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Eat on Locale at Serpico and The Café at Styer's

November 19, 2013 By:
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Styer’s Garden cafe

Styer’s Garden Café was never really too high up on my list of places to try. It had nothing to do with the café itself and everything to do with its location inside a garden center. Who wants to eat dinner where you buy your mulch? 

A meal among the pumpkins, Belgian block and hardy mums just didn’t sound worth the 40-minute drive from Philadelphia.

It’s good to know that I can still be so spectacularly wrong about something. First of all, the café isn’t located in your typical garden center, unless you shop regularly at Terrain at Styer’s, in which case it is your typical garden center. The longtime Chester County landmark, which was founded by J. Franklin Styers in 1890, was taken over by the Urban Outfitters team in 2008 and transformed into an Anthropologie for gardeners. This being October when we went, the walk from the parking lot to the café took us past the prerequisite pumpkins and gourds, but also stunning faux-volcanic rock planters, teak benches and hand-hewn fire pits wafting hardwood smoke into the early autumn chill.

Taking “reduce, reuse, recycle” to new levels, the café is located in an old greenhouse. The natural theme of the space includes living walls dotted with succulents, enough hanging ferns to make one nostalgic for Maxwell’s Plum (look it up, kids) and wooden tabletops mounted on tree trunks. With the room awash in the low-wattage glow of strings of party lights festooning the ceiling, it is just an incredibly warm and inviting space.

That sense of warmth extends to the young, friendly and knowledgeable staff, which did everything from answer my questions about produce sourcing (the café’s executive chef, Keith Rudolf buys from at least six different famers depending on the season) and the relationship between the Styer family and Urban Outfitters (the family still owns the land; the company leases everything) to making hot chocolate from scratch — with gender-appropriate barista foam art — for my children.

As befits a restaurant surrounded by flora, the café excels at all things grown. Among the five appetizers, three were salads and two were vegetable-based soups. A salad of baby greens and fall vegetables was a riot of sunchoke slivers, translucent radish discs, shaved fennel, parsnip batons and jewel-hued greens that were so springily vibrant, it was hard to believe they were grown in a greenhouse. An autumn panzanella salad featured airy, crisped cubes of the housemade brioche (served, natch, in clay flowerpots alongside salted maple butter) strewn among roasted acorn squash, beets and more greens. And a soup was as much about texture as flavor, with rustically pureed red lentils sharing space with just-wilted kale and smokily crunchy kernels of pimenton popcorn. A swirl of yogurt brought the whole thing together in an Ibero-Indian accord.

Wooden planks are frequently used to present dishes like the flatiron steak entree. The grass-fed beef, also known as a tri-tip cut, came sliced to reveal its proper temperature, and was draped across Brussels sprouts roasted to a nut-brown. Whipped sweet potatoes were thoughtfully ensconced in a miniature cast-iron skillet. (A note of caution — the potatoes are cooked in the skillet, so it comes out hot. Not that anyone tried to grab the handle or anything.)

A grilled whole branzino was also served on wood, the barely charred skin parting to reveal steaming white flesh, its faint taste of the Mediterranean enhanced by ribbons of pickled onion and the unexpected brightness of an Italian farro salad that had just enough parsley and lemon juice to evoke tabouli.

The most unusual dish of the evening was a vegetarian steak of maple-glazed butternut squash, gently yielding to the slightest pressure from a fork, and walking a fine line between sweet and savory. The accompanying earthy, meaty local mushroom ragout was a clinic on how the best ingredients need the least done to them.

The great thing about dining with kids is that it doesn’t matter how full they say they are after the entrees; they always find room for dessert. With options like a sundae of the café’s pumpkin-pecan and Granny Smith apple ice creams studded with an herbaceous sage toffee, you should as well. Other standouts include a local pear-apple crisp served in its own cast-iron skillet — easily big enough for two — and a stellar pecan pie, molasses-dark, with a crust that still had its crunch the next morning.

But if you can only get one dessert here, make it the pot de crème. Infused with brown sugar and maple syrup, served in a china teacup and dusted with sea salt, its unrelenting creaminess is the perfect foil for a cup of French press coffee — a wonderful Nicaraguan single-origin brew that stood out because it was from Durham, N.C.-based Counter Culture, and not one of the area’s own roasters.

Feeling too full after the meal, or perhaps you arrived early and not hungry enough? Either way, make sure to leave time to explore the rest of Terrain, both inside and out. Beauty products, antique glass-and-iron cabinets, rattan trunk baskets, a captivating selection of terraria and a warren of other rooms filled with home accents complement the impressive array of plants and accessories. Terrain closes at 7, but it opens early most days, which provides a whole different perspective on the place, including the café, which takes on an almost sukkah-like quality from the foliage and sunlight. Lunch is offered during the week, and brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays. An organic omelet featured crepe-thin eggs loosely enveloping caramelized onion, local goat cheese and wilted arugula, with a finely diced potato hash by its side, and local apple fritters taste like grown-up beignets. Be sure to ask if there are any of the previous evening’s specials available — the Sunday we were there, a few orders of amazingly robust Lancaster County quail with savory bread pudding were available.

