A few days before he opened his Trolley Square Asian restaurant, Michael DiBianca had a bit of a problem. Satsuma’s owner/executive chef had yet to land top-flight sushi chefs. Then he put an ad on CraigsList.
“It was a bit of a scramble, but we landed a couple of talented young guys from Philly,” DiBianca says with a wry smile. “You know, people are assistants to sushi chefs for a long time before they get a chance to break out. Making the rice is huge, but it’s also about creativity and that fits right in with our focus.”
With its innovative pan-Asian menu, Satsuma just might become the go-to place for fresh sushi and small plates. And, it is far from just another sushi parlor in appearance.
DiBianca spent last summer retooling the former Del Rose Café. Stride up those three outdoor concrete steps into a stunningly renovated venue. The three-story structure was gutted and transformed into a rustic-contemporary space with exposed brick walls and rafters, open ceilings, cork flooring, modern lighting and a ten-seat black marble bar and high-top tables in an energetic space.
Nearby, the sushi bar is staffed by chefs pressing rice and fish into a bonanza of their tasty and elegant works of edible art.
Satsuma is the second venture from DiBianca who has earned ongoing praise for Moro, the long-running Mediterranean restaurant a few blocks away. Famous for his cutting edge cuisine, the north Jersey native brings far-flung ideas together with wonderful ingredients and an element of surprise sending the flavor combinations off in unexpected directions.
A Culinary Institute of America-trained multiyear nominee for the James Beard Award, DiBianca intends Satsuma’s entire menu to be shared and is pricing all but larger plates at $12 and under.
The name is simply wordplay. "Moro" means blood orange in Italian while "Satsuma" translates to mandarin orange in Japanese. When the Del Rose building unexpectedly became available last April, DiBianca put aside consideration of another location in north Wilmington.
“It just kind of fell into my lap, so here we are,” he relates. “I’ve always liked the freshness and simplicity of Asian food. We’re not focusing on just one area of Asia. It’s all of Asia. It’s all very non-traditional. I don’t believe you’ll find anything else like this around here.”
The former Del Rose’s office space upstairs has given way to a larger dining area outfitted with five comfy booths, five two-tops and another six tables at the front of the building. Just off that space is a new rooftop deck for dining and drinks at eye-level with trains that rumble down the tracks, maybe 35 feet away. A walk down the outdoor stairs brings you to a transformed outdoor alley bar. Heated and enclosed for chilly temps, patrons can find acoustic music there Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
A total of 180 seats are spread between the first floor, the reservation-only second floor, and the roof deck as well as the alley bar area. There is also a private dining table for 8-10 on the third floor.
The launching pad for DiBianca’s cutting edge cuisine was a produce and fish market where he worked as a teenager in his hometown of Flemington, New Jersey. During high school he completed an externship with Craig Shelton, the James Beard Foundation Award–winning chef at the Ryland Inn.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1997, DiBianca relocated to Aspen, Colorado, where he worked as sous-chef at Ajax Tavern under Chef Tobias Lowry. Two years later, Lowry tapped DiBianca to accompany him to Wilmington to help open Restaurant 821. DiBianca was elevated from executive sous-chef to chef de cuisine at the acclaimed restaurant adjacent to the Grand Opera House before he left to open Moro. His sophisticated, Mediterranean-infused New American cuisine was awarded “Three Bells” (out of four) from renowned Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan.
The welcoming ambience of Satsuma is matched by the vibrance of DiBianca's cooking and his unwavering sense of harmony in a collage of powerful flavor. On a recent visit to Satsuma at our table of four upstairs we shared a wide variety of small plates -- sushi, sashimi, rolls, and street snacks. Each dish combined a traditional Asian component with Chef’s surprise twists.
One of Friday evening's specials, the rainbow roll, was a lovely combination of salmon, tuna and hamachi dressed with a light wasabi cream and was splashingly fresh. The Cubano roll really showcases DiBianca's wit -- tuna with crispy pork belly, Cuban aioli and crispy onions – and was simply a pleasure to eat. The calamari was crisp and robust, served over yuzu aioli and chives. The spicy tuna roll was another surprise with sesame crunch and pineapple vinaigrette.
The small plate of angry rock shrimp served with a spicy white wine citrus broth with jalapenos, noodles, and a shaved fennel salad kicked up the flavors to a nice heat. We're new fans of the old brussel sprout, done here with Chinese sausage, Asian pear, cinnamon spice and peanuts. The finale was a light and satisfying panna cotta.
DiBianca's cooking deserves a good bottle of wine. Hugo and Monica settled on a 10 Span pinot noir from Santa Barbara. Half-a-dozen taps include everything from Fat Tire Amber Ale to Sapporo from Japan, plus a huge craft beer bottle list. Drafts are $3, crafts $4. There is also a full selection of liquor behind the black marble bar. Half-priced sushi rolls are available from 4:00 to 6:00, including weekends.
“We’ve been well received by the local community, though there is still sentimentality by some folks for the Del Rose,” DiBianca relates. “I understand that, but I look at it as everything winds up changing.”
A confirmed workaholic, the chef puts in 80 to 100 hours a week, but says with a smile that he has cut back to five days from six. His wife Molly is an attorney at a major local law firm. Both are big music lovers and they traveled last spring to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, reveling in the music and the legendary cuisine of the Crescent City. DiBianca was approached by the Firefly Festival organizers about preparing food at the event last summer. He was intrigued, but when the numbers didn’t add up, he declined the offer. He may reconsider in 2014.
So what is the key to DiBianca’s success?
“The fresh ingredients, the seasoning, but it’s much more,” DiBianca replies. “It’s the people you work with, people you’ve worked with for a long, long time, from the prep guys to Tony (chef de cuisine Braso) who’s been with me eight years, to the servers and bartenders. They all make it happen.”
An artful collaboration, Satsuma comes together with a fresh burst of energy from a visionary chef.
Satsuma is located at 1707 Delaware Avenue, open 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., Tuesday-Sunday. www.satsumakitchen.com (302) 656-3015.