OK, let’s go ahead and clear the air: Anyone who has whizzed by the big Port City Java on Market Street and spotted the words “Candle Nut” on the strip mall’s marquee. I’m sure most thought, “What a lovely name for a gift shop!”
Many passersby have mistaken the modest restaurant for an eclectic retailer filled with scented wax sticks. In fact, when I recounted to a friend my tasty tales after writing up my review, she asked why I had dinner at a candle store. Joke’s on you, Alli, I just ate enough turmeric to ensure immortality.
Candlenut is an indispensable spice used in Indonesian cuisine. Hence, owners Jeff and Novi Rickert paying homage by selecting the ingredient as the eatery’s name.
I dined at Candle Nut’s downtown location once before and wildly was impressed with every element of the meal. The elegant atmosphere of the former dining room was spacious—almost to a fault—and eventually the Rickerts decided to downscale to a quaint shopping center on Market. In my opinion, the new layout—though it has a bit more of a takeout feel, thanks to previously being a cheesesteak joint—is a proper fit for the humble bistro. Really, in the end, we’re all just there for the killer food.
I started with the spring rolls, which, I have to confess were my least favorite part of the meal. Candle Nut’s kitchen executes everything from scratch (no freezer bags here), so while the rolls were stuffed with fresh, delicious veggies, they were also overwhelmingly oily. The tops were lightly browned and crisp, but when I flipped them over, the bottoms were surprisingly saturated. If I had to guess, the frying oil may not have been up to temperature, so I’ll shake this one off as a rare miss, since everything here is typically a hit, including the zesty, citrus dip that accompanied the rolls.
I scanned the menu for signature dishes and the Javanese chicken soup was undoubtedly one of the top items. The golden-tinted broth was infused with pungent yellow turmeric and sharp ginger. The base boasted a pile of super-thin glass noodles that soaked in every layer of aromatic flavor. I dropped my spoon deep into the bowl and pulled out a boiled egg and a few shreds of juicy chicken. Crunchy cabbage ribbons gave everything a crunch. Every sip was rich and comforting but with lightly herbal undertones. In two words: holy soothing.
The sweet soy eggplant was calling my name so I answered: “Hi, please, add shrimp.” The deep, vibrant colors of the sauce made me simply want to stare at it, but I dug in anyway. The thick sweet soy was the most prominent flavor and the eggplant melted in my mouth. Several of the smaller slabs seemed a touch overdone and lost their crunch, but the bigger chunks were lush and tender. The shrimp were on the smaller side—not the jumbo morsels I was hoping for—but they still added a briny kick to the dish. I loaded up each forkful with a mound of the ethereal, crispy-garlic garnished coconut rice … addiction at its finest.
When it comes to Asian fare, noodles (in any form) are my jam. The vegetable fried noodles section of Candle Nut’s menu caught my eye. I knew it was where I would find my little piece of heaven. I added chicken and burrowed in like I hadn’t seen food in days. The flat noodles were tangled in a simple, soy-scented sauce and big chunks of bell pepper and scallions gave each bite texture and color. A few fiery spritzes of sambal and I was in it to win it.
And then came the moment I truly had been waiting for: the rendang.
Diners remotely familiar with Indonesian cuisine know rendang is the flagship. Candle Nut gives the zesty dish every bit of recognition it deserves. They use a high-quality cut of meat (Angus beef), braise it low and slow for hours, and shower it in a dizzying medley of garlic, shallot, ginger, galangal, turmeric, coconut milk, and of course candlenut. The generous slabs of beef were coated in a thick, spongy layer of earthiness and practically dissolved onto my tongue. The first time I tasted it, I remember feeling I hadn’t ever experienced anything like it before. Yet, somehow, it was familiar and made me feel warm inside.
The other unique part of Candle Nut’s culinary journey was the striking collection of scratch-made condiments that bring the legit heat bombs. Some were clear lime leaf mixtures perfumed with lemongrass. Some were studded with thick pickles. Others were inky black with ringlets of shallots. One was a chunky yellow medley speckled with red and green that looked dangerous but ended up being my fave. It’s homemade (just as everything else is in the kitchen) and features a fusion of dry roasted chilies, shrimp paste, shallots and candlenut.
There are dozens of Asian-inspired restaurants in Wilmington, but anyone looking to wake up their taste buds and soothe their souls can cash in this ticket. First class, please.