Bistro on the Brandywine
1623 Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford, Pa.
Soups and salads $6.95-$10.95
Recommended dishes: Coq au vin, braised beef short ribs, steak frites, moule frites
The Bistro on the Brandywine is in the right place at the right time. Situated across the parking lot from its big sister, Brandywine Prime Chops & Seafood in Chadds Ford, the 70-seat restaurant satisfies the area’s hunger for a laid-back establishment serving well-prepared dishes at affordable prices—a hefty advantage in these lean economic times.
When I visited, no menu item topped $20, and you could bring your own wine. The $5 corking fee is waived if you buy a second bottle from the restaurant.
Owner Dan Butler—who also owns Brandywine Prime, as well as Toscana Kitchen + Bar and Deep Blue Bar and Grill in Wilmington—again shows a knack for bringing out the best in a space. The Bistro was built in the late 19th century as a general store, and it most recently housed an antiques shop.
Butler relies on the surrounding environs and the building’s character to tie into the Colonial appeal. An exposed stone wall and the quaint front porch gently remind you that you’re in Wyeth country. But the kiwi-colored booths and soothing sage walls create a palette that’s more 2008 than 1776.
The Bistro has another modern characteristic: a loud buzz. Like so many restaurants today, it has little to absorb sound—no linens, no heavy curtains. I didn’t notice the music until the bulk of the diners had dispersed. The good news is that you needn’t worry about your neighbors overhearing you talk about your boss. They’re too busy trying to hear each other.
Chef Seth Harvey, who previously worked at Deep Blue, offers a menu comprised mainly of French-influenced fare. It’s the kind of cuisine whose flavor bounces happily around your mouth like a pinball in a machine. Here you taste a trace of wine. There you note a hint of caramelized onions laced with thyme.
Creating that complexity is a time-consuming process. The six gallons of chicken stock used to make coq au vin, for instance, is reduced to one gallon for a concentrated flavor. “It’s classic French,” Harvey says.
Harvey’s coq au vin rests on a foundation of rendered pancetta, chicken stock and mirepoix. It simmers and perks for hours, becoming rich and fragrant. Red wine turns the sauce a deep, deep garnet.
Though the dark-meat chicken was tender, we were more impressed with the fingerling potatoes, whose crunchy bronze skins encased a creamy flesh. Each bite was a happy snap. Harvey smartly prepares the vegetables separately and adds them before serving to maintain the textural contrast.
What is not to love about the braised short rib, resting in a savory sauce studded with asparagus, tart cherry tomatoes and grilled onions? The flattened crispy gnocchi were a tad tough, but that didn’t spoil the dish. For winter, the Bistro will return to gnocchi with gorgonzola cream.
Harvey—who has also worked at 821, where the short rib was a work of art—brines the meat for four hours in an herbal bath. With every bite, you can taste the careful infusion of thyme and the reduced red wine that gives the dish its full, rounded flavor.
A cake of coriander-crusted tuna betrayed Harvey’s background at Deep Blue. It was cooked expertly, leaving an interior that was still glossy pink. The fish was as meaty in its way as the grilled marinated hanger steak, which was the best I’ve had in some time. That’s saying a lot, considering how many menus now have some version of steak frite on the menu. The thick cut, caressed with a shallot demi-glace, wore a charcoal dark coat over its rosy, juicy flesh.
The accompanying mound of fries would have been even more addictive if I hadn’t already overdosed on the pile that came with the moule frites. Dip one crisp fry in the roasted garlic aïoli and you’re lost. The mussels, meanwhile, bobbed in a sublime saffron cream that’s best taken in small doses. Too much of this rich stuff and you’ll spoil your dinner. One nit: The mussels were on the small side.
Like Toscana, the bistro offers individual pizzas baked in a stone hearth. Anchovies and Nicoise olives duke it out on the pissaladiére, a take on a pizza-like dish made in southern France. The authentic version rarely has cheese, but Harvey added pecorino, mozzarella and Parmesan to please the American palate.
Forget the Battle of the Brandywine. This is the Battle of the Brine. Since subtlety is neither ingredient’s strong suit, perhaps a lighter hand would help. Either way, you will definitely taste what you order.
On another pizza, chunks of goat cheese sat like pillowy clouds over strips of eggplant and sweet roasted peppers. Both pizzas’ crusts had a lovely golden sheen, and they aptly handled their toppings without turning soggy.
If you dislike Brussels sprouts, the Bistro’s version might convert you. Blanched then sautéed with bacon and caramelized onions, the generous serving was garnished with tasty leek “hay.” A bright-tasting touch of mustard played off the earthy, smoky flavor.
