Imitation Plates: Review of Delmarva’s Southern Cafe

DelMarVa’s Southern Cafe & TapHouse misrepresents the beauty of eating locally.

by Stefanie Gans / Photos by Kyle Martell

Photo by Kyle Martell

The Delmarva Peninsula is a stretch of land 170 miles long between Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean lap onto the fertile soil. A new chain of restaurants, DelMarVa’s Southern Café & TapHouse, represents neither this region’s significant contribution to well-raised meat, seafood and vegetables, nor the South’s proud heritage of heirloom grains and hog worship. 

Photo by Kyle Martell

Posted at the restaurant and on its website, DelMarVa’s menu “centers around the comfort foods that have risen up in and around the Delmarva Peninsula over the years since John Smith founded Jamestown. Our guests come away satisfied with our traditional recipes and the careful cooking and presentation.” The mission reads as if customers should expect locally sourced meats and produce. Instead, this is a business venture positioned for expansion, not a restaurant dedicated to authentic cuisine. While not every restaurant needs to provide fine dining and inspired cuisine, a good meal is mandatory. DelMarVa’s offers none of the above, and with an onslaught of DelMarVa’s Southern Cafés headed for the area, it’s time to evaluate. 

An interpretation of chicken and waffles shows Tenderjacks® (bought by DelMarVa Brands Inc.) chicken tenders instead of using a brined-floured-fried thigh. The breaded tenders offer no crunch against the soft waffle, garnished with raw red and green bell peppers and a cloying peach-cranberry marmalade. And why is there both syrup and jam?   

The shrimp and grits offer nothing better. Congealed grits sit in one large clump with andouille sausage mixed into what tastes like canned chili. A parbaked (finished in a convection microwave), dry—certainly not buttery or flakey—biscuit balances on the side of the plate, an out-of-place accompaniment to a New Orleans-style dish. 

The bright spot: The TapHouse’s beer list reads as a who’s who of craft brews nationwide. 

Photo by Kyle Martell

 

Paul Stratmeyer and David Levitt’s time in the corporate food world (Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s, Maggie Moo’s) reverberates in the positioning of DelMarVa’s. They co-opt the farmhouse chic aesthetic that comprises the look of restaurants adhering to the tenets of seasonal cooking (farm-adoration, seasonal devotion and rustic simplicity) and use it to sell subpar food tagged with location-specific dishes conjuring feelings of place and truth, but ultimately avoid authenticity.  

The chicken demonstrates the disconnect. Stratmeyer uses the word “local” when describing his chicken: “Virtually all the chicken is from Delaware.” But in today’s food language, local connotes pasture-raised animals. Half of Stratmeyer’s chicken supply is from concentrated animal feeding operations. “Would we rather everything be grass-fed? Absolutely,” Stratmeyer explains. “But I do like the fact that if I have to buy an item I don’t have to go to Arkansas to get it. I can get it here. Employ the people here.” 

Photo by Kyle Martell

Stratmeyer understands the game. “We’re chasing that kind of same model,” Stratmeyer says of the farm-to-table set-up. “We’re trying to straddle the fence.” He named his restaurant after two regions known for a particular type of food, yet DelMarVa’s sells watered-down versions of classics. DelMarVa’s, as both a fast-casual restaurant and a sit-down establishment, must hit certain price points and because of that, quality suffers.  

Roseda Black Angus Farm, where cattle roams on grass north of Baltimore, provides DelMarVa’s beef. It is local and pasture-raised, yet the slider arrives pink-less and flavorless. 

Stratmeyer craves what he calls a “Southern flare, that comfort food, relaxed, laid-back place.” And they want a lot of them. DelMarVa Brands is an ambitious company, opening three DelMarVa’s Cafés—Sterling, Leesburg (formerly Tenderjacks®) and Baltimore—in less than a year and not nurturing the flagship to mature into something worth replication. DelMarVa’s will open in Bel Air, Md. later this year,with Arlington and Quantico in 2014. Stratmeyer’s goal is seven more stores in five years. “I think the region could handle 25 locations,” he says. 

Problems persist throughout the menu, in creations that do not honor this area, such as the mac and cheese skillet with avocado, bacon and tomato. The tropical avocado, not steeped in Mid-Atlantic or Southern cuisine, doesn’t enhance the dish, as the buttery texture mimics the soft noodles, and vanishes in the one-note melted cheese. The tomatoes were mealy, as they always are when it’s not late summer. The bacon helps, but the pig can’t save the dish. 

Photo by Kyle Martell

The Chesapeake sandwich is a good example of what works for this type of concept: A chicken breast resting on a buttery bun with a slathering of crab dip. The dip, creamy with enough heat to keep it interesting, pulls it together. But, when considering the mission of this restaurant is to honor local land, the sandwich erupts as a mistreatment of the most famous animal of our region. And in spring, crab ships from as far as the Gulf, says Stratmeyer. What restaurant uses this star of the bay by shoving it in a sandwich to play a supporting role to fowl?  

Besides this misuse, there are other glaring omissions of the Delmarva Peninsula, including seasonally appropriate vegetables and seafood (oysters!). Spring produce was missing from a breakfast pizza, described as using “seasonal veggies,” offering summery zucchini and red peppers when asparagus, ramps or leeks would have showcased what grows here, now. Rockfish will soon be on the menu though, as well as ribs, just like what Stratmeyer remembers from road stops down the coast. It’s a menu grasping for childhood memories, for something real. But what works on the side of the road—an authentic experience tied to the land—can’t be mass-produced.  

 

NOTES
DelMarVa Southern Cafe & TapHouse

SCOOP
Snack on the salty fried pickle chips 

DISHES
Sandwiches, burgers and entrees: $6.69-21.49.

OPEN
Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Saturday & Sunday.

46300 Cranston St., Sterling; delmarvassoutherncafe.com 

 

(June 2013)

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2 Responses

Diner from Reston Says:


My husband and I had brunch there in mid-June and will not be returning. The food was not served as expected and was not good. Many of the blueberries on my pancakes had their stems – which I could remove, but they were sandwiched in between the pancakes, so I needed to search for them. And the biscuits with raspberry jam was two biscuits served with two packages of Smucker’s, neither of which was raspberry. (Based on “biscuits with raspberry jam” on the menu, we wrongly expected the jam would be house-made.)

KatR Says:


My sister and I stopped at the Sterling location a few weeks ago. It is advertised as “Southern Comfort” food so I was expecting food like I would find back home in the Smokey Mountains. I was hoping for collard greens or fried okra, country ham. I was very disappointed. There is more to Southern food than fried chicken. The food was not “Southern”.

The food we got was so-so. The appetizer was unremarkable and my club sandwich could have come from any other deli shop in the area. The only good thing we had was the pretzel nuggets – which I am still trying to figure out how they were “southern”

We won’t be back.

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