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Napa On the Brandywine

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Executive chef Karen Nicolas plates a coffee-rubbed duck breast served with chestnut bread pudding, roasted grapes, endives and turnips. Photograph by Thom ThompsonSimon Pearce on the Brandywine
1333 Lenape Road, West Chester, Pa.
(610) 793-0949, www.simonpearce.com
 
Prices
Appetizers $6-$13
Main courses $22-$35
 
Recommended Dishes
The menu changes regularly, but if it’s around, try roasted mushroom soup, braised pork belly, roasted duck breast and any of James Matty’s desserts.
 
 
 
 
 
The glass is fantastic.
 
That much is to be expected from Simon Pearce on the Brandywine, the West Chester restaurant-glassmaking center that, after a few wayward years, has etched a fine dining concept that has finally been bolstered by some world-class talent in the kitchen.
 
Newly installed chef Karen Nicolas, a Johnson and Wales grad, has the kind of résumé that would make Monster.com servers explode. Her past stops include Gramercy Tavern in New York (the restaurant formerly owned by “Top Chef” magnate Tom Colicchio) and a stint at Thomas Keller’s famous French Laundry in Napa Valley. Most recently she served as head chef at the acclaimed Soul in Chicago.
 
Call Nicolas the Lady Colicchio. Much like the celebrity chef and her former boss, Nicolas has a knack for pulling much flavor from her ingredients. But unlike the man TV fans call Baldy, Nicolas’ touch is unmistakably feminine.
 
“Her technique is among the best I’ve ever seen,” says Corey Fair, Simon Pearce’s new general manager and sommelier. “She has deft touch and a penchant for lighter flavors.”
 
Even sturdy pork belly (de rigueur at fancy restaurants everywhere) comes out refined in Nicolas’ hands. It is sliced into little pockets and wrapped tightly in bacon, then sent wading among Manila clams in a briny broth with gigante beans and ribbons of kale.
 
Together the chef and the sommelier have retooled this chameleonic restaurant (it was at first an Irish-themed fine dining place, then a hip bistro) into something that could outshine all that pretty glass.

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The rare seared big eye tuna appetizer is served with chopped fennel salad and pappadew pepper aioli. Photograph by Thom ThompsonIn the former Lenape Inn, on the banks of Brandywine Creek near Longwood Gardens, the region’s distinct outdoorsy DNA has become a starting point for fantastic cuisine. Fair calls the area’s glut of farms and food artisans “a chef’s dream,” so most dishes on the new menu mention the ingredients’ farms of origin. There’s feta cheese from Keswick Creamery in Newburg, Pennsylvania, Green Meadow spinach from Ringoes, New Jersey, and goat’s cheese from West Chester’s own Shellbark Hollow.
 
Sunchokes, smoked quail, chestnut-farro and lobster foam make a sampling of a progressive-meets-local menu that calls to mind Nick Farrell’s nearby Sovana Bistro and Nage in Rehoboth Beach.
 
But chef Nicolas didn’t come all this way to limit herself to mushrooms and goat cheese. I loved the creativity she displayed with dishes that managed to hit (and control) both the local notes and the ornate ones.
 
My favorite flirtation with frivolity sandwiched succulent sliced duck breast (from Maple Leaf Farms in Indiana) between sticky dates and sweetened quince puree. While the fruits and a layer of subcutaneous fat did their thing—i.e. pulled an extra bit of sweetness from the meat—a salty pre-roast rub on the duck’s skin prevented the dish from becoming a hot duck sundae. 
 
An opening volley of grilled fresh sardines on finger-length sticks of toast threw me for a loop, due to the little slices of brightly flavored kumquat, which, along with escarole and fennel shavings, formed a sort of relish. But using the piquant and pickly kumquat as a stand-in for lemon or orange worked, even flourished.
 
Saliferous sea air abounds when inhaling the aroma of Nicolas’ excellent mussel risotto. It is, perhaps, the most muscular mussels dish on record. The arborio rice is cooked and in a mussel broth, joined with a bounty of shelled mussels, then topped with a briny mussel foam. The mental teleportation from the banks of the Brandywine to the shores of Lighthouse Cove was a quick one.
 
