Originally published Dec. 12, 2004
The blue-blazered barons of Berwyn aren't playing by the rules tonight at Nectar. The menu clearly states that cell phones are not allowed. Yet at a table for six near mine, three well-heeled Main Line types are yapping into their phones as if they weren't sharing dinner (or a dining room) at all.
Maybe they think the Friday night roar in this massive space masks their rudeness. But it's possible they never read the fine print, let alone absorbed the larger, Zenlike message on the menu: "Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon. - Dalai Lama."
Co-owner Scott Morrison, who also owns Tango in Bryn Mawr and Basil Bistro in Paoli, can expound at length on the Tibetan themes woven into Nectar, which rises like a contemporary stone palace where a saloon called Billy Jake's once stood.
From the long gold and burgundy velvet curtains modeled after monks' robes to the feng shui of David Rockwell's soaring design and the $250,000 silk-print Buddha that hovers over the bar with an ethereal serenity, Morrison has conceived a restaurant that evokes both a spiritual glow and urban sophistication. "People walk in and say, 'New York!' " he says proudly.
Actually, most people walk in and say "Buddakan." And while the similarities to Stephen Starr's Old City hot spot may hint at a lack of originality, positive comparisons are also valid. Morrison and his partners, Yangming owner Michael Wei, chef Patrick Feury, wok chef Kenny Huang, and manager Henry Chu, have created a seminal restaurant for the suburbs just as Buddakan raised the style bar for Center City.
Not only is Nectar a $5 million beauty, from the glass-enclosed balcony trimmed with seagrass shoji screens to the tubular red silk lamps dangling from the 19-foot ceilings. It also acts like a serious restaurant in every way.
The service, which had some predictable growing pains when the 180-seat space opened in July, has settled into a comfortably professional groove. The pacing occasionally lags, but the seasoned servers know the menu. They offer detailed advice that is personal, not robotic, helping diners decide between the perfect riesling or cold sake or navigating the choice of wild striped bass versus tea-smoked duck.
I went for the bass and wasn't disappointed, swabbing every last bit of luscious, thick white fish through its truffled stew of chanterelle mushrooms. But that's what I've come to expect from Feury, the former Susanna Foo and Avenue B chef who ultimately gives Nectar its stamp of class.
There are inevitable echoes of Susanna Foo, where Feury worked for the last three years both on Walnut Street and in Atlantic City. But the cooking here is decidedly more French with Asian accents than the other way around. The influences also go beyond Chinese, to the fresh chiles and curry of Thailand, the lemongrass and fish sauce of Vietnam, and the sushi bar run by Masayuki Tsuruga, who turns out a limited selection of excellent rolls and sashimi.
It's not particularly exotic sushi but the quality is notable, with pristine fish cut so deftly that the sashimi platter's salmon, scallop and sea bass melt on the tongue. A gentle marinade of sesame, soy and cumin adds welcome zip to the familiar taste of tuna.
The rolls are also fine, from the lobster roll plump with crisp fried lobster enlivened by minty shiso leaf to the steak tartare roll filled with minced beef and curried mayo.
Cooked appetizers are the weakest link on Feury's menu. The pork pot stickers and the spring rolls filled with duck and mushrooms were decent but a little bland, and the panko-fried chicken skewers reminded me of upscale chicken nuggets. The crabcake with lemon vinaigrette was also too dull for $14.
But the foie gras terrine was stellar, rolled in pomegranate molasses spiced with anise and served with kumquats and quince. I also loved the dark-as-coffee oxtail consomme with wontonlike dumplings filled with duck and foie gras.
But it was with the elegant entrees that the kitchen hit its stride. The succulent roasted monkfish was meaty enough to stand up to its earthy curried cauliflower cream and the falafel croquettes and mushrooms served alongside. An amazingly fresh Barnegat tuna steak sparkled over spicy kimchee ringed by tomato butter touched with smoky bonito.
A pairing of perfectly poached lobster and gigantic seared scallops (a fair deal for $29) benefited from the subtlety of yellow lobster bisque sauce infused with a hint of lemongrass. The smoked arctic char with parsnips was the only seafood dud; the fish tasted too much like ash.
The meat entrees were just as sharp. I loved the sweet, tangy garlic-sauced beef tenderloin, wok-fried with giant shrimp. Ruby-red venison medallions were sublimely tender, and their giblety flavor found the perfect counterpoints in a puree of sweet chestnuts and a tangy garnish of Swedish pickled beets.
A beautiful rack of Australian lamb offered a nice East-West balance with its sides of truffled potato dumplings and bright mango chutney. Fresh truffles and chanterelles also lent autumnal depth to the squab, which tasted like a juicy little duck.
Some of the most satisfying flavors were in the list of sides. The wild boar that Feury used to jazz up the house lo mein was deliciously tender alongside the crunchy bits of broccoli and sweet rounds of cured Chinese sausage.
The fried rice filled with pork and more sausage and myriad tiny diced vegetables was equally addictive. And tender morsels of purple eggplant paired with chewy cubes of fried tofu and fresh black bean sauce were a vegetarian hit.
Nectar's desserts are quite good, including the homemade ice creams and sorbets (espresso, caramel, blood orange), the milk chocolate mousse with crunchy praline center, and the cheesecake with coconut sorbet. A wedge of pungent sheep's-milk Perail in a pool of honey alongside quince strudel was one of the best cheese presentations I've had all year.