In Wilmington and Philadelphia, restaurant tables worth a train trip

When time is short but wanderlust is strong, consider hitting the rails rather than the skies or highways. Given the region’s notorious traffic and the hassles at most airports, trains have become my preferred mode of getting from Point A to Point B, especially when the destination isn’t far away and a good meal is waiting for me at the end of the line.

Following my own advice recently, I took Amtrak on separate trips to Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia. Just for dinner. I timed my departure from Washington so that I could work a full day but still make an early reservation, experience another city’s hot spot — and return home without a hotel bill.

Within a minute of exiting the train station in Wilmington and entering a taxi, my cabdriver is fuming. “Why did you make me get out of the line for such a short distance?” he asks in a raised voice. I tell him I don’t know the lay of the land, that all I brought with me were an address and an appetite. Before he can get angry again, he pulls up in front of my destination, La Fia Bakery + Market + Bistro .

Long story short: Dinner is within walking distance of the train station.

The greeting inside the corner storefront, introduced in July, is in sunny contrast to the scowl that brought me here. Waiting for my dining companion to join me gives me the chance to soak up the easy charm of the 35-seat interior and unwind with a big-city cocktail. Chef Bryan Sikora, 43, is relatively new to Delaware but brings with him good reviews from his time in Philadelphia, at both a.kitchen, near Rittenhouse Square, and Django, a much-missed BYOB in Queen Village. (In an earlier life, the native of western Pennsylvania worked as a line cook at some Washington restaurants that continue to thrive: 1789, Vidalia and Restaurant Nora.)

La Fia, which the chef co-owns with his wife, Andrea, takes its name from their daughter, Sofia, 2 1 / 2. In the simple but inviting room: high tin ceilings, reclaimed-wood floors, sheer half-curtains in the windows and a small bar over which the chef displays plywood panels he painted with sunflowers, a cow and tomatoes — an act the chef calls “my therapy” while he was heading toward launch. The shelves in the adjoining market hold olive oil, honey and cheeses; the
bakery is the source of scones, pretzels and baguettes. Sikora says he wanted his latest creation to “be that place” where customers could find both a sophisticated meal and something good to take away.

Like so many of his kitchen compatriots around the country, Sikora weaves some Korean into his menu, in a dish of sweetly spiced sliced duck breast flanked by warm crepes and a fiery kimchi slaw enriched with duck confit. A “fresh catch basket” of cornmeal-crisped calamari, shrimp and flounder brings an easy-to-eat “social plate,” as La Fia calls its dishes for sharing. Meatballs shaped from veal, pork and beef and sauced with “red gravy” — that’s tomato sauce — gather under a soft tent of pasta, an idea Sikora is considering packaging for retail.

Perhaps the most fetching first course is a golden disk of shredded potato decked out with flaked smoked trout, shaved radishes and a sprinkling of capers. Thick, roseate slices of Colorado lamb loin fanning out from a summery salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and feta cheese is a main course I won’t soon forget. Adding whimsy to the plate: croutons made from polenta. A fan of crisp punctuation in his work, Sikora calls the textural element “a cymbal crash in a dish.”

The food at La Fia is such good company, I fail to monitor my time. When I do, I see I have less than 12 minutes to catch my 7:26 p.m. train back home. La Fia’s lemon tart and butterscotch pudding will have to wait. Tonight, my dessert is going to be a calorie-burning dash.

On a scruffy stretch of South Street in Philadelphia, I’m sitting at a buffed bar in the shape of a surfboard, in a room illuminated as if for film noir and made relaxed with reggae. Sails
of sesame seed crackers and a strong drink keep me occupied as I wait for
my dining companion. Early and hungry, I order a duck leg hot dog.

Minutes later, I’m devouring a glossy packet of fried meat, cradled in a flattened potato roll, that crackles with every bite. The last time I had duck this divine, it was from a kitchen celebrated for its Peking duck in ... Beijing. A splotch of Sriracha and a side of bright pickled vegetables on the plate, not to mention the name Serpico outside, return me to Philadelphia and the months-old roost of Peter Serpico, 31.

The city’s food fans have been abuzz about the talent since he was wooed by restaurant maestro Stephen Starr from New York last year. As right-hand man to David Chang, Serpico was part of the team that won the James Beard Foundation award for Best New Restaurant for Momofuku Ko in 2009.

Not bad for a kid from Laurel, Md., who launched his culinary career at Ledo Pizza.

“Philly’s most beautiful restaurant,” trumpets Philadephia Eater of the sepia-toned interior, and I can’t disagree. Chalkboard walls listing the wines and food in careful script stretch to an exhibition kitchen, around which you should aim to sit.

Serpico’s nearly 20 savory dishes aren’t divided into neat categories; rather, they tend to start light and end meatier. For sure, you’ll want that duck leg. And for certain, you’ll want to get the chilled dashi soup. Its bowl shows up with a verdant garden of cucumber beads stuffed in sugar snap pea pods, sliced zucchini, minty shiso and what appears to be tofu but turns out to be silken cubes of creme fraiche. Over this still life, a server pours chilled dashi and mustard oil. Taken together, this is elegant — and playful — poetry.

“Tomato and bean salad” understates the delicious reality of marbles of tomatoes marinated in XO sauce and tossed with squid, dried shrimp, smoky bean sprouts and Chinese sausage. Crisp trout is elevated with shimmering trout roe and a little lake of crushed potatoes gilded with smoked butter — and sweet crab. Torn, parsley-sauced pasta gets a welcome bite from garlic, crunch from fried chicken skin and earthiness from snail sausage.

Maybe I should get a room for the night, so I can linger over this fascinating food — or better yet, return for another dinner.

La Fia Bakery + Market + Bistro

421 N. Market St., Wilmington, Del. 302-543-5574. lafiawilmington.com.

PRICES: Entrees, $19
to $26.

Serpico

604 South St., Philadelphia. 215-925-3001. serpicoonsouth.
com
.

PRICES:
Small plates,
$10 to $26.

Star power

Star ratings are generally assigned after multiple visits by the critic. For this Travel Issue, Tom made a single trip to each dining destination.

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