Pay a visit to La Fia and see Sikora work his magic.
Chef Bryan Sikora takes his work seriously. Driving into Wilmington, he has been known to pull off the road to search a patch of woods for prized wild mushrooms or spring ramps at the height of freshness.
Sikora and his wife, Andrea, launched La Fia, a breezy hybrid bistro/bakery in July that sits at Fifth and Market streets, catty-corner to World Café Live at the Queen. Simple but inviting, La Fia is his riff on a tone-perfect French bistro.
His arrival in Wilmington is a development local foodies should note. A native of Ligonier in western Pennsylvania, Sikora has garnered a stream of glowing reviews including his last gig as executive chef at a.kitchen near Philly’s Rittenhouse Square for his modern cuisine–rustic, soulful, but imminently approachable.
Back in 2001, Sikora and his then wife, Aimee Olexy, burst onto Philly’s culinary scene with the mega-hit Django in the Queen Village. The eatery was the first BYOB to ever receive four bells from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s renowned food critic Craig LaBan. It’s also where Sikora earned a 2004 StarChefs.com Rising Stars Award. When the couple sold the intimate Django, they moved to Unionville and became culinary superstars with Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, a venture she kept when they split.
Named for Bryan and Andrea’s three-year-old daughter Sophia, La Fia is housed in a vintage storefront. A 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 the chef–a former art student–painted a brilliantly colored mural depicting a blue crab claw, ruby ripe tomatoes, sunflowers, an asparagus bunch, and large cow.
For Chef Sikora, food is family. He does astonishing things with vegetables– hardy, stable, tactile wonders. He turns up a few days a week at H. G. Haskell’s SIW farm stand during the growing season. Everything was just picked that morning. He loads up his bounty of brussel sprouts, Doc Martin lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, an array of varieties of eggplant, and cherry tomatoes, transporting 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 into Wilmington,” Sikora explains. “I pass by terrific farm stands, like SIW, that bring to mind wonderful fresh creations for that day’s menu.”
La Fia combines a 36-seat, sit-down bistro with a French-inspired bakery. The monthly menu blends a wide repertoire of international flavors and techniques that dictate the tone. Each day, the baker works with six different types of dough and breads baked in several styles. A significant expansion of the bakery in an adjoining building is planned in the coming months.
“I used to cycle into Wilmington, go down and touch the river, and head back home,” says Sikora, 43, who now lives in Downingtown. “I always thought it would be a good area for a business. I started looking at spaces and it all came together. It fit our needs.”
A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Sikora devoted much of his early career to traveling and working in kitchens across the United States–Cape Cod, Portland, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. He says his primary influences were Robert Trainor in Cape Cod and Nora Pouillon from Nora’s in Washington, D.C., which was his first opportunity to work with someone who uses totally organic products. These days, he counts Anthony Bourdain as another inspiration.
Sikora’s success is anchored in not taking shortcuts. 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. A recent special appeared on the menu thanks to his local mushroom forager, who stopped by with gorgeous maitaki mushrooms that Sikora layered with homemade bechamel and created a maitaki gratin.
“Bryan likes to try new stuff, like chickweed that grows plentifully in the fall,” Haskell explains. “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.”
Sikora brought along sous-chef Sean O’Brien from a.kitchen. On a recent evening visit, three cooks work the kitchen moving around each other to turn out innovative small plates of red snapper ceviche and herbed ricotta. The country pate is so good that it redefines country pate. The personable servers ably guide dinners through standouts such as mustard crusted Great Lakes walleye pike, draped with smoky beer-braised choucroute and homemade spaetzle, and the white bean and squash ravioli studded with duck ragout, sweet cabbage, and topped with parmesan. Both were pitch-perfect.
The chef counts on local purveyors to provide his restaurant with fresh and cured meats from which he creates his rustic pate, sausage bangers, and bacon jam. “Cooking is a very humbling experience,” he admits. “I’ve always had this natural fascination. I could be the first guy out there looking for ramps in the spring. Cooking is in my blood and in my soul.”