Taste: Reviews: Less Is More
When Restaurant 821 opened for business across from Wilmington’s Grand Opera House six years ago, paper millionaires created by the surging stock market could order a whole lobe of roasted foie gras as an appetizer for $60. The restaurant survived Wall Street’s scary free-fall, then found itself facing something just as ominous: the trend toward spontaneous, let’s-grab-a-bite dining, best illustrated by the customer who drops in with no reservation, wearing whatever, to order a glass of wine and two appetizers, rather than a three-course meal.
In Wilmington and elsewhere, fine-dining establishments scrambled to adapt. They downsized portions and staff, lowered prices, and tacked “bistro” onto their names. Restaurant 821 was among them, repositioning itself as 821 Market Street Bistro. A confusing tapas-style menu was in place when founding chef-owner Tobias Lawry sold the business last December to Nate and Alysha Garyantes, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine and general manager, respectively.
This energetic married couple — he’s 32, she’s 29 — has returned the focus to upscale cuisine and standard-to-generous portions, while keeping comfort classics like short ribs and a seven-hour lamb leg in the mix. They have shortened the name to 821, which is conveniently ambiguous, but the chef’s mission is not. His commitment to fresh ingredients, signaled by the farm credits sprinkled throughout the menu, is merely a starting point for dishes with real flair, worth a drive from Chester County or Center City. The stylish earth-toned dining room is appropriate for a special occasion, or for negotiating a Philly deal that’s too touchy to expose to eavesdroppers at the Palm, though it’s not open for lunch. The chef discontinued midday service to concentrate on dinner.
Start with the duck confit salad, a tumble of tastes and textures in which crisp duck skin and rich dark meat contrast with bitter mixed greens and pleasantly sour notes of blue cheese and pickled Bing cherries. Sweet, but not cloying, sun-dried cherry-port vinaigrette pulls it all together beautifully. Another memorable salad, retained from the previous regime, pairs young spinach leaves with pan-crisped potato gnocchi, slivered chardonnay-braised fennel, sautéed shiitakes and shaved parmesan, dressed with the fennel braising liquid and a few drops of truffle oil. Even a very basic baby greens salad goes uptown with a goat cheese crostini and a sprinkle of candied walnuts.
Foie gras is portioned more judiciously than in the giddy days when Internet Capital Group was trading at $200 a share. Sliced and seared, the luxury duck liver is served with accompaniments that vary; mine were a neatly folded crepe with a sweet-tart strawberry soufflé filling, and a tiny basil-mint-pistachio salad.