As the sun dipped behind a grove of oak and hickory trees last September, a rising column of smoke caught the corner of my eye as I joined a stream of guests hiking up to a late 1600s bank barn at Haskell Farm. Then the aroma hit me, an intoxicating whiff of slow-roasting meat.
Dressed in a green Garrison Cyclery T-shirt and shorts, chef Bryan Sikora breezily chatted up visitors while manning grill grates laden with meaty racks of spice-rubbed hangar steak and luscious chicken wings preparing a farm-to-table bonanza for 90 fortunate patrons of Haskell's final dinner of the summer.
Sikora understands how to coax the best flavor from the farm's late summer bounty. Gently dressed and lightly grilled, his gorgeous ode to freshly picked vegetables -- green, red and yellow peppers, zucchini, beans, squash and several varieties of corn -- is a platter brimming with colorful, hearty and healthy goodness. The smoky flavor provided just the right accompaniment to the grilled local chicken. Equally pleasing was the hangar steak served with hominy or snugged into taco shells warm off the grill with queso fresco and luscious ripe tomatoes.
Haskell's SIW farm stand is a go-to spot for Sikora during the growing season. Sikora delicately loads up his bounty of veggies just picked that morning-- yellow and green squash, Doc Martin lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, an array of varieties of eggplant, and cherry tomatoes. He transports it all to La Fia where he spills out the still-wet-with-dew veggies atop the kitchen table.
"The inspiration for my food often comes from my drive down the back roads from my home into Wilmington," relates Sikora, who lives with his wife Andrea and two young children in Downingtown. "I pass by marvelous farm stands that bring to mind wonderful fresh creations for that day’s menu."
Sikora and his wife Andrea launched their breezy hybrid bistro-bakery-market at Fifth and Market Streets cater-corner to World Cafe Live at the Queen in July 2013. Simple but inviting, La Fia is his riff on a tone-perfect French bistro. Foodies have taken note. On weekends reservations are booked typically a couple of weeks out. Last year Sikora was a James Beard Awards semifinalist for Best Chef in the super competitive Mid-Atlantic region. The Beard Awards are considered "the Oscars" of the culinary world.
Last fall Sikora put his culinary ventures into overdrive. In November he opened a wholesale bakery near the Grand Opera House that turns out batches of hand crafted breads using artisan ingredients in an array of styles. Sikora's bread selections includes rustic farmhouse, Italian, pain au lait, olive, rosemary, wheat, rye, sourdough, multigrain as well as bagels and pretzels. They are transported daily to high-end retail outlets in the region such as Harvest Market, Terra Foods, as well as the Whip Tavern, Four Dogs Tavern, and other eateries.
Bryan and Andrea spent the past year tossing around ideas for their next venture. This spring they launched Cocina Lolo in the Renaissance Building on King Street a block away from La Fia. Formerly the office building's lackluster cafeteria, the smartly renovated 40-seat eatery serves authentic Mexican fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A corner coffee bar juts off the handsome 24-seat bar that spotlights tequila specialty drinks and classic cocktails. At this colorful and lively space the chef and his pair of talented Mexican-born chefs bring the same Sikora no-shortcut passion to updated Mexican street food.
Cocina Lolo is a creative outlet for Sikora -- a chance to put his sophisticated nuances onto tried and true favorites. Hand-pressed and cooked to order light tortillas and fresh ingredients help make the plump tacos a memorable experience. New specialties include shredded country pork rib escabeche, marinated and smoked, with housemade corn sopas. Sikora's take on gorditas is to fill the warmed tortilla layers with crab, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, cojita cheese and pickled jalapeno.
"It's food close to my heart, when I cook at home during the summer it's Mexican dishes," Sikora relates. "I want to do it in a way that's contemporary and fun-- hearty in flavor with a sophisticated American influence with super fresh ingredients. I'm going to treat Lolo as my new favorite experience and nurture it along to be a singular success."
With Cocina Lolo and his bakery up and running, Sikora is focused on expanding his brand even further in the next few years. The buzz is to expect new establishments with an array of price points, styles and neighborhoods. So, what's next?