Styer’s Garden Café, 914 Baltimore Pike, Glen Mills, Pa., www.shopterrain.com; 610-459-2400, ext. 5. Dinner for two, around $110 with non-alcoholic beverages

South Street is known for a lot of things: the Orlons’ Top 10 hit of the same name that immortalized the strip in song; the live music scene that was spearheaded by JC Dobbs, Grendel’s Lair and the TLA; the iconic punk destination Zipperhead; Jim’s Steaks and Lorenzo’s Pizza — these are just some of the things that made the street’s stretch from Front to Eighth streets so popular. 

One thing the thoroughfare formerly known as Cedar Street (so named by William Penn) is not known for is fine dining. Sure, there is Mitch and Jennifer Prensky’s excellent Supper on the 900 block, but that’s about it. There are great places to eat in the vicinity, Famous 4th Street Deli and Las Bugambilias among them, but there is nothing else that even comes close to being considered in the top echelon of the city’s restaurants.

One bite of the sunchoke salad at Serpico obviates that last sentence. As the Café at Styer’s showed, there are plenty of places willing to include sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes and — my favorite — earth apple) in a supporting role, but this was the first time I had ever seen it given the star treatment. Fried skin-on until the tubers become fork-tender, the sunchokes are then tossed with fall greens, a lime vinaigrette and fish sauce. The extended hot oil bath brought out the residual sweetness of the vegetable, which completed the umami quinto of the dish. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I used a spoon to get to the last of another sauce, this one a soy-based emulsion napping just-thick enough slices of raw fluke. Not sashimi, not ceviche, the dish — which also featured charred jalapeno, shaved celery atop a dab of Kewpie mayonnaise and tonburi, the dried seed of the summer cypress, which has a texture that has led it to be dubbed “land caviar” in some circles — is, like the rest of Serpico, impossible to pigeonhole into a single style.

Take the exterior. With a nationally recognized talent like Serpico, who earned three stars from the New York Times, two Michelin stars, a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, and other accolades too numerous to mention from his time working in David Chang’s Momofoku empire, you would expect the front of the building to make its presence felt. Instead, the restaurant, a collaboration between Serpico and Stephen Starr, makes no attempt to call attention to itself. Its brick façade is painted anthracite, its only adornment coming from the name and three blind-slatted windows. Of course, on a street of hookah dens and sex toy shops, nestled between a French fry vendor and a sneaker store, its unadorned appearance sets it apart.

The design inside does much the same. An unusual, freestanding small oval bar with open seating greets you as you enter, the two bartenders in constant motion. Designed by Thomas Schlesser, who has created the look for restaurants like Bar Boulud and DBGB in New York and Blackbird in Chicago, the dining room is an appealing blend of tech both low (blackboard walls show both menu choices and customer and staff chalk art) and high (an overhead lighting system that seems to give everyone under it an unfair advantage in the looks department). 

Serpico himself glides around the dining room and the open kitchen, which bestows a stainless steel gleam to every corner of the space. His intensely focused kitchen staff delivers their efforts directly to the diners — a surprising and thoughtful idea. It personalizes the dining experience and allows the cooks to gain immediate recognition for their craft.

And what craft it is. Deep fried duck leg is de-boned, brined in honey and cooked sous-vide before being given a crackly exterior by a quick trip through the fryer. The meat is then tucked into a Martin’s potato roll and kept company by pickled vegetables and hoisin sauce. The end result is the love child of a Peking duck bun getting together with a duck banh mi.

So much ink has already been spilled about the Elysian Farms lamb ribs at Serpico, what’s a bit more? As a rule, lamb ribs have an intensely lamby flavor, but very little meat. Serpico, who has as good a command of molecular gastronomy as anyone cooking in Philadelphia right now, solved the problem by using Activa, a food adhesive, to glue more lamb meat to the ribs before slow-cooking them in a cuminy spice rub. The advanced cooking techniques produce an absolutely primal eating experience — tearing through the ribs after picking them up and dragging them through the pooled juices on the plate is one of the more lasting restaurant memories I have from this year.

The unexpected touches continue through dessert as well. A standout apple cake will not remind you of bubbie. A mahogany-hued dome of caramel-and-cinnamon-imbued cake presides over dehydrated slices of apple, surrounded by a burnt apple sauce and vanilla ice cream. The goat cheese sorbet — lightly tangy quenelles of sorbet flanked by shortbread cookie crumbles and Asian pear — is the ideal finish for someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth. Paired with a bowl of deep-green matcha tea whisked tableside, it is just the latest, coldest example that Peter Serpico just changed the game.

Serpico, 604 South Street, Philadelphia, www.serpicoonsouth.com; 215-925-3001. Dinner for two, around $120 with drinks

Greg Salisbury tried gluing food together when he was a child; sadly, his results were not met with the same acclaim. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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