South of the Border in North Wilmington

Pam George

Pam George

, Food & Drink

Platinum Dining Group debuts El Camino Mexican Kitchen in Brandywine Hundred


B
ehind Platinum Dining Group’s Trolley Square headquarters is a one-room building that serves as a conference room. It’s an airy space with windows, a glass conference table, a beverage fridge and white brick walls decorated with the logos of the hospitality company’s restaurants: Eclipse Bistro, Redfire Grill & Steakhouse, Capers & Lemons and Taverna.

The keen eye, however, will spot a new brand in the mix: El Camino Mexican Kitchen.

If all goes as planned, El Camino will open early this month in The Concord, The Buccini/Pollin Group’s mixed-use development in Brandywine Hundred. A second Taverna will open here in the spring.

Because El Camino is Platinum Dining Group’s first Mexican concept—and the first to open in the new complex—it’s getting the lion’s share of attention. A table in the conference room is covered with the final choices for the tableware and servers. There are imprinted caps, T-shirts and colorful woven baskets for homemade tortilla chips. Post-It Notes indicate the use for each dish. Wood platters, for instance, will hold ceviche or street corn. Large round plates are for enchiladas and the taco salad.

El Camino is coming alive when at least two elevated takes on Mexican fare have said adios. Cocina Lolo in Wilmington closed last year. The phone number and website for La Pina Valley Cantina in Glen Mills, which opened in early 2018, are currently down.

Carl and Lisa Georigi, the founders of Platinum Dining Group, aren’t worried.

“There’s a lot of talent at this table, and there’s a lot of vision,” said Carl Georigi at a recent meeting to discuss El Camino. “As restaurant owners, we have a responsibility to do due diligence. It’s our investment.”

Exploring New Territory

The Georigis are the well-known faces behind Platinum Dining Group, which they formed in 2007 when they already had two restaurants under their belt.

Their portfolio now includes Eclipse Bistro in Wilmington’s Little Italy, Redfire Grill in Hockessin, Capers & Lemons near Greenville, and Taverna in downtown Newark. “Platinum Dining Group was always intended to be a multi-concept, multi-location company,” Carl Georigi says.

Two of the restaurants have an Italian flavor. The second Taverna will make three. That’s not surprising. When Georigi was 23, he managed more than 90 people at Sfuzzi, an urban version of an Italian trattoria in Philadelphia. The Georigis met in 1991 while Carl was working at Café Bellissimo, near Prices Corner.

The couple toyed with the idea of a French restaurant or sushi spot for their next endeavor. But they kept returning to Latin cuisine. “Everyone loves Mexican food,” Georigi says. “It’s as popular as Italian food.” And just like Italian food, there is a wide range of styles and price points.

The couple traveled to southern California, San Antonio, Miami, and Chicago to research Mexican restaurants. They tried Tex-Mex, traditional Mexican, and modern Mexican. They were drawn to the menus in such restaurants as Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago, Stephen Starr’s El Vez in New York and Philadelphia, and Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s Lolita in Philly. In short, says Lisa Georigi, “It’s not what you would typically find in Wilmington.”

Meanwhile, they’d been looking at spaces in Brandywine Hundred, which is primarily populated with chains and grub pubs. “North Wilmington is well within our circle of influence,” says Carl Georigi.

The Buccini/Pollin Group’s live-work-play development approach to the old Concord Plaza site, located off Route 202, was appealing. They liked the site so much that they signed a letter of intent in February 2015, about two years before the old office buildings were demolished to make way for structures with retail on the bottom and apartments on top.

Chefs Jeff Matyger and JD Morton display nachos on a 14-inch pizza tray. Photo by Justin Heyes

A Lighter Touch of Latin

The Georigis, who collaborate on interior design, decided on El Camino’s atmosphere before fine-tuning the menu. But forget renderings or swatches. They keep their ideas in their heads and to themselves. They don’t even tell most employees.

