When our minds crave the comforts of the past — when we reach for the soothing places in our memories — a strange thing sometimes happens: We feel nostalgic for times we’ve never known, and memories we’ve never had.
That feeling comes easily on a sunny spring afternoon in the old town of Odessa, perched since 1721 on the brow of a ridge that ends just as the sweet-and-salty-scented wetlands begin, stretching out beneath fluttering shorebirds and the bluest, broadest sky that northern Delaware knows.
To our modern minds, cruising along I-95 at warp speed, it all seems so impossibly sedate, so incongruously rustic — yet somehow so familiar, so correct, so perfect.
Trim, stately brick mansions stand formation along Main Street, marching with well-dressed dignity down to the old tavern that seems destined to be what it nearly always has been: A place for sore-bottomed travelers to pull up, push open the creaky big door and take a seat near the crackling fire for a meal.
Reminders of modern times seem decidedly unwelcome here at Cantwell’s; no plushy comforts pop the 18th century bubble that is conjured by well-worn plank floors, sparsely hung prints, a dimly inviting bar — and those timelessly agonizing hard-bottomed wooden chairs.
Even the menu seems reluctant to stray too far from times-gone-by — in this case, the year 2003 or so, when most of us were perfectly content with predictable riffs on burgers, pizzas and salads, and the concept of savvy, forward-leaning gastro-pub was still waiting to be invented.
Admittedly, Cantwell’s embrace of less-risky ideals is probably a wise market move in a tourist-friendly town, and the kitchen’s execution often hits just what it aims for — but the suspicion lingers that they ought to set that bullseye just a little higher, and nudge a few things back to the future.
Drinks and appetizers
That notion is reinforced by a glance at Cantwell’s thoroughly modern beer and wine selections, and the smattering of dishes that hint at a kitchen itching to show more edge: A deviled egg appetizer with bacon and chives gets a modern twist of chili oil and wafers of frizzled parmesan ($7.99); the somewhat staid salad choices suddenly veer into exciting new places with a braised beet carpaccio, accompanied by creamy burrata cheese, candied pistachios and a basil pesto ($11.99).
A brick-oven flatbread of prosciutto, goat cheese and figs delivers a sweet harmony with each bite, and could have delivered even more with less time in the oven ($11.99). Fried wonton tuna “nachos” are lifted by drizzles of sweet-heat, crunchy shreds of seaweed and lusciously rare chunks of sesame-crusted tuna — if only everything hadn’t been tossed together so haphazardly that it was a struggle to bring its wayward parts together into one successful bite ($12.99).
Such imaginative excursions make it all the more puzzling that Cantwell’s is content to offer such get-em-anywhere appetizers as popcorn shrimp ($10.99), wings ($12.99) or soft pretzels ($8.99). And the purposeful lack of modern creature comforts might make it hard for lunchtime guests to rationalize paying $32.99 for a 7-ounce filet mignon, or $26.99 for two crab cakes, especially when you suspect that the crab cakes’ slew of accompaniments — cauliflower puree, arugula, mustard jam, pickled red onions and bacon — are conceived more as a way to justify the price than highlight the crab.
It seems wiser here for diners to stick with less overwrought and less pricey offerings, even as they hope Cantwell’s finds more clever ways to simultaneously straddle old and new ideals. It was a brilliant idea to deconstruct a chicken pot pie as they do: Two perfectly executed herb biscuits serve their duty deliciously as “crust” for the luscious and tender stew flecked with carrots and peas ($22.99). And the humble hamburger — lifted to a higher realm with the addition of fried egg, onion ring and muenster cheese — is so obviously made with top-notch beef and so naturally lovable that it’s worth every bit of $16.
Those kind of winning moments make it clear that Cantwell’s is clearly capable of becoming a new happy memory for us all. For now, we can be content that it is, along with Jessop’s in Old New Castle, the best restaurant in the state for showing off our Colonial-hued, blue-and-buff-waving, First State pride.
But we can hope that our memories will one day become even richer, sweeter, and more enduring — and so should Cantwell’s.