Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: Darwin

Name: Darwin
Address: 211 N Clinton St, Syracuse, NY
Phone: (315) 373-0484
Neighborhood: Downtown
Menu: View Menu
Cuisine: Deli
Restaurant Hours: Monday to Friday 9 AM - 3 PM
Parking: On-Street
Accepts Credit Cards: Yes
Take-Out: Yes
Delivery: Yes (with a $40 minimum to businesses)

A rare, early nice day in the year called for a trip to Darwin for lunch, the little deli tucked away on Clinton Street just north of Clinton Square. I went there once last year after they had just opened, but figured they were about due for another trial. Walking in was like night and day compared to a year ago. While it's still a really small place, what was once a slightly awkward and cramped setup is much more streamlined and open-air feeling. The cooking and prep areas take up a large portion of the interior, but they've managed to make enough room for stacks of soda and chips for the customers to grab on their way to the pay station, display cases for drinks and deserts, separate ordering and pick-up stations (on the right and left, respectively), and a quaint counter by the window for seating, eating, and people watching. The counter is a really nice touch and is about a 7 foot long clean chopping block-style counter top with about 5 stools underneath. Overall, a much more cohesive and functioning interior for both the customers and workers.

Displayed overhead is a large chalk board with the daily happenings. Their menu changes weekly and typically borrows flavors from New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, Boston, and California, just to name a few. On this particular visit, some of the main selections featured were The Big Easy muffaletta (with thin layers of capicola, salami, mortadella, and provolone, covered in a homemade marinated olive spread), the Bikini Bottom Crabby Patty (fried Maryland-style crab cake on a Harrison roll with homemade tartar sauce, lettuce, tomato, and red onions), Pork Cubano (shredded pork with Virginia baked ham, melted Swiss, dill pickle spears, spicy brown mustard on a French loaf), Darwin's Rock Shrimp Po' Boy, Two Ships Passing in The Night, for the vegetarians (mozzerela, marinated portabello mushrooms, red onions, parmesean crusted tomato, fresh spinach and basil on stretch bread with homemade creamy balsamic dressing), and their best seller, Darwin's Midnight Train to Georgia (prime rib roast on Pasta's stretch loaf topped with Swiss cheese, frizzled red onions, and horseradish mayo). Darwin also features homemade soups and salads, homemade sides like sesame noodles, coleslaw, and mac-n-cheese, and chocolate chip and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. For Fridays, they offer a fish fry with breaded Fish Cove haddock and on weekday mornings, they offer Paul deLima coffee, fresh squeezed OJ, breakfast pizza, and blueberry and cranberry lemon scones.

They tend to keep many of the sandwiches and sides on the menu for a few weeks or so, but there's usually something new on the menu every week. A good suggestion is to view it online before stopping in.

The order...

NYC Lobster Roll: $11
Roasted Red Pepper Bisque: $3
Chocolate Chip Cookie: $2
Total Money Spent with Tax & Tip: $17.28

Clockwise from upper left is the Roasted Red Pepper Bisque, a piece of stretch bread from Pasta's, the NYC Lobster Roll, and a Chocolate Chip Cookie from Yum Yum Bakery.

After I was handed my order, the cashier said, "Enjoy your lobster rolls!", I said something like, "Oh, I will!" but in my head I'm thinking "Rolls? As in plural? Are these going to be like the sad display of twin lobster rolls I received on a recent Red Lobster visit?" (For what it's worth, they were not good: salty, expensive, small, burnt, and filled with tasteless, shredded claw meat, which is half the reason why I needed to order them again at Darwin three days later). These mopped the floor with them. Actually, Darwin's lobster rolls were just about the best I've had anywhere here or in New England. First of all, it's a huge portion size of not just lobster meat, but of a roll in general. This is closer to a lobster sub. It was filled with extremely tender and fresh, whole pieces of lobster claw meat practically falling out at all points, thinly dressed in a light Hellman's mayo with pieces of chopped celery and scallions, fitted on a bed of fresh Romaine lettuce, and stuffed in a DiLaruo's sub roll that was lightly toasted with butter and a hint of garlic. TO DIE FOR. If you're craving a lobster roll in Syracuse, you may as well look nowhere else. This is about as good as you'll find anywhere around here. And $11 really isn't all that bad when you consider that this could easily be $20 in Boston or New York. But the highlight for me was really the great taste of lobster meat, how it wasn't ripped apart so much to look like scraps, and how it wasn't overly dressed with mayo and fillers. Just a great tasting lobster roll all around. If it's any consolation, I'm a little guy and consumed the entire thing in about 8 minutes.

The Roasted Red Pepper Bisque was really tasty: a somewhat thick tomato based puree with bits of onions, scallions, garlic, and roasted red peppers that overall was zesty, garlicy, and full of flavor. I'm not normally a soup person, but I would definitely order this again. I probably could've just gotten a bowl of this bisque for lunch and would've been content. And you really can't complain about getting Pasta's stretch bread as a garnish, which was perfect for dipping. Plus, it's always great seeing one local business supporting another.

On a whim, I picked up a delicious Yum Yum Bakery chocolate chip cookie on display on top of the counter. It was very good: chewy, not at all dried out, and had a perfect amount of sugar. Though, I'm a chocolate fiend and would've liked to have seen a little more chips in the cookie. A quick google search of the bakery suggests that it may have been gluten free.

Other notes...

- I would LOVE to see them open on Saturdays, but understand that there may not be a demand during the weekends like there is during the week.

- They do offer delivery, but specifically for Downtown and local business and a minimum of $40. Faxing can be made by signing up for their fax list every Monday morning. More details here.

- Darwin is an off-shoot of Riley's Restaurant, located at 312 Park St in the Northside.

If you're in the vicinity for lunch during the week, give them a shot. Now that the weather's getting nicer, Clinton Square makes a decent eating spot when the fountain is running as do the few tables right outside the restaurant when the warmth permits. Overall, it was a superb lunch. The chefs are really doing some cool things at Darwin with fresh ingredients, thoughtful and flavorful recipes, a menu full of weekly surprises, ideas that are perfectly executed, and best of all, they're all in good spirits and very friendly. With all of those things happening, it makes you want to go over there more often. This particular visit was definitely worthy of 5 stars, but I've only been there twice and really would like to try a few more things before placing them in the 5 star category. 4 for now and I'll definitely be back soon. I can't wait to try out their po' boy and fish fry Fridays.

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