But this is the Brandywine Valley, and each table at Simon Pearce affords a view of the creek. Compared to Simon Pearce’s Vermont location, which is housed in a converted wool mill next to the Ottauquechee River waterfalls (which move turbines that generate electricity for the restaurant), our slow-rolling creek may seem a bit boring. I say keep the waterfalls. The Schoonoverian scene sets a relaxing vibe.

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Glass blowers Jason LeVan (left) and Brandon DeWayne. Photograph by Thom ThompsonThen there’s the glass. Distinctively curvaceous Simon Pearce glass glints everywhere in the dining room (in case you didn‘t get enough of it from the adjoining gift shop), making it the restaurant’s aesthetic theme. Above tables are Simon Pearce light fixtures, and shapely Simon Pearce decanters house brown liquors and infused liquids high above the bar. Videos of glassblowing demos flicker on TV screens, or you can watch the process live downstairs, where burly men in thick aprons gather globs of silica in 1,600-degree ovens to turn into stemware.
 
Service was equally polished. Fair is big on sincerity, and that extends to the servers. The team’s professional, relaxed demeanor is welcome. It fits the restaurant’s new M.O. to the letter.
 
So does lunch. Just try to escape Yogi Bear ebullience when receiving Simon Pearce’s neat and valuable pick-a-nic style lunches: sandwich, soup, fries, dessert and a soda delivered on a wicker tray. Most impressive (apart from perfectly done French fries—one of those things you don’t fully appreciate until you’re staring down a basket of flaccid frites at Sonic) was deliciously simple roasted mushroom soup. Wisely gussied with some baby watercress for color (there’s that feminine touch again), the soup was creamy and smooth despite being cream-free. It’s one of those dishes that smacks you in the forehead with its simplicity. I’d wager Nicolas uses fewer than five ingredients to make it: sweet, woodsy roasted local mushrooms, stock, maybe some onion and a little red wine, but little else.
 
Sadly, on a later visit, that same soup wiggled thickly in the bowl, gloppy like porridge and nearly inedible. But that was one of the few times I wasn’t astounded by Simon Pearce. Even aspects that were imperfect were impressive.
 
Take Fair’s drink program, which rivals the Magna Carta both in wordiness and in substance. In terms of sheer quality, variety, and diversity of wine and spirits, the list is impressive—staggering, too. What to sip?
 
Bartender Mike Suermann pours a Blue Moon alongside other signature cocktails and the Meyer lemon olive oil cake. Photograph by Thom ThompsonOne night it was a Sazerac cocktail jacked with rye whiskey, bitters, absinthe and a sugar cube. Another night it was an infuse-your-own mojito with house-squeezed lime juice, and a flight of wines categorized by trait. There were bourbon flights and microbrew flights, a build-a-martini, wines by the glass and several hundred by the bottle. There isn’t a bad choice in the bunch, and it’s good to have so many options to explore, but unless you’re on your 39th visit or a correspondent for Wine Spectator, it’s a lot to absorb. The servers have to recite a six-minute report to every first-timer.
 
Rounding out Simon Pearce is pastry chef James Matty, who comes from prestigious New York French restaurant Jean-Georges, where, thankfully, there is no molten chocolate cake or brownie sundae on the menu. Among Matty’s thinking-man’s desserts, I loved the banana custard tart, which is replete with brûléed banana flanked by lychee sorbet and golden pineapples. The fragrant chill of lychee balanced whatever heaviness the custard lugged. Even better was his mango pot de crème, which is painted with passion fruit and a dollop of milk chocolate chantilly cream. Somewhere, Tropicália music was playing.
 
Simon Pearce’s combination of modern, ambitious food done smartly, and a natural visual charm makes it unique to the area. The charisma and comfortable elegance its new team is working to cultivate could make a major mark on the dining scene, once the word gets out.
 
Glass and ye shall receive.

 

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