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Living up to the Hype-and Then Some

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Amici’s Fine Dining & Spirits
1213 New London Road Landenberg, Pa.
(610) 255-5777

Prices Entrées $16 to $30;
appetizers and salads $6 to $14;
desserts $4 to $8

Recommended dishes Lobster ravioli with
tomato confit and basil-almond pesto,
sautéed mussels, Spanish crab cakes with
avocado salsa and cilantro-lime créme fraiche, 
prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin with
saffron-walnut risotto, herb-crusted lamb
chops with peppercorn-mint gastrique.

                                          

Herb-crusted lamb chops with roasted fennel
and orange salad, purple fingerling potatoes
and peppercorn-mint gastrique.
Photographs by Thom Thompson

www.thomthompson.com

 

Living Up to the Hype-and Then Some
Amici’s brings big-city dining to southern Chester County and becomes one of the best new restaurants in years.

The word of mouth about Amici’s can’t help but sound over-inflated. “At last, Newark has a first-class restaurant!” seems to be the most common fruit on the grapevine that’s been growing since the restaurant opened, very quietly, in May. And though the buzz is accurate, as far as it goes, it fails to convey the sheer improbability of the best new restaurant I’ve eaten at this year.

And when I say “new restaurant,” I mean it in every sense of the word. When 2007 started, Amici’s was nothing but a notion. An old roadhouse that, thanks to Pennsylvania’s antiquated system of rationing liquor licenses, was worth far more than its modesty would suggest, occupied the site. If you had told people that, by the end of the summer, a classy, top-flight restaurant would spring up on the spot, they would have hooted in derision.

Amici’s, which bills its food and ambiance as Mediterranean, is the brainchild of four local entrepreneurs-five counting executive chef Myk Aviles, formerly of the Iron Hill brew pub-who wanted to bring what they call a “Philadelphia-style” restaurant to southern Chester County. What they mean by that is a restaurant that’s not afraid of charging the necessary prices to bring the highest-quality dining experience to an area where culinary ambition is in short supply.

The results are impressive. Almost any superlative you can heap on Amici’s winds up sounding like faint praise. The best new restaurant in Newark? Not exactly accurate, since it’s just over the state line on Route 896 in Landenburg, Pennnsylvania, at least according to the post office. And “best” isn’t exactly a high bar to clear in a town where Mexican restaurants, apparently having proven too adventuresome and expensive for the masses, have given way to pizza parlors. The best restaurants in Newark’s corporate limits are casual places like Iron Hill Restaurant and Brewery and Caffé Gelato, along with upscale ethnic spots like Saigon Vietnam.


The bar.
Photographs by Thom Thompson
www.thomthompson.com

Amici’s is in a higher category, one where non-vegetarian entrées run into the high $20s, a heady experience for an area saturated in college-town frugality. Which makes it all the more amazing that Newark natives are raving about the place.

The high quality at Amici’s runs quite literally from the ground up. Foodies expect restaurants to cook everything from scratch, but accept all sorts of compromises when it comes to the physical space they occupy. The only restaurants built from the foundation up are the chain eateries that pop up wherever developers have paved over an acre or two for a center of big-box superstores. New restaurants otherwise tend to open mainly in historic buildings or nondescript strip malls.

Amici’s shows what they’re missing. The first things you notice upon walking in are the high ceilings, dramatic sightlines and big windows with verdant views-exactly the things that compromise the ambiance of so many shopping-center restaurants. The understated decor mixes various earth tones into a backdrop that seems classy but not stuffy. That makes it a perfect match for the food.

My meal sampled dishes from the summer menu put together by Aviles and chef de cuisine Aaron Bukowski. But unlike many summer menus, theirs contained plenty of hearty dishes that, with a little tinkering, might just as easily satisfy in the dead of winter.


Executive sous chef Aaron Bukowski (left) and
executive chef Myk Aviles.
Photographs by Thom Thompson
www.thomthompson.com

The herb-crusted lamb chops, for instance, came with a sprightly orange and fennel salad, a combination of anise and citrus that might be too light for cold weather. But the mint-peppercorn reduction sauce that brought out the meat’s deep flavor would stand up to brawnier side dishes, too.

And I can’t think of any season the kitchen shouldn’t stand by its roasted pork tenderloin. The meat, wrapped in prosciutto and folded around a mix of sun-dried tomatoes and portobello mushrooms, epitomized the kitchen’s grace at blending complementary elements into a satisfying whole that transcends its constituent parts. As if that weren’t enough, the meat was served with a subtle but substantial saffron-walnut risotto that played a spectacular supporting role, but could easily have starred on its own.