But you can expect lots of windows—including glass doors that open to the patio—high ceilings, light wood floors and open spaces. Pops of pink and green will enliven the mostly black-and-white backdrop. Instead of art, look for natural materials on the wood and white-painted brick walls. Pendant lights have an Aztec influence.

The bright sensibility extends to the menu. “I don’t like that heavy feeling you get when you eat Mexican food at many places,” Georigi says.

El Camino represents the first time that Jeff Matyger, Platinum Dining Group’s corporate chef, and JD Morton, executive chef of El Camino, have immersed themselves in Latin cuisine. The chefs, however, know their craft and their company.

Matyger was the executive chef at Capers & Lemons before opening Taverna in Newark. Morton has led the kitchen at Eclipse, the group’s flagship restaurant, for six years. Food writers have followed Morton’s path with interest since 2012 when he was selected as a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award. At that time, Morton was with Domaine Hudson.

The chefs spent a year developing recipes, and together with the Georigis, they made a six-hour tour of Latin concepts in Philadelphia. Back in the kitchen, they’ve plated and tasted their dishes multiple times. “We went through six or seven guacamoles,” Georigi says. “We went through four or five renditions of nachos. Each one was equally good.” But they kept re-making the dish until it was just right.

For each tasting, the chefs prepared the food as though they were in a fast-paced kitchen on a busy Saturday night. “Jeff and I could take a half hour to prepare one dish for Carl and Lisa, but that’s not realistic,” Morgan says. The assembly has to be doable in real time, Matyger agrees.

The appetizer section, which has about 14 options, is sprinkled with shared plate options. Morton is proud of the albóndigas (meatball) appetizer. “It’s a play on chicken tinga with chicken, pork, mint and parsley—it’s aromatic and fresh,” he explains. “We serve them in chipotle-tomato sauce with cilantro, shaved onion, and cotija cheese.”

Nachos will come in a 14-inch pizza tray. The chefs went through several plating styles to find one that gave “love” to each chip, Georigi says. “That’s how much attention we pay to each dish.” Consequently, you won’t wind up with a pile of unadorned chips at the bottom.

Mexican street corn will be on the menu. Photo by Justin Heyes

The menu includes tacos, enchiladas, and burritos. Grilled mushroom tacos and black bean enchiladas are among the vegetarian selections, while sea bass tacos will appeal to pescatarians.

Main plates will feature sea bass served Veracruz style. (Heavily influenced by Spanish cuisine, Veracruz flavors include tomatoes, olives and capers.) Not many Latin-themed restaurants have barbacoa—slow-cooked meat with citrus, herbs, and spices. You will find it at El Camino.

For the staples—guacamole and salsa, for instance—it’s about “keeping it fresh, keeping it simple and making sure the flavor is on point,” Matyger says.

The restaurant will serve lunch, during which diners can find salads and sandwiches. “It makes good business sense to be open for lunch and dinner,” says Georigi, who’s followed that approach with his other restaurants. He’s counting on visits from workers in surrounding offices.

For the beverages, the Georigis tasted up to 40 cocktails. The final bar menu has eight specialty margaritas and 10 specialty cocktails. There will be 30 bottled and canned beers, including non-Mexican brands. Five beers will be on tap. More than 100 tequilas will adorn three glass shelves to form a tower on the bar’s center island.

Warm and Welcoming

Georigi acknowledges that he feels some trepidation about opening a new concept in a new area. It helps that many residents are familiar with the group’s other restaurants, and there are already people living in The Concord’s apartments. One is a Platinum employee.

The area is populated with the retirees who bought homes in communities like Tarleton and Chalfonte when those developments were built. There also are families who moved in when the retirees moved out. There should be something for everyone. “El Camino’s prices will be affordable and approachable; it’s definitely a place where you could come for lunch or dinner seven days a week,” Georigi says.

“You can’t imagine the amount of work that has gone into this particular restaurant,” he says. “We want to make sure our guests are blown away.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.