Mustard also enhanced the sherry vinaigrette that was doused over the spinach salad. But the heavy splash was just too much of a good thing. I had forgotten that the salad came tossed with duck confit, because it mostly appeared in threads rather than chunks. It was hard to appreciate the handiwork that goes into a nice confit.
You might want to save the tempura-battered Brie for dessert. The spicy berry confiture was cloyingly sweet and potent. Then again, pastry chef Victoria Carpenter’s confections are simply too good to pass up for Brie.
Adding a fried, cinnamon-dusted wonton to the strawberry Napoleon was brilliant, proving that a good dessert truly is a study in contrasts. The lemon-buttermilk pound cake in the peach melba reminded me of crumbly, buttery shortbread. It was bliss.
Bistro on the Brandywine has some good wine selections, though you may pay more for a bottle than you will for an entrée and dessert. Welcome to Pennsylvania. The BYOB philosophy, therefore, is a smart tact. But I definitely missed starting my meal with a cocktail. Beer, wine and a special mojito were all that was available. Management is considering adding a few liquors.
There are lots of dishes here I’d still like to try. A neighboring table’s crepes—neatly packed with spinach, ricotta and caramelized onions—looked delicious. Certainly the customer thought so. She tucked into it with gusto.
The Bistro, which also has a to-go section, proves that food needn’t be flashy to get attention. Like anything French, it just needs to have style—and exquisite taste. —Pam George
Page 2: High Steaks | Bonz is a gamble that will pay off for Harrington
Bonz is a gamble that will pay off for Harrington.
This is a meat and potatoes town,” Ryan Cunningham, executive chef of Bonz Restaurant & Lounge, tells diners as he makes the rounds.
Which explains why Bonz, a spud’s throw from the slot machines at Harrington Raceway & Casino, offers all the steakhouse favorites. Yet Cunningham, who worked at the wildly inventive Nage in Rehoboth Beach, stretches the steakhouse concept.
Consider coq au vin with grapes, pancetta, pearl onions and a mascarpone polenta. Take potato-crusted salmon with a dose of black truffle and splash of mustard-tarragon emulsion.
A nicely charred 22-ounce cowboy steak, a bone-in rib-eye, was the best thing I tasted. Rich juices streamed onto the plate, and the brawny flavor could stand up to the same offering at any urban steakhouse.
Thick grilled lamb chops, dusted with a five-spice marinade, were just as satisfying. The accompaniments, however, turned global fusion into global confusion. Why muddle the dish with mint chimichurri, cucumber raita and a mountain of mashed plaintains?
There was so much smoked cheddar cheese on the oysters Casino that I couldn’t find the oyster—or the roasted tomato and smoked bacon, for that matter.
They say women should take off one accessory before walking out the door. The same is true of some of Bonz’s dishes. The cheese worked much better when paired with creamy polenta studded with pancetta, which was the perfect pillow for the blackened scallops. The blueberry syrup, though, was too sweet.
When I read “potato-encrusted salmon” on the menu, I picture fish enveloped in sliced potatoes. I got a wonderfully cooked salmon obscured by a blanket of mashed potatoes.
Maybe we had meat on our minds, but chocolate bread pudding resembled a quivering meatloaf. Much more attractive was the peach semifreddo, a semi-frozen dessert made with white chocolate crème Anglaise and brûléed peaches.
The modestly sized wine list features mostly California selections. There wasn’t a Barbaresco, Barbera or Barolo to be had. Like the wine list, service could improve. Our server told us to keep our knives between courses. Dishes scattered with food rested too long on the table.
Bonz has a lot to offer. Ingredients are top shelf, portions are generous and the steaks are done well. But make no bones about it, a little restraint would go a long way. —Pam George
Page 3: No Way, José | Agave teaches tequila: Sip, don’t shoot.
Agave teaches tequila: Sip, don’t shoot.
Chris McKeown takes his tequila seriously. At his Agave Mexican Grill and Tequila Bar (137 Second St., Lewes, 645-1232), the rules are simple: No shots. No salt. No lime. No José Cuervo. “If you want to pound shots with lime, go somewhere else,” McKeown says.
The tequila selection at Agave numbers in the 70s, and each is made from 100 percent distilled agave. McKeown prefers to imbibe varieties of Don Julio, Herradura, El Tesoro and Cazadores. “Those are not expensive, and they’re so much better than the run-of-the-mill stuff,” he says.
Agave offers tequila-tasting flights that feature six 1-ounce samples of various brands. A flight of top-shelf tequilas can fetch $160.
