It's not every day that an actual Italian count (and vintner) travels across the Atlantic to a tiny resort town in order to host a five-course feast paired with his products. Of course, when that feast is being prepared and served at Bluecoast (one of SoDel Concepts' flagship eateries), and the vintner is none other than Count Manfredo di San Bonifacio of Conti di San Bonifacio winery in Tuscany, then it all starts to fall into place. The late Matt Haley (SoDel Concepts' founder), took a special interest in Manfredo's wines (and olive oils, by the way) and most of the restaurants in his eight (soon to be nine)-restaurant lineup (plus a truck!) carry any number of those delicious wines.
I was lucky to be able to greet Manfredo as he was climbing out of his cab in the Bluecoast parking lot on the shore of Salt Pond in Bethany Beach. We said special hellos to one another as we both remembered quiet times around the firepit in Matt Haley's back yard. Sadly, those days are gone forever, but the wines, the Count and SoDel Concepts all continue to flourish.
The first smiling face we saw as we entered the restaurant was none other than SoDel Concepts' Corporate Chef Doug Ruley. This guy's got more energy than that drum-beatin' pink bunny on TV: Not even 24 hours previously, I watched him and several other downstate chefs assist an army of ProStart culinary students prepare and serve appetizers and dinner to a roomful of restaurateurs, chefs and other professionals at Harry's Savoy Grill in honor of the Delaware Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. I won't bore you (or embarrass him) with the long list of other events he attended and/or made possible over the previous couple of weeks. He's that bunny, I tell you.
We were seated at my favorite table, up against one of the two picture windows that gaze westward onto the rippling mirror that is Salt Pond with its signature sunsets. The Bluecoast gang knew exactly why everyone was there, and the appetizer course was just what one would expect: A flute of sparkling Prosecco Veneto alongside Shiny Sea Oysters from New London Bay, PEI. Each of these diminutive morsels were topped with a tiny cube of grapefruit and were accompanied by an amazing prosecco mignonette (minced shallots and cracked pepper floating unabashedly in that golden liquor). Take a look at the photo gallery. They tasted as good as they looked.
Pea soup? I can take it or leave it. But when masters like Doug, Andy Feeley (one of SoDel Concept's newest additions) and a few other talented toques are back in the kitchen, I will bend my scruples. Bluecoast's Spring Pea Soup, decorated with Atlantic Red Crab, Carolina truffles and a pecorino crouton (a long, narrow tuille that I cannot figure out how they made without breaking it in half) was ridiculously good. Salted lemon and a jaunty dollop of whipped cream crowned this nectar of the gods, but served only to gild the lily. Any pea soup that tastes like that I will happily have. In a Thermos, please. A big one….
At Bluecoast with the Count1/6 At Bluecoast with the Count2/6 At Bluecoast with the Count3/6 At Bluecoast with the Count4/6 At Bluecoast with the Count5/6 At Bluecoast with the Count6/6
This is where they should have inserted the drum roll or trumpet fanfare (there were no drums or trumpets, but we did have guitarist Paul Cullen who handed the microphone over to Count Manfredo who, in his crystal clear Italian accent (I get hungry just listening to him), revealed that we were the very first stateside diners to taste his brand new 2015 Pinot Grigio. It was like sipping velvet; refreshingly dry with the slightest whisper of apple and citrus. Another Thermos, please. See the label by scrolling through the photo gallery.
The Monteregio from Conti di San Bonifacio winery is not only one of my favorite reds, but it is also the signature wine at Rehoboth's Lupo Italian Kitchen, SoDel Concepts' Italian offering in the bright and airy Hotel Rehoboth. The luscious, tempered boldness of the wine was punctuated by a spicy carrot romesco with broken almond butter, upon which were perched three slices of melt-in-your-mouth tuna crudo. I could keep typing, but the photo tells the story.
We had reached the peak of the evening. Wine was flowing freely, and conversation was spirited as Paul punctuated the din with his guitar stylings. Perfectly seared lamb tenderloins began to fly out of the kitchen, surrounded by a lake of Anson Mills speckled grits and topped with smoked cheddar brown butter-kissed cauliflower. A charred ramp (think spring onion but with a personality) stood up to a bright but not-too-sweet BBQ sauce fashioned from cocoa nibs (fermented bits of cacao beans, considered to be the purest form of chocolate. The texture is similar to roasted coffee beans, but with a somewhat bitter and nutty chocolate flavor). The Count's famous 2009 Sustinet Tuscany (red) turned out to be the perfect companion to the lamb.
Now who would combine quinoa, raspberries and basil inside a whole wheat cake? The answer is right back there in the kitchen. This hearty slice was topped with chocolate gelato and was orbited by warm sea salt caramel. A lone raspberry stood guard as the 2010 Docet from Conti di San Bonifacio vineyards stood nose-to-nose with this intensely flavorful combination.
Being at Bluecoast with Count Manfredo brought back great memories of my friendship with Matt Haley (without whom there would be no Bluecoast), and reinforced my oft-repeated assertion that the continued success of his company is a direct consequence of the dedication he instilled in his organization. Yes, Matt is gone, but long live SoDel Concepts.