Skewers of scallops and shrimp proved that the kitchen has an equally adept touch with both the lighter flavors of seafood and potentially overpowering spices. Though the mollusks and crustaceans were billed as having been rubbed with chili, the result tasted more like a soft caress than a rough rubdown. A stronger dose of hot pepper could have overwhelmed both the shellfish and the crushed tomatoes and caramelized onions that supported it. This dish had just enough to tie the elements together.

Other entrées included grilled salmon with a creamy polenta and a linguine carbonara that added chicken, roasted red peppers, grape tomatoes, and fresh basil to the usual dish of peas and pork (in this case pancetta) and a garlicky cream sauce. Beef was represented by filet mignon and New York strip steak, both certified Angus, but neither seemed worth ordering when the kitchen worked such magic with more demanding meats.

If entrées showcased the kitchen’s ability to compose a complex yet balanced plate of meat, vegetable and starch, starters gave it a chance to show off a bit.


A server with Spanish crab cakes.
Photographs by Thom Thompson
www.thomthompson.com

The most eye-catching appetizer was a hand-made lobster ravioli. That’s right: a single ravioli, albeit the size of a saucer, stuffed with succulent lobster meat and dressed with a confit of Roma tomatoes and a pesto made with basil and almonds.

Another interesting selection was citrus-flavored grilled chicken, which was shredded and served with a stack of Boston lettuce leaves, julienned carrots, toasted walnuts and blue cheese. Diners can assemble the ingredients into wraps, or consume them like a salad with a Port-pear vinaigrette.

The more traditional appetizers were just as good. Crab cakes were billed as ‘spanish,’ mainly because the meat was studded with bits of bell pepper. The pepper made a tasty counterpoint to the crab cake’s accompaniments: an avocado-heavy salsa and créme fraiche flavored with cilantro and lime. The serving was generous enough to serve as a light dinner.

So was a salad of seared duck breast over mesclun greens and Belgian endive dressed with sherry vinaigrette. A contrast in texture was supplied by toasted pine nuts, fried garlic chips and small, crispy rounds of pancetta.

Other salads included a classic Italian platter of fresh mozzarella, and sliced tomatoes and basil, which was raised above the usual by the sweet-sour bite of reduced balsamic vinegar.

The simplest, yet perhaps the best, appetizer we tried was a bowl of mussels sautéed in herbs, white wine and citrus zest. It’s not a complicated dish; you can find it in virtually any Italian eatery and most seafood restaurants. But you’ll rarely find it prepared so well. The mussels were clean, the poaching liquid balanced beautifully.

After that feast, desserts were almost out of the questions. Almost. Next time I’ll go lighter on the meal so I can find out if the other desserts-mostly cakes and ice cream-match the delicious coconut-pecan torte with duce de leche Bavarian cream. (Think caramel and you’ll be close.)

Unlike so many other ambitious Pennsylvania restaurants these days, Amici’s actually has a liquor license, and it uses it to good effect with both a stylish, convivial bar and a thoughtfully assembled wine list (the latter always a challenge in the Keystone State, where the state’s monopoly on wine and liquor puts restaurateurs at a distinct disadvantage. Amici’s manages to keep the prices reasonable, despite the high wholesale prices Pennsylvania charges.

The list consists of several dozen bottles, enough to provide some variety in both price and style without overwhelming. One nice feature for those who feel uncertain about ordering wine to match their meals: Each entrée includes not just one but two suggested wines, one between $25 and $35, another in the price-is-no-object range. Among the former, I found listed an inexpensive Chilean Carmenere by Casilla del Diablo, the Latin American branch of Spanish mega-producer Concho y Tora. The rough-hewn, muscular red, one of my everyday reds for the past several months, was listed at $21, not a bad price in a Pennsylvania restaurant for a wine that retails for just under $10 in Delaware.

The one area where Amici’s is not yet top-drawer is service. Not that it’s bad by any means. Our waiter was friendly, easy to find and obviously familiar with the menu. He was not as well versed on the wines, however, and though that might not register as a significant flaw for those who recognize the wineries on the list, it’s a drawback for anyone considering the pricier offerings.

Still, that amounts to one B+ in a report card full of As. Like the students who fill nearby Newark, most of its restaurants would be thrilled to earn grades like that.

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