Power Lunch: Capers & Lemons finds niche in refined Italian fare
Power Lunch is a regular series by Eric Ruth reviewing Delaware restaurants with an eye toward finding the best places for one-on-ones, business meetings and company celebrations.
OK, let’s just go ahead and admit it right off the bat: As citizens of this pampered post-millennial era, we all are occasionally guilty of some mildly bratty behavior:
We want our big-screen TVs and their umpteen-hundred channels, but still reserve our god-given right to grouse that there is absolutely nothing to watch. With blue recycling bins by our side, we boast our embrace of planet-friendly ideals – then gas up the Land Rover for our fourth “quick trip” of the day.
We are, in other words, convinced that we should be able to have our flourless Valrhona chocolate cake with raspberries on top, and get to eat it too (preferably with a nice aged Madeira).
With so many of us spoiled brats to tend to, it’s probably beyond difficult to be a restaurant owner who must strike a balance between affordability and sophistication, even as costs leap and margins shrivel. Those who manage to pull it off are rightly revered in the Delaware dining scene, and few walk the tightrope with as much style and consistency as founder/CEO Carl Georigi and his Platinum Dining Group.
From Newark’s Taverna and Wilmington’s Eclipse Bistro to Hockessin’s Redfire Grill and its new El Camino Mexican Kitchen in Talleyville, Georigi and his quietly mighty empire have few peers in the seemingly contradictory realm of “refined-but-decently-priced” lunch spots, making each outpost ideal for occasions where lunch (and/or business) needs to be accompanied by a certain grace.
That’s clear from the moment you step in to the chain’s Greater Greenville/west-of-Wilmington outpost, Capers & Lemons. Woody earth tones are deepened by sparkles of gold and red; muted lighting quietly emphasizes the intimate atmosphere – undercut on this day by the overamplified squawkings of John Cougar Mellencamp and his yawpy breed.
Service seems to have been minted with consistent precision from restaurant to restaurant: Youthful pros, well-drilled and winsome -proper but never haughty – friendly without yielding to the chummy familiarities that might pop refinement’s bubble. The mostly Italian menu pirouettes nicely between splurgy, carb-laden attractions and less ostentatious, less overwhelming options, yet even the salads ($9-$15), wood-fired pizzas ($15-$17) and sandwiches ($12-$14) are careful to at least suggest refinement by way of top-notch ingredients and steady-handed execution.
Consider the humble baked eggplant “lasagna” ($10-$18), consistently a Capers & Lemons favorite: Who knew that such an unappealing substance as an eggplant could have such nutty sass, such sexiness; but it does, thanks to this draping of melty-good cheese and ripe-tasting red sauce. Most of us would have never guessed that a cheesesteak ($12) could be given new sophistication with a few slices of taleggio cheese, or that a simple plate of gooey polenta ($6) could provide us brand new reasons to live, thanks to its adornment of perfectly caramelized, deeply flavored mushrooms and its garlic-infused lushness.
“Rusticity” is the term that comes to mind with the food here and at Taverna, which today stands as burrito-infested downtown Newark’s best dining destination. Yes, these are truly rustic pleasures, in the sense that the deeper, darker, earthier flavors that lift high-end Italian food are never far away here: The kitchen’s crusty, airy bread practically begs to be dunked into the pool of herbed garlic olive oil served to all.
The “Basilica” pizza boasts a finer Mediterranean pedigree thanks to kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto. This is a kitchen that seems to sense in their hearts that to be simultaneously rustic and sophisticated, a chicken cutlet piccata ($18) must rely on a few simple (yet hard to achieve) attributes: a well-executed saute and a steady balance between buttery lushness, fresh notes of lemon and salty nuggets of caper.
If he’s not due sole credit for such moments, Chef Shea Ackerman at least deserves applause for pushing his kitchen down those well-worn paths of consistency that have helped make the Platinum Group’s offspring so beloved. But frequent diners do get the sense that it’s probably Papa Georigi who is due our praise for making sure it is all done so well, over so many years, for so many customers.
It’s practically his brand by now – and luckily, whether we’re trying to impress a client or just satisfy our own need for affordable glories, we get the chance to claim a little of that good name as our own.