French gastronomy is noted for having excellent Michelin-starred restaurants in small towns in the middle of nowhere, far from the lights of Paris and other big cities. Americans were slower to embrace this idea and still lag somewhat behind in having destination restaurants. In recent years, though, our region has seen a rapid growth of top-notch, away-from-the-mainstream dining with snappy bistros and fine restaurants located in places like Dilworthtown, Chadds Ford, Unionville, Longwood, Fair Hill and West Grove.
The House of William & Merry in Hockessin fits perfectly into this relatively new mold—and they’ve even upped the game a notch, as husband-and-wife team Bill Hoffman and Merry Catanuto arguably provide the finest, most-sophisticated cuisine in the region, either in town or country. Most easily explained, William & Merry uses classical French cooking techniques without the urge to re-create classic French dishes. Instead, their menu items are quite original, with an increasing focus on regional ingredients (like many other restaurants).
William & Merry is a white-tablecloth restaurant— without the white tablecloth. From the vast open kitchen to the small, crowded bar (no blaring TV, thank goodness) to the cozy indoor-and-outdoor dining areas, the place has perfected superior cuisine in a laid-back setting. The vibe is friendly but never sloppy or too familiar.
“I want people to be very comfortable while we provide them with high-end food,” says Hoffman, who is sitting with Catanuto at a restaurant table in one section of what is actually their home, a classically proportioned farmhouse constructed in 1922 they share with son Nick, 12, and daughter Elise, two.
A typical summer dinner at William & Merry might start with an appetizer of bourbon-flamed, brown-sugar-cured pork belly with bacon-mango puree, shallot jelly, black garlic and nasturtium leaf, followed by an SIW Farm sweet-corn bisque with crispy shiitake mushroom, herbed crème fraîche and curried manchego cracklings. A main course could very well be pan-roasted Jersey diver scallops with kimchi-kombu broth, chicken skins, uni, peas, and pea shoot salad, with a finishing Peach Blossom dessert: confit peach, macadamia-peach streusel, peach gel, puff pastry, pecan brown butter and peach-pecan semifreddo.
The tab? A modest $68 for a first-class meal.
For those who would like a less-expensive sampling, however, there is a $35 prix-fixe Sunday supper of three courses with three choices each, as well as a menu Sunday brunch with items for those just rising for breakfast and those ready for lunch.
The road to the House of William & Merry started in an unlikely place—McGlynns Pub in Pike Creek, where the two met while working there 15 years ago. “I always loved cooking when I was little,” Catanuto says.
She later attended the California Culinary Academy, a Cordon Bleu affiliate, and worked as a chef in San Jose before returning to Delaware. “It was my mother who suggested I go to culinary school when I graduated from high school,” says Catanuto.
Hoffman, meanwhile, loved puttering around in his grandmother’s kitchen, watching The Great Chefs on TV. But he never considering cooking until a stint at Radio Shack confirmed that selling electronics wasn’t his strong suit. He first got a job busing tables. When one of the chefs didn’t show up for work, he was pressed into service. “Merry was the one to encourage me to develop my cooking skills,” says Hoffman, who went on to study culinary arts at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
They married, had a son and went about gaining credentials at local restaurants. “I’d been hired to re-open Deer Park in Newark, and Bill was chef at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington,” she says. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we try to do it ourselves?’ We fought for three years to get this property.”
Though Catanuto sometimes helps in the kitchen, they decided to split responsibilities, with Bill handling the chef duties and Mary working the front of the house on weekends. Now in their fifth year, they try to prepare everything feasible in-house, a time-consuming regimen that includes breaking down whole animals like pigs, baking their own breads, and preparing hand-made pasta daily. They’ve abandoned preparing entirely new menus at the beginning of each season, instead inserting and subtracting dishes as often as every week, depending on what’s fresh and local. They may have corn soup every summer, but the soup will be prepared differently each year. “We want to be a showcase in the valley for whatever the locals are growing or making,” says Hoffman. “We’ve got our own Napa Valley at our doorstep.”
To achieve the level of detail Hoffman demands of himself and the kitchen, there might be as many as eight people working in the kitchen on a busy night. The first of those employees shows up at 7 a.m.—the traditional bread-baking time in most restaurants—and Hoffman generally joins them at 11 to oversee lunch. Then comes prep time for the evening meal. “We’re generally all wrapped up by 10:30,” he says, indicating that the local food crowd goes home a little earlier than they do in the city.
Catanuto says it’s really too soon to see William & Merry alumni in head chef positions elsewhere, but she notes that some who’ve left are moving up the food-chain ladder as she and Hoffman themselves have done. The two of them aren’t anxious to open additional restaurants, although they have given it some thought. For one thing, they can envision a time when they may start a new restaurant or food venture, with one of the people they’ve trained taking over as chef at the new place.
As far as the children go, the young Elise is showing an early fascination with what’s happening in the kitchen, Catanuto reports. But Nick is more interested in sports.
For now, Hoffman can’t get much beyond designing new dishes. He’s too busy getting excited by every new person he finds who grows berries, scavenges mushrooms or makes cheeses.
“There will only be one House of William & Merry, because this really is our house,” Hoffman says. “I can’t see myself getting out of this kitchen.”