Growing Season: Bryan Sikora has an eye for expansion in Wilmington

 Bryan and Andrea Sikora, owners of LaFia restaurant (Jane Conway/for NewsWorks)

Bryan and Andrea Sikora, owners of LaFia restaurant (Jane Conway/for NewsWorks)

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for Bryan Sikora.

Earlier this year, the founder and chef at Wilmington’s La Fia Bistro was named one of nine semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation awards as the Best Chef, MidAtlantic. The prestigious Beards are often called the Oscars of the culinary world.

Sikora was one of a handful of local top-flight chefs who executed a special invitation “pop-up” dinner at the MidAtlantic Wine and Food Festival in New Castle this month.

In June, he will open a traditional bakery near the Grand Opera House that will supply La Fia, local restaurants and walk-in customers with hand-crafted artisan breads in an array of styles.

But that’s not all: Sikora is currently negotiating for storefront space near La Fia with plans for launching a Latin grille that will feature a pan-Latino menu of tapas/small plates and a 24-seat bar and lounge area.

He hopes to open in September.

A tone-perfect riff

As for La Fia, it’s Sikora’s riff on a tone-perfect French bistro. He and his wife Andrea launched the breezy hybrid bistro and French-inspired small bakery last July kitty-corner to World Cafe Live at the Queen on Market Street.

Sikora’s menu creations are driven from his dedication to made-from-scratch elements and seasonality. Foodies have taken note in a big way.

On his morning commute into Wilmington, Sikora often pulls off the side of the road and walks a few hundred feet to search a patch of woods for prized wild mushrooms or spring ramps (an onion-like stalk) at the height of freshness.

He turns up a few days a week at H. G. Haskell’s SIW farm stand outside Chadds Ford, where everything was just picked that morning. He loads up his bounty of brussel sprouts, Doc Martin lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, and an array of varieties of eggplant and cherry tomatoes and transports 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 these farm stands [on] my drive that kick start ideas for that day’s menu creations,” explained Sikora, 42. “I could be the first guy out there looking for ramps in the spring. Cooking is in my blood and in my soul.”

A native of Ligonier in western Pennsylvania, Sikora garnered a stream of accolades over the past 15 years for his modern cuisine, which could be described as rustic and soulful, but imminently approachable. Back in 2001 he and his then wife, Aimee Olexy, burst onto Philly’s culinary scene with the mega-hit Django in Queen Village.

When the couple sold the restaurant they moved to Unionville and became culinary superstars with Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, a venture Olexy kept when they split. The single seating farm-to-table chef dinners feature a parade of whimsical and elegant small plates that stoked year-long waits for reservations.

‘A real farm-to-table guy’

Named for Bryan and Andrea’s daughter Sophia, the 36-seat La Fia is housed in a vintage storefront in the LOMA district. Its distressed tin ceiling catches your eye, as does the natural light streaming through the tall windows fronting Market Street and the reclaimed walnut floors and tables. A cozy bar anchors the space in the former florist’s shop, above which Sikora painted a brilliantly colored mural.

His success is anchored in avoiding shortcuts. Sikora’s labor-intensive philosophy is evident in much of his cuisine, from baking his own bread to creating his own pastas and pastries.

Also on display 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 to create a maitaki gratin.

“Bryan likes to try new stuff, like chickweed that grows plentifully in the fall,” observed H. G.Haskell, owner of the SIW farmstand. “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.”

Enjoying his time in Wilmington

Each day in La Fia’s tiny bakery quarters a baker creates artisan breads baked in several styles. At dinner, each table receives a basket of baguette, some slices of golden raisin walnut breads, olive rosemary bread, and a gougère. The bistro’s menu changes all the time, blending a wide repertoire of international flavors and techniques that dictate the tone.

During a recent weekday lunch visit, Sikora and two other cooks worked the cramped kitchen deftly, moving around each other to turn out innovative selections such as Wild Mushroom Alfredo that sparkles with Wild Hen of the Woods mushrooms, corkscrew pasta, polonaise, overnight tomatoes and toasted bread crumbs. Bon appetite!

Also pleasing was the Mediterranean spiced lamb gyro, the jumbo lump crab cake and the Moroccan spiced short rib sandwich. The Mighty Leaf artisan tea was served in vintage mason jars, which added a nice touch.

Sikora has worked hard to establish a presence in LOMA. By the coming and going of lunch patrons that day, he has succeeded mightily.

A touted chef in major cities such as Denver, Portland, Ore., Washington, D. C. and Philly, Sikora is enjoying his time in Wilmington. He sees it as a “boutique” city that boasts a strong community spirit fostered by the city’s developers, the arts and the philanthropic endeavors. Last weekend he manned a food and drink tent on La Fia’s sidewalk for spectators at the Grand Prix Bicycle Race.

“I find the thinking downtown very proactive,” Sikora observed. “The mayor and city officials are standing behind new ventures, like the nearby farmer’s market. There are vibrant plans for DCCA and new residences here in LOMA. It’s just beginning. We just need some patience.”

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