The Rehoboth Foodie shares his thoughts on this Rehoboth Beach staple

Written By: The Rehoboth Foodie | Photographer: TODD DUDEK

Let’s start this one off with a quiz.

Question 1: Does anyone remember the polka-dotted Libby’s Restaurant (“pancakes with personality”) on Fenwick Island?

Question 2: How many remember the Libby’s at the corner of Rte. 24 and Coastal Highway in Rehoboth Beach? (Hint: Crabby Dick’s is there now.)

Both Libby’s are now history, but they gave rise to several present-day eateries owned and operated by the Steele family. When the Rehoboth Libby’s morphed into the Lamp Post Inn, a young Richard Steele was in the kitchen, earning his stripes as a chef and future restaurateur. When the Lamp Post eventually closed, Richard and his brother Mark opened Café Azafrán in Lewes. It was an instant hit, and the brothers thought the concept might be welcome in Rehoboth Beach. Yes, it certainly was, and still is.

Café Azafrán’s downtown Rehoboth Beach spot is now the only Café Azafrán location, after they closed the Lewes location in March 2014. But note the careful wording: There’s a happy catch that will be revealed! Read on.

Kitchen talent runs in the Steele family, and feedback about Café Azafrán has been consistently positive. The name is the Spanish word for saffron, the bright-orange and extremely expensive spice derived from the crocus plant. And it is absolutely necessary for making good paella.

One of the keys to the success of Café Azafrán is the selection of small plates, aka tapas. With choices to satisfy carnivores and vegetarians alike, it’s easy to make a meal out of two or three. And, indeed, Tapas Tasting Night specials offer a great selection of diminutive goodies at a reasonable price — even for the ocean block of Baltimore Avenue. Two of the Rehoboth Foodie’s pick hits include the short-rib sliders with caramelized onions, and the haricots verts (a French green bean extravaganza that involves bleu cheese, butter and hazelnuts. Beware: It’s addictive!). Another must-get is Café Azafrán’s veal sausage: simply delicious, surrounded by plump cannellini beans prepared baked-bean-style.

I have a similar reaction to the ricotta and spinach gnocchi (lubricated with sage butter and topped with pecorino cheese). Honorable mention must also go to the La Mancha plate, replete with a sandy brown Manchego, spicy chorizo, jamon Serrano (expensive Spanish ham) and Romesco salsa (a Catalonian preparation with tomatoes, peppers, toasted almonds and hazelnuts). In other words, pretty much everything is good.

And then there’s Paella Night! This bit of culinary theater combines good eatin’ with a cooking display worthy of anything on Food Network. Reservation-only ticketholders (it sells out quickly!) gather around Richard’s 48” paella pan to watch him build this traditional Spanish feast from scratch. The evening is fun from the moment the oil starts shimmering to when Steele tosses in the scallops and shrimp to finish the dish. It happens on Sundays and Wednesdays during the peak of the season — again, by reservation only.

Thursday nights come with a value-added in the form of singing bartender Holly Lane, accompanied on the keyboard by the talented and versatile John Francis Flynn. She takes orders, mixes drinks, chops fruit, rings up checks, pops tops, swipes credit cards and pours wine — all without missing a beat. She and Flynn have some magical connection through the ether that keeps them in sync. It’s a sight to behold and to be heard.

Okay, now for the promised reveal: As of a couple of weeks ago, the Steeles have returned to Lewes! After Patty’s carryout vacated the old Half Full spot next door to Azafrán’s original Market Street location, Richard fulfilled his dream of returning his first concept to Lewes. He’s calling it Olive & Oats, and the menu is almost identical to the original breakfast/lunch-centric fare that catapulted Lewes’ Café Azafrán into the mainstream so many years ago. Bagels, frittatas, pastries, salads, wraps and panini dominate the menu, along with Richard’s legendary baked oatmeal.

Café Azafrán is in downtown Rehoboth Beach at 18 Baltimore Ave. Olive & Oats is located at 113 W. Market Street in Lewes. I’ll say it once again, then you’re on your own: Call for reservations — especially for Rehoboth’s Paella Night: (302) 227-8100. Bon Appétit!

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