Restaurant review: Veritas Tavern

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From the October 18, 2012 edition

Since Veritas Tavern’s look is spare, shelves of ethnic cookbooks — several are topped with vintage cameras — conspicuously stand out. The semiotic messages I read from these, which speak of mimicry and classic dishes viewed from new angles, suit Veritas beautifully. See, this definitely-worth-the-drive Delaware eatery honors culinary traditions, but often does so utilizing modern trickery.

True to its name, Veritas (“truth” in Latin) Tavern looks like a small barroom. Its long drinking counter and five tables are constructed out of chunky wooden slabs, and the tables are etched with wild, curvilinear crosshatches that might’ve been scratched out by tigers. CD 102.5-type music plays and an all-ages crowd frequently packs the place. It’s a tremendous addition to Delaware’s quaint old downtown, but once the innovative chefs get rolling, you might think you’ve landed in that bastion of molecular gastronomy called Chicago.

Beverage-wise, Veritas has a versatile beer list and a perfectly fine, food-friendly mix of old and new world wines, with many vinos clocking in under $30 per bottle. Still, it’s the clever, bitters-and-fresh-citrus-blasting cocktails (some implementing Veritas’ house made soda pops) that most merit attention.

A few of my favorites were a Sparkling Negroni ($9; characteristically, it bubbles-up an astringent classic with cava then adds a meta-layer of interest with orange-kissed foam); a tart, lemony and refreshing Apple Jack Rabbit ($6); a witty mix of Scotch and citrus aptly named Mark Twain ($7); and the Elderflower Spherification Shooter ($6; ironically, it’s “edgy”). The latter mini-libation becomes a futuristic pseudo-martini shot when you guzzle its vermouth while smashing a bobbing globular “capsule” (think evanescent edible plastic created with vodka) against your palate.

Mr. Wizard chops also reimagine many of the daily-changing — and gorgeously arranged — strictly small plates food selections. Witness a few Mexican dishes (another Chi-town strong suit) like an artsy Carne Asada ($13) and a Chicken Quesadilla ($11). That deconstructed “quesadilla” included compressed, juicy and flavor-intensified thigh meat bundles wrapped, Wellington-style, with bacony skin, plus concentrated sauce blots riffing on salsas and a queso fundido. Instead of a tortilla, there were teeny tots of fried masa.

Seared rare lean steak slices received identity-altering, load-lightening garnishes in the delightful CAB Culotte ($16). Drag one through an “olive dirt” of dehydrated tapenade along with its swallowable soil partner of sous-vide beets to tease out the meat’s earthiness and beef’s affinity for salinity. Eat it with pickly “mushroom ketchup” plus “onion gel” and think about a hamburger; chew some with a sinus-purging horseradish shoot and prime rib comes to mind. On the side were ethereally weightless mashers — aka potato foam.

Though its science-guy maple “noodles” seemed borderline gratuitous, a Scallops dish was elegant and delicious ($14). I also dug how its brown-buttered gnocchi mimicked the lovely, pan-crusted shellfish.

A radical Shrimp Cocktail ($11) proved amusing techniques don’t always result in improvements. Using a sort of nouveau seafood charcuterie, it featured a mild-flavored, stiff lunchmeat-like sheet — or thin tile — overwhelmed by volatile drops of make-believe cocktail sauce. Sure it’s brilliant, but not better than the original.

Quibbles aside, whether it’s a simultaneous paean to Mexican-style cebollitas and American-style chip-n-dip (killer Grilled Baby Onions, $8) or a giddy dessert with grown-up kiddie affects (30 Second Sponge Cake, $6), Veritas — captained by Josh Dalton (late of the Burgundy Room, 8 and 1808) — delivers fare that easily places it among 2012’s Best New Restaurants.

Photos by Will Shilling