Restaurant review: 1808 American Bistro

From the 08/11/2011 edition

Every time I encounter the word "staycation" I cringe a little. It's an oxymoronic and corny phrase that celebrates the commonplace, elevates a modest experience to the level of memorable getaway. And yet.

See, I really like dining anonymously in smallish nearby cities. With minimal investment in time or money, it's a refreshing break from everyday routines. And if the food holds up its end of the bargain, well, the scenic little drive home will be accompanied by wistful smiles.

I basically just described my pleasurable visits to the quaint and pretty city of Delaware and dinners at 1808 American Bistro. Occupying a neat and vintage brick building across the street from the historic Strand Theater and named after the year of Delaware's founding, 1808 honors the area's proud past yet is a thoroughly modern establishment.

Overseen by Chef Ben Graham - of Burgundy Room and 8 fame - 1808 seamlessly incorporates captivating 19th-century photographs of Delaware and a giggly hostess stand fashioned out of an old-timey radio with plenty of contemporary touches.

On the contemporary front, there's a dramatically underlit and upward thrusting swath of golden reeds showcased in the main dining room; a handsome, multi-toned and highly polished wooden bar with 29 taps of top-notch suds; and lots of sharp contrasts from juxtaposing stark basic black with warm blond woods.

After snagging a microbrew (half-price at happy hour and all day Monday) it's time to turn to the large one-page menu (and its little specials supplement) which is filled with stylish comfort food. There, two popular 21st-century starters - arancini and pimento cheese dip - coalesce into one appetizer called Pimento and Cheddar Fritters ($8). It's a quintet of crusty golden brown globes holding lusty, sharp-tasting gooey innards that I defy you not to like.

Ditto for the salty, rich and delicious BLT Salad ($12). Hardly spa cuisine, that visually impressive thing featured big slabs of meaty, slow-roasted pork belly plus a wiggly poached egg. Break the yolk and let it blend with an herby, tangy and mightily dairyfied Green Goddess dressing. Find counterpoints in crispy homemade croutons and acidic cherry tomatoes.

Too bad an otherwise wonderful meatball elaborately made with prime beef ($8) wasn't thoroughly warmed through. Firm but not tough, that seared, softball-sized killer had good Italian sausage flavor, a terrific, chunky and cheesed-up tomato sauce and came with excellent crostini for sopping up.

Meat and potato lovers need look no further than the splendid 48-Hour Short Ribs ($19). A block of crazy-tender sous-vide cooked beef was partnered with a deep, dark and shroomy demi glace, semi-pureed spuds and good haricots verts.

The upscale down-home Buttermilk Fried Chicken ($19) starred a plate-spanning paillard of poultry in a crackly jacket. Ladled on top was a thick sausage gravy with a hint of rosemary; on the side were tender logs of buttery grilled asparagus and those nifty house mashers.

Chicken and noodles got a cheffy makeover in the addictive "Buttered Noodles" ($16). Here, confited chicken played nice with herbed pappardelle, spinach, shaved parmesan, mushrooms and a tub of butter.

Lighter but still delightful was the Grilled Mahi Mahi ($17). Big, flaky fish steaks were "Latin-ized" on smoky chipotle-sauced tostadas and served with rich guacamole and first-rate rice and beans.

Eating grub like that, visiting beautifully preserved old Delaware, and a drive home filled with country air and foresty settings was like - "S-word" be damned - taking a trip without really leaving home.