And just as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons did with their music, Chef Brett is using the fullness of his art and craft to create food that speaks deeply of the sensibility and heritage of his new home turf.
After our recent visit, we believe Brett and Sandra are hitting the right notes.
Like our favorite doo-wop songs, several of Chef Brett’s dishes feature a single ingredient backed by the close harmony of a few supporting elements. The free-form lasagna appetizer features wild mushrooms from Kennett Farms backed by a sauce of madeira, sherry and mascarpone cheese, all layered with pasta squares cooked to a silky al dente.
Garlic, shallot and parsley butter harmonize soulfully with portabello mushrooms from Tojo Farms in a rustic egg noodle entrée (pictured, below).
And Mahimahi—ours was grilled perfectly, with a crusty sear encasing a tender and flaky interior—was the star of the “Flying Fish” special on the night of our visit, enlivened with freshly-made pineapple salsa and the simplest of seasonings—salt, pepper and just enough of Hulbert’s favorite seafood blend dancing in the shadows to give the dish a delightful bounce.
Other of Chef Brett’s dishes are more ensemble-like. In the Avalon Chowder, mussels, shrimp, clams, potatoes and a simple clam-and-cream broth shared the bowl equally in the best restaurant chowder we’ve had in some time. The Mango Ginger Salad is a delightful ensemble of autumn greens, citrus vinaigrette, lightly-candied almonds and a mango-ginger white stilton. Even in the mahimahi, the importance of the ensemble was demonstrated in the seasoning. Tasted alone, the fish was a bit too salty for us; eaten with the pineapple salsa, however, the seasoning was perfect.
There were a few small missteps. To our taste, the Avalon Chowder could have been a bit brighter, perhaps through a bit more acid. And one edge of the gingerbread cake was a bit dried out. These were mere quibbles, however, in an otherwise excellent meal.
Shining through all his dishes is Chef Brett’s commitment to a philosophy of less is more. In every dish, he uses a few simple ingredients of the highest quality seasoned with a restrained hand to great effect.
It was also this philosophy which brought Brett and Sandra to Kennett Square. After advancing to executive chef with oversight of 14 kitchens, Brett realized that he deeply missed cooking and making personal connections with his diners. By giving up his “larger” position for the smaller Portabello’s, Hulbert is returning to those two culinary loves. He now cooks on the line for every meal service and zealously fosters connections with his diners. His kitchen is open, so diners can watch him cook (the two chef’s tables, directly opposite the kitchen, are already very popular!). He regularly comes out of the kitchen to talk with diners. And he has been known to cook to the request of a diner.
His commitment to fostering connections extends to the business community of Kennett Square, which allows Hulbert to use fresh, local ingredients as much as possible. Desserts come from Liz Marden, whose acclaimed bakery is around the corner. They get their white mushrooms from The Mushroom Cap, their ice cream from La Michoacana, and their tea from Mrs. Robinson’s Tea Shop. And they have built a relationship with Flickerwood Wine Cellars, where diners can get a bottle of wine and have it sent across the street to Portabello’s (and there is no corking fee, and never will be).
All in all, Chef Brett is making beautiful music, with several hits to his credit. Everything suggests that the roots he is now planting will soon run deep and strong.