The Rehoboth Foodie casts his line in Bethany Beach to explore what chef Steve Hagan’s been cooking
Having slung my fair share of hash, I try to give a place a little time to settle-in before descending on them with my notepad and pen recorder (which I have yet to fully figure out). But when I did my initial review of Off the Hook in Bethany Beach, I threw caution to the wind. After all, this is not chef and co-owner Steve Hagan’s first rodeo. He not only cooked for Norm Sugrue at Rehoboth’s popular Big Fish Grill, he also served time with multiple-restaurant maven Matt Haley at Catch 54 in Fenwick. No slouches here, either. It seemed fair to assume he’d hit the ground running.
So in I went, with instructions for the recorder securely pinned to my pocket protector. Though the resulting experience garnered a (rare) food rating of 9 out of 10 at RehobothFoodie.com, the question lingered: Can it last? Will it last? Are they capable of maintaining the glow a year after their grand opening? Well, three more visits to Off the Hook confirmed that Steve and his staff are still batting a thousand.
The daddy of all foodies, James Beard, once said, “Good bread with fresh butter: The greatest of all feasts!” Our feast of warm focaccia—fresh out of the oven—arrived at the table even before the menus. The recipe du jour was golden brown on the top, infused with rosemary, pepper and sweet olive oil. They bake it in small quantities throughout the day, so every aromatic batch is barely an hour old. Oh, James, you would have loved this one.
Where do you go from there? Well, you go to the Buttermilk Battered Calamari, that’s where. I get nervous when I see calamari drizzled with some sort of sauce that threatens to endanger the critical crispiness. Apparently, the laws of physics don’t apply at Off the Hook. They drizzled—and it was still crispy. Spicy Sriracha-laced mayo punctuates every crunchy bite. (Hagan frowned and went silent when I asked for the full recipe.) Trust your Foodie: Get that calamari.
On one visit I had the Butternut Clam Papardelle topped with grilled scallions. Tucked in and among the ribbons of pasta are cubes of bright orange squash and … wait for it … Italian sausage. Eight wide-open littlenecks form a perimeter, and it all rests comfortably in a buttery sauce redolent of smoked paprika. I wish the plate had made it to the table a bit hotter (temperature-wise), as the clams were tepid at best. A minor stumble, perhaps, but that didn’t keep the unlikely combination of onion, clam and pork from playing well together.
The winner’s circle at Off the Hook is shared by two dishes. First is the Pan-Seared Scallops: dark on the outside yet perfectly finished on the inside. These bivalve mollusks are finicky: 30 seconds more or less in the skillet can spell disaster. They rested atop a not-too-Thanks-giving-tasting purée of sweet potato, caramelized leeks and mushrooms surrounded by a reduction of bacon and sherry.
The other home run in Hagan’s personal Kitchen Stadium is the darkly seared yet still moist salmon decorated with velvety green leaves of fried sage. This simple preparation shares the plate with a creamy gratin of cauliflower and potato—delicate flavors that, mercifully, were not drowned out by cheesy sharpness. Julienned and fried leeks top it off, making the little dish a satisfying roller coaster of textures and tastes.
It’s a sad fact of life that consistently good service isn’t a reliable element at many resort restaurants. So I have to tell you about a refreshing interaction when one of our dining companions ordered a flavored coffee, only to find that she didn’t particularly care for it. As we sat and talked, it became obvious that our waiter, lurking in the shadows, couldn’t take his eyes off that slowly cooling and as yet unconsumed drink. Finally he couldn’t stand it a single minute longer. He glided gracefully over and asked if she liked it. She said no, and he immediately offered her something different. She said thanks but no thanks. It wasn’t long before he appeared once again with a repeated offer of a conciliatory replacement. She politely declined, and the coffee quietly disappeared from our check.
Sure, we enjoyed the meal. But it’s moments like these that linger after the taste fades away. Steve, whatever you’re doing at Off the Hook, keep it up.
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