"We're exploring possibilities," Sikora replies with a smile. "What I strongly believe is that a restaurant space must have 'good bones' with a concept that compliments its community."
A native of Ligonier in western Pennsylvania, Sikora is a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N. Y. The chef and his then wife, Aimee Olexy, burst onto Philly’s culinary scene with the mega-hit Django in the Queen Village in 2001. The BYOB eatery was the first to ever receive "four bells" from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s renowned food critic Craig LaBan. When the couple sold the intimate Django they moved to Unionville, Pa. and became culinary superstars with Talula's Table in Kennett Square, a venture Olexy kept when they split. Prospective patrons for its chef's table needed to book reservations a full year in advance.
After leaving highly touted a.kitchen in Philly in 2013, Sikora landed in LOMA, a shined up section of downtown Wilmington, with his first chef/owner venture. Named for Bryan and Andrea’s young daughter Sophia, La Fia is housed in a vintage storefront. Its distressed tin ceiling catches your eye. So does the natural light streaming through the tall windows fronting Market Street and the reclaimed walnut floors and tables at the former florist’s shop. A cozy bar anchors the room above which Sikora-- a former art student-- painted a brilliantly colored mural depicting a blue crab claw, ruby ripe tomatoes, sunflowers, an asparagus bunch and large cow.
"I used to cycle into Wilmington, go down and touch the river, and head back home," says Sikora, 45. "I always thought it would be a good emerging area for a business. We started looking at spaces and it all came together in LOMA. It fit our needs.”
Sikora's success is anchored in not taking short cuts. The labor-intensive philosophy is evident in much of his cuisine-- from baking his own bread to creating his own pastas and pastries. So is his brave culinary spirit that brings a whole new spectrum of flavors to his menu. A recent special that appeared on La Fia's menu gave a tip of the hat to his local mushroom forager who stopped by with gorgeous maitaki mushrooms that Sikora layered with homemade bechamel to create a maitaki gratin.
“Bryan likes to try new stuff, like chickweed that grows plentifully in the fall,” observes H. G. Haskell, owner of the famed SIW farmstand. “He uses it as a garnish on some wonderful dishes. He’s also a big fan of the Doc Martin lima beans, all the varieties of our eggplant and cherry tomatoes. He’s always asking about what new stuff we have. Bryan is the real farm-to-table guy. Unlike a lot of chefs, he is a risk taker, always searching for new ingredients. He’ll try something new and make it work.”
In an earlier life Sikora was a touted chef in cities such as Denver, Portland, Or., Washington, D. C. and Philly, these days he is enjoying his time in Wilmington. Sikora calls it a "boutique" city, one where there's a strong community effort fostered by the city's developers, the arts, and philanthropic endeavors.
"I find the thinking downtown very proactive," he observes. "I see LOMA as an emerging neighborhood, a business landscape changing for the good. Starbucks has a great venue down on the riverfront. There are vibrant plans for DCCA and new residences here. We all just need patience."
During a recent lunch visit Sikora and two other cooks work the cramped kitchen deftly moving around each other to turn out innovative selections such as wild mushroom alfredo that sparkles with wild hen of the woods mushrooms, corkscrew pasta, polonaise, overnight tomatoes and twisted bread crumbs. The dish was pitch perfect.
Other pleasing lunch items were the Mediterranean spiced lamb gyro, a herb remoulade dressing jumbo lump crab cake and the Moroccan spiced short rib sandwich. Adding a nice touch, the Mighty Leaf tea was served in vintage mason jars.
As the vibrant lunch crowd thinned out Sikora and Andrea stopped by the table to chat. After nearly two years Sikora has worked hard to establish a presence in LOMA. By the number of patrons enjoying lunch that day he has succeeded mightily.
“More and more people are placing authenticity, new tastes and the overall dining experience high on their priority list," Sikora observes. "I’ve always had this natural fascination with new foods. Cooking is in my blood and in my soul.”