Is there a doctor in the house? If you are dining at Domaine Hudson there is a good chance you will meet its new proprietor, Dr. Mike Ross.
Novices to the hospitality industry, Dr. Ross and his wife Beth purchased the popular wine bar and eatery from Tom and Meg Hudson in late 2011. The Rosses have ratcheted up the original owners' culinary tradition and elevated it to one of the best dining experiences in the state.
A man of boundless energy, a typical day for Dr. Ross starts at dawn with a drive from his Chadds Ford home to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Chester County, one of the largest and most sophisticated equine hospitals in the world.
An internationally renowned equine orthopedic surgeon, Ross dons surgical scrubs and heads to the operating theater where a half-ton horse has been anesthetized, winched into the air and then lowered onto the operating table. Over the next hour or so Ross performs meticulous arthroscopic surgery on the horse's injured leg joint. Afterwards the animal is returned to a padded stall to wake up and begin his recovery.
Among a countless list of Ross' patients is the great thoroughbred DaHoss who won the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile and then in 1998-- a year after Ross' surgery on DaHoss' hind leg-- came back to again win the Breeders' Cup Mile which NBC-TV race broadcaster Tom Durkin dubbed "the greatest comeback since Lazarus." Thanks to Ross' skills over 32 years as a surgeon and professor, countless horses have returned to high-level competition or gone on to have productive lives in second careers.
After his stints in the operating theater and making the rounds at New Bolton, Ross travels into Wilmington to focus on his newest venture, Domaine Hudson.
So why does an equine surgeon get involved in the restaurant business?
"Despite my primary career, I always wanted to own a business and over the last few years my wife and I explored a number of opportunities," related Ross, who returned last week from Wellington, Fla. where he performed surgery on four standardbreds.
"I've always been a bit of a risk taker, so when the restaurant became available, we jumped at the chance to build on the foundation that Tom and Meg created. I handle the financial part of the business and after some fits and starts we have been able to put together a very solid team. We know many people love this restaurant and are committed to enhancing its reputation."
Domaine Hudson, which opened in 2005, offers a 70-person dining room and a private room that seats 14 to 16 people. The linen tablecloths are gone and there is a more comfortable feel to the new handsome interior. The Rosses put their own stamp-- equine themes-- on the interior decor. It is a fitting salute to the life work of both Mike and Beth, also a veterinarian. A half a dozen equine portraits, some striking abstract images, grace the beige walls along with an playful paper-mache horse's head over the hostess station.
In keeping with Domaine Hudson's stellar reputation, the Rosses are matching imaginative dishes that are sharply executed with an even deeper selection of robust wine at realistic prices. The bar is a destination in its own right with creative cocktails and a nice selection of craft beers. Professional service and some nice personal touches add to the restaurant's new image.
Early on though, Ross experienced the capricious nature of the restaurant business when their hand-picked executive chef bolted and a couple others also departed.
Enter Dwain Kalup. Hired as Chef de Cuisine in September 2013, Kalup turns out an innovative New American menu that changes with the season. He launched his career at Kid Shelleen's Charcoal House and then as sous chef at Harry's Savoy Grill and Harry's Seafood Grill. In 2011, Kalup cooked at Philly's City Tavern and was at the James Beard House as guest of chef Walter Staib, Emmy Award winning chef and host of the PBS Show “A Taste of History.”
Before heading back home to join Domaine Hudson, Kalup worked for a year at Blackbird Restaurant, a Michelin starred restaurant in downtown Chicago. He worked as a line cook under the tutelage of 2013 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef Paul Kahan.
"It was a great experience and I learned so much from Paul and his team," said Kalup, a native of Brookhaven, Pa. "I apply that here to create dishes that are familiar with people but a bit different. Put my own twist on it in regards to texture and flavor."
Kalup brings a refined, creative and organized approach to the Domaine Hudson kitchen that also features Brent Chellew as the sous chef. He arrived in Wilmington after a seven year stint at the Club at Admiral's Cove in Jupiter, Fla. where he plated upwards of 800 meals a day.
"I was impressed that Dwain picked up and headed off to Chicago to further enhance his career," said Ross, who grew up near Saratoga Springs, N. Y. "He's used that experience to take us to another level. The food has been very consistent. Dwain recruited Brent and they push each other to turn out robust and forward-thinking cuisine."
Among Chef Kalup's many high spots are house-made charcuterie, fresh homemade pasta, and meats from lamb to duck cut by hand.
“All the food preparation is done here, now,” Kalup related. "At Blackbird they would bring in whole animals and the chefs showed me the proper way to take all the meat of the bone. I have a farmer in Smyrna who provides me a pig every three months. We get rabbits from a farm in New Jersey and ducks from Crescent Farm on Long Island."
My wife and I paid a visit to Domaine Hudson in late December where our starters included luscious squash soup poured tableside over a coconut lime panna cotta which complimented the butternut's rich sweetness. The appetizer portion of perfectly cooked tortellini was dressed with porcini mushroom and black truffle, served with glazed parsnips and a decadent mushroom jus. Don't miss it.
Our second course was equally pleasing -- the seared Long Island duck breast was cooked to order and served with braised artichokes, marinated orange sections and just a hint of toasted cumin. The roasted pork shoulder from house-butchered Berkshire pig literally melted in your mouth which worked splendidly with its bed of al dente braised bok choy, cranberries and ginger pork reduction. Chef Kalup changes the side dishes daily based on available sourcing, roasted root vegetables are a winter specialty. A glass of Andre Bonhomme “Viré-Clessé” a Chardonnay from Burgundy, France 2010 and a Martinelli Syrah “Terra Felice” Russian River Valley, CA 2009 complimented the dishes perfectly.
"Being so close to Chester County is a blessing and I'm working on expanding our local network of farmers," Kalup said. "That high quality soil produces lettuce and herbs and such a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. We will be showcasing those fresh ingredients in our dishes in the coming months."
On the evening we visited, we were taken by pleasant surprise when one of America's top thoroughbred trainers Graham Motion, and Bruce Jackson, owner of the Fair Hill (Md.) Equine Therapy, and their families settled in at the table behind us. Motion's trainee Main Sequence won the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park last November and is one of the leading candidates for 2014 Horse of the Year that will be announced on Jan. 17. The group was all smiles throughout their dinner.
Earlier Jackson had perused the wine list-- more than 450 selections-- that appeared at the table on an IPad. A while back, Ross was dining in Chicago and was fascinated by the Vino-pad's appeal. It's an original concept in this region and patrons have enjoyed the adventure. If diners need help, knowledgeable servers can walk you through its use by varietal, price and point rating.
A trip to the southeast Piedmont region of Italy in 2012 helped to fine tune Ross' already discerning wine palate. He paid a visit to Walter Massa's hillside Porto Vino vineyards. Massa is credited with rescuing the Timorrasso grape and his wines are considered to be some of the best in Italy. It’s hard not to get worked up about Walter Massa’s wine. We enjoyed a glass of the Vigneti Massa Timorasso Derthona 2010.
"Timorasso is one of the longest-aging white varieties in Italy," Ross noted. "In fact, the wine often needs an extra year or two in bottle before it becomes expressive and fun to drink. It’s got substance and structure and deserves substantial food. I fought like heck to get Massa's wine brought in by one of our distributors. The Derthona is one of the favorites here. I think his wines reflect who we strive to be."