Late one evening at dinner in Bryn Mawr, amid the deep-freeze of yet another brutal winter storm, I looked up from my window seat at Restaurant Cerise to see a young man outside stride by with a brightly colored skateboard in hand.
It was 10 degrees. The pavement was a slick as a rink. Was there some magical thinking at work out there on the Lancaster Avenue sidewalk, I wondered? As if the mere determination to show up with wheels in hand could somehow transform the bleak snowdrifts of that tundra into a skateboarder's streetscape dream?
There was certainly some of that wishful thinking going on inside the dining room at Restaurant Cerise, where the multicourse tasting menus of salt cod fritters and house-spun pastas were anchoring the latest husband-wife BYO hope for transforming the Main Line's dining scene. I wouldn't go so far as to exactly call that scene a barren tundra. As far as BYOs are concerned, there is Sola (a survivor), Fraschetta (the sunny Italian newcomer), and the return of John Mims to the Narberth site of an earlier Carmine's success, resurrected with the appropriate "Act Two" appended to the title.
But the fact that there are still far too few bistros of this ilk - the kind of intimate, neighborhood-making spaces where a chef cooks with seasonality and vision - is a well-documented conundrum that is simply baffling considering the Main Line's affluent and presumably sophisticated audience.
Chef Ben Thomas, who co-owns Cerise with his wife, Elena Thomas, certainly has the pedigree to ratchet up expectations. Born to a military family and having spent a chunk of his childhood in Germany, Thomas cooked at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, Sycamore, and Callahan Catering, with a year in between at Bistro d'Hubert in Paris.
That Paris stint was a clear influence on some of Cerise's best dishes, including the golf ball-sized fritters of brandade, a garlicky mash of piquant salt cod and potatoes, posed over shaved fennel and arugula salad and a vivid yellow stripe of painted saffron aioli. A beautifully seared hanger steak hits just the right notes of beefy satisfaction, echoed with a tarragon-rich dab of truffled bearnaise. And I'd have ordered the confit duck gizzards with beets and cherry gastrique had the week's storm not made them unavailable (the nuggets of seared lamb were a fine - albeit less intriguing - substitute.)
The Swabian tart, a caraway-scented onion-tart ode to Thomas' Southern German youth, was another winner dish that reflected distinct influences of his roots.
Where Cerise goes wrong - and it did, too often - is when the focus veers, the execution falters, and the repertoire thins to the point where many dishes simply don't hold enough interest to earn their place on a multicourse tasting menu - the only option here, albeit with choices.
The value isn't always there. A small cup of macaroni and cheese needs more than bread crumbs and a few bits of butternut squash to be worth one of four courses in a $47 four-course prix-fixe - even if the macaroni is homemade, which explains why these noodles were squishier than the store-bought dried variety. Ditto for the bowl of pureed red pepper soup, which was thin and basically very boring, despite a small dollop of za'atar-scented, house-made farmer's cheese.
At my first meal in November, Cerise wasn't even prepared to serve more than a few slices of baguette with its chicken liver mousse. It was tasty, enriched with bacon, brandy, and the subtle tartness of green apple. Were we expected to eat the rest from a spoon? The young, somewhat disorganized service staff was flustered by the request for more bread.
The focus on house-made pasta is largely appealing for the menu's second course, but the rigatoni was more notable for its soulful lamb-shoulder ragu with olives and capers than the pasta itself, which hit an odd place between al dente and chewy. A delicate vegetarian tagliatelle "Bolognese" of carrot was an inventive take on an oft-underappreciated root - the carrot both pureed and shredded for texture, perked with the brightness of preserved lemon.
It was one of the few genuinely creative dishes at Cerise, with the kind of spark Thomas would be well served to pursue if he continues tasting menus only. The multicourse format (with three courses available for $37 Wednesday and Sunday) was inspired, he said, by favorite examples at Modo Mio and Sbraga. It also makes economic sense to guarantee a certain income with just 46 seats. And for what it's worth, the wine-toting customers seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to savor a leisurely meal in this spare, but comfortable and casual split-level bistro space.
Cerise certainly feels right in style and concept, at least for this time and place. But the low-fuss substance of Thomas's menus often feels more suited to an a la carte neighborhood spot than a culinary destination. There's nothing wrong with raw oysters with a tangy relish of minced cucumbers, or a fresh pasta tossed in walnut pesto, or two warm crepes stuffed with sautéed kale and wild mushrooms. But they weren't exciting, either.
In many cases, good ideas simply lacked closer attention to the cooking. A pan-seared fluke with black garlic aioli was woefully overcooked. Some shrimp were perfectly seared, but the black rice beneath them was overdone and underseasoned like a strange dark porridge. The clams with spaghetti where chewy, while the sauce, missing the mollusks' naturally briny juices, was bland. A casareccia pasta was promising with pomegranate seeds and fried sage and chestnut cream - but the sauce was pasty. I loved the crispy pork belly, but the pairing - creamed celery root - was both too dairy-rich and mushy.
The desserts were equally erratic, with one fantastic option (a chocolate ganache bar layered with chewy condensed milk-molasses caramel and candied orange zest), one decent but dull choice (olive oil cake with whipped cream), and two disastrous takes on croissant bread pudding (the first awash in cider soup with runny whipped cream; the second obliterated by sour cranberry puree.)
Cerise's shortcomings appear fixable with more kitchen consistency and, perhaps, a realistic recalibration of its concept: either raise culinary ambitions to meet expectations of a prix-fixe tasting, or settle into the more modest approach of a neighborhood-friendly à la carte.
For the moment, the most successful finale was a slice of washed-rind Chimay cheese - once we secured enough baguette. With expectations lowered, our wishful thinking was easily fulfilled.
Ben and Elena Thomas - the chef and co-owners - discuss Restaurant Cerise at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Laurel on East Passyunk.