Savor, The Review: Prime Time
The Chadds Ford Inn gets a big boost with Brandywine Prime.
Seafood & Chops
Routes 1 and 100,
Chadds Ford, Pa.
Entrée prices $18 (pappardelle) to $32 (8-ounce filet mignon)
Best bets: Braised lamb shank, raw oysters, beef tartare, dry-aged beef
Photographs all by Thom Thompson
When General George Washington’s fledgling American army faced the British at the Battle of the Brandywine in 1777, the Chadds Ford Inn was already 40 years old. During the past 30 years, the place saw almost as many ups and downs as the soldiers who tramped the surrounding hills and valleys.
Now the old homestead—the new Brandywine Prime Seafood & Chops—is hosting a winner. The hero this time is Dan Butler, one of Wilmington’s most successful chef-restaurateurs.
Until recently the restaurant depended on tourists to the Brandywine Valley. A steady flow was enough to keep the Chadds Ford Inn afloat, even when the food was far from stellar. Those days ended a couple of years ago, when an especially inept incarnation and the loss of aging fans combined to drive the old hostelry under.
Then the speculation started. After Butler’s involvement was announced, word began to spread that his new project would be an upscale steakhouse. History buffs began to fret that the building would be desecrated to make way for a palace of glitz and bling. The anxiety only increased as the planned opening was delayed from early fall to late fall, then into the new year.
The time was spent well. Contrary to early rumors, Brandywine Prime is a steakhouse neither in the range of its offerings nor its prices. The menu does feature several cuts of dry-aged beef raised on a farm in upstate Pennsylvania, but there’s also a raw bar, other seafood and several pasta dishes. Look hard enough and you’ll find a pork chop on the menu, too—hence the name. What’s on offer is a survey of Butler’s career on the local restaurant scene—mostly high points.
Back in the 1980s, Butler’s Griglia Toscana in Trolley Square brought the food of Italy, in all its regional variety and modern sophistication, to a town where even the expensive Italian eateries were wedded to Italian-American red-sauce classics. With Deep Blue, he ventured out with a stylish seafood place that thrives even on nights when there’s no theater crowd to lure customers into the deserted canyons of Wilmington’s business district. Along the way he opened a takeout shop based on the Toscana menu.
None of that, however, could prepare Butler for this project. Transforming an old building of thick, blue-rock fieldstone walls into something glossy enough to consistently attract locals is no mean feat.
Butler has done it by tacking against the prevailing wind. In a region that abounds in historic buildings and traditional restaurants, Brandywine Prime does justice to the inn by treating it as a starting point instead of its entire reason for being. Fieldstone walls, deep-set windows, exposed wood beams, and varnished plank floors form a backdrop for a smart, sleek bar and four ample dining rooms. Stone walls contrast with bare walls painted mainly in earth tones. Butler also eschews Colonial furniture, an obvious option, in favor of a lean, utilitarian look that matches the rest of the decor.
During our dinner, the wait staff pushed shrimp cocktail, and rightly so, given the size and freshness of the crustaceans. But they paled in comparison with the raw bar’s fresh oysters. The selection changes with the market. On our visit, most of the half-dozen choices were from the Pacific Northwest. They tasted just-out-of-the-water fresh.
So was every other form of seafood we sampled, from the succulently tender calamari to a suitably impressive crab cake formed from big lumps of meat whose delicate sweetness was deftly underscored by a vanilla-scented corn sauce. The crab cake was further enhanced by a side dish of sinfully rich lobster-flavored mashed potatoes.
The only seafood dish that failed to dazzle was an appetizer of lobster ceviche. The meat was simply too delicate to muscle its way forward in the presence of such acidity. But it was a good excuse for the kitchen to flaunt its au courant credentials by garnishing the dish with a scattering of truffle-flavored popcorn.
Steak hasn’t been forgotten. Some people like it raw. For them Brandywine Prime serves an appetizer of beef tartare. The meat is chopped (instead of ground), combined with capers, onion, egg and a mustard-touched vinaigrette, then formed into a small, chilled timbale. The result was more precious than the hearty French bistro classic, but no less delicious.
A big draw will, naturally, be the dry-aged beef. Aged beef, hung in temperature- and moisture-controlled conditions, develops a tenderness and nutlike flavor that can’t be achieved any other way. Brandywine Prime offers several cuts at prices of about $3 an ounce. I tried a 10-ounce rib-eye that was delicious rare. Next time I’ll pay the extra money for a pound, just to experience the extra thickness.
For my taste, the standout dishes were the Italian ones. Toscana still serves the best pasta in Wilmington, and that pedigree showed in a bowl of wide pappardelle with rabbit ragôut. Chicken had been substituted for coney the night we visited, but when it’s slow-cooked in a tomato base, it tastes just like rabbit. (The meat has since been changed to duck confit).
The standout among our entrées was a lamb shank braised in red wine and apple juice served atop large-grained couscous studded with dried fruit, merguez sausage and broccolini. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, moist with rendered suet—a rich counterpoint to the tart fruit.
With an eye toward the BYOB movement that has transformed fine dining in Pennsylvania restaurants, Brandywine Prime allows customers to bring a bottle of their own, with a corkage fee of $10. “I don’t want people bringing a bottle of Turning Leaf,” Butler says, “but if they have something special, we’ll be happy to have them bring it here.”
To that end, the restaurant has not invested heavily in high-priced bottles, and without a cellar on site, it couldn’t anyway. The result is a wine list that might be shorter than you’d expect, with a concentration in bottles that retail in the $15 to $25 range. Here they sell in the low-$20 to high-$30 range, making a two-bottle meal at Brandywine Prime more reasonable than most. We found the Cline Old Vine Zinfandel we had considered bringing from home on the list, then followed it with a fruity La Violette Syrah.
If there was a shortcoming in the opening days, it was service. Ours was fine; we never waited long for anything and our waitress was nothing if not friendly. But that was no surprise, considering we were recognized as soon as we arrived. Accounts from other customers painted a spottier picture, including some long pauses between courses—understandable, perhaps, considering the long trek from the kitchen to the upstairs dining rooms.
Butler already has undertaken his next challenge: turning a separate building on the property into a more casual eatery with a lower-priced menu. He’s already well on his way to making history. D