on the Big Mac that was my favorite burger in 2021. The Wilmington-born Akin, whom Philadelphians know from the Southeast Asian-themed Stock, is clearly at the beginning of his exploration of French cuisine. A recent dinner produced some solid plates — a house Toulouse sausage with lentils, clean mussels piqued by the spice of andouille, even a proper beef Wellington to sate the filet crowd with truffle sauce and a mushroom foie gras-lined pastry croûte. However, like the duck a l’orange that arrived submerged in an overly subtle sauce, none of these had a remarkable impact. I believe in Akin’s talents. But the chef, who just returned from a trip to Paris, needs to find another level to meet the grand potential of this dining room’s legacy.

Le Cavalier, 42 W. 11th St., Hotel Du Pont, Wilmington, 302-594-3154; www.lecavalierde.com


Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar

If we were expecting to find the bucolic setting of a Brandywine Valley inn beside a historic mill, we were admittedly miffed when the GPS directed us off traffic-choked Concord Pike to the faux-colonial storefront of a busy strip mall. But the Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar was not done with the surprises. This popular new destination from chef Robert Lhulier, Dave and Joanne Govatos, and front house wiz Bill Irvin, is a banquet of grand indulgences trapped inside an intimate 28-seat space — part retail butcher, part steak house, and an all-out drinker’s paradise.

That there are 40 good wines by the glass, from Olga Raffault Chinon to skin contact Sardinian vermentino, 32 amari, and two dozen whiskies (including coveted Willetts selling for up to $140 a pour to the money-is-no-object North Wilmington clientele) is not a shock to those who’ve shopped at Dave Govatos’ Swigg wine store across the strip mall.

Chef Lhulier, a longtime private chef previously at the Chef’s Table at the David Finney Inn in Newcastle, as well as Talula’s Table, also takes a luxury-first approach to the big menu. The Carpet Bagger appetizer combines multiple indulgences into one flavorful mouthful: flash-fried local oysters piled high with candied bacon, shaved filet mignon, blue cheese, and drizzled jalapeño ranch sauce. Local cheeses from Birchrun Hills and Doe Run farms are served in abundance on the handsome cheeseboards. Beautifully fried artichokes alla giudia, airy ricotta gnocchi, and gua bao buns with pork belly reveal some other diverse and tasty culinary intrigues.

But beef is clearly the main event. And Snuff Mill doesn’t skimp on quality. The 20-ounce dry-aged ribeye from Maryland’s Roseda Farms was so good, in fact, that I appreciated it even though ours was thoroughly overcooked — a $40 miscue the apologetic chef properly removed from our bill. (We wouldn’t waste this meat and didn’t want a replacement.) Based on the crowds buoying this surprising little room, and the planned addition of 60 more seats with an expanded space next door in the coming months, I can only guess that slip at the grill was an exception to the rule. I’d return, for sure.

Snuff Mill Restaurant Butchery & Wine Bar, Independence Mall, 1601 Concord Pike, Suite 77-79, Wilmington, 302-303-7676; snuffmillbutchery.com