Naturally, Agave makes a mean margarita. They’re made with El Jimador tequila, lime juice and agave nectar. “It’s kind of like honey in that it tastes a little sweet but with a real distinct flavor,” he says.
Agave also serves authentic Mexican cuisine. Mole chicken with its chocolate-based sauce, chiles en nogada (poblano peppers stuffed with meat and fruit, topped with a peanut-cheese sauce and pomegranate seeds) and puffy mahi-mahi fish tacos are top entrées.
“A lot of people who come in don’t know but they’re open to it,” McKeown says. “The high-quality, aged tequilas go down a lot smoother, so we tell them to breathe in, savor it and breathe out.” —Matt Amis
Page 4: Talking Turkey, Talking Fresh
Chicken may get top billing in Delaware, but there are plenty of turkeys to be had at this time of year. So skip the freezer aisle. Opt for a fresh, locally processed gobbler, instead.
Tended by the Palmer family for more than 30 years, T.A. Farms (4664 Mud Mill Road, Wyoming, 492-3030) is the only turkey farm in Delaware. The small farm sells 3,000 birds every year and supplies fresh turkeys to stores across the state. It ain’t the giblets that are in demand. It’s the tender, juicy white meat that comes from raising free-range birds on a natural diet.
“We make our own feed,” says Danny Palmer. “We don’t use any medications or hormones. It’s Delaware corn, soybean meal and a mineral package.” The results of natural feeding and a little leg room? “It’s just going to taste better,” Palmer says.
Pick up a T.A. Farms turkey at its farm in Wyoming or at Johnson’s Country Market (36258 Zion Church Road, Selbyville, 436-3276), Hill’s Fresh Plants and Produce (1795 Milford-Harrington Hwy., Milford, 422-4450), Willey Farms (4092 Dupont Pkwy., Townsend, 378-8441) and Fifer Orchards (1919 Allabands Mill Road, Camden 697-2141).
Birds from nearby Rumbleway Farm (592 McCauley Road, Conowingo, Md., 410-658-9731) are hatched, raised and processed in-house. The farm is certified organic, says owner Robin Way. Reserve your turkey early at the farm or at Harvest Market Natural Foods (7417 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, 234-6779).
North Wilmingtonians head to Highland Orchards Farm Market (1431 Foulk Road, Wilmington, 478-4042) for fresh turkey from the Howe farm near Downingtown, Pa. “The fresh birds are very tender, they cook more quickly and just come out so juicy,” says owner Ruth Linton. “It’s like getting fresh, local corn on the cob versus the frozen stuff you get at the store. There’s no comparison.” Head north for fresh birds from Stoltzfus Poultry at the Booths Corner Farmers Market (Naamans Creek Road, Marcus Hook, Pa., 610-485-0774). —Matt Amis
Page 5: Say Cheese | Exotic gourmet cheese is all around us. So slice into some of the really good stuff.
Exotic gourmet cheese is all around us. So slice into some of the really good stuff.
Chilly November air allows Janssen’s Market (4021 Kennett Pike, Greenville, 654-9941) to import its largest selection of gourmet cheeses, says owner Eileen Janssen. This month, splurge on the Tuma Persa, a rich and nutty Sicilian cheese. Try it with infused honey or a fig-balsamic confit.
Custom cheese platters are a specialty at Beautiful Foods (715 Rehoboth Ave., No. 10, Rehoboth Beach, 227-6282). Try French-import triple-cream Brie with —what else?—champagne. “The Brie is very whipped, so it goes great with lighter white wines and champagne,” says manager Kristin Johnson.
Lewes Gourmet (110 Front St., Lewes, 645-1661) has exotic cheeses such as white Stilton infused with mango and ginger from Dutch producer Beemster that has crunchy granules of crystallized calcium. For a true British treat, try an aged cheddar from Devon with a lager or a stout says co-owner Lou Braithwaite.
Cheese Chalet (5337 Limestone Road, Unit A, Wilmington, 239-5548) carries dozens of artisan cheeses, as well as housemade cheese spreads. Owner Henry Huffman likes the award-winning blue cheese from Australia called Roaring 40s for its creamy and pronounced flavors. It pairs nicely with Merlot or Pinot Noir.
Trader Joe’s (5605 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 478-8494) carries 94 varieties of gourmet cut cheese, so store captain Ken Schrader was happy to roll out a tray featuring creamy whole milk Double Gloucester English cheddar with caramelized onions, Italian truffle cheese, white Stilton with apricots, cave-aged blue cheese and Bavarian beer cheese. Try the English cheddar with a hearty beer. —Matt Amis