Viva La France
The Bistro on the Brandywine returns to culinary tradition.
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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