Updated: Sunday, September 23, 2007, 3:01 AM
The folding chalkboard sign perched in front of Teresa's Next Door beckoned to passersby with an unexpected pitch: "WARM BEER, LOUSY FOOD! (We're new . . . What did you expect?)"?
It was just the right wink for a new Belgian bar trying to turn heads in downtown Wayne, an old-line martini zone if ever there was one, where the offbeat beer crowd downing Kwaks and sour ale stands in sharp relief to the native preppies. Then again, those two worlds have converged happily at this handsome pub, where I saw not one, but two Mohawk-topped punks bopping amid the paisley, pink and green. That alone was worth the visit.
But Teresa's Next Door is more than a curious social scene. It is the serious beer venue the Main Line has been needing, with 26 great brews on tap and more than 200 in the bottle. And no, the food isn't lousy.
It's been several years since downtown Philadelphians acquired a seemingly unquenchable thirst for Belgian gastropubs, with their myriad variations on the mussel pot and international beer cellars with a breadth once reserved just for wine. So it was only a matter of time before the phenomenon made its way to the suburbs.
There are a handful of other farther-flung beer destinations, like Ortino's Northside in Schwenksville, the Sly Fox brewpubs in Phoenixville and Royersford, and the Drafting Room in Exton. But none were built with quite the same homage to Philly's beer-hall hits as TND, which co-owner and chef Andrew Dickerson says was inspired by Monk's Belgian spirit, Standard Tap's dedication to fresh local beers, and Tria's focus on artisan cheese and wines. The international wine list here is substantial.
It appears Tria's upscale polish was also a point of inspiration, as Dickerson and his partner, Michael Ellis, went to great lengths to make this room "all pretty for the suburbs."
The former paint store, attached through its front door to Ellis' Teresa's Cafe, a popular brick-oven Italian destination, has been transformed into a slick (and numbingly noisy) 78-seat bistro fitted with cherrywood booths, slate floors and walls, and a blue granite bar behind which a wall of shelves holds more than 60 kinds of glasses for different beers. Elegant tall flutes for the fruited Lindemans lambics. Wooden stands to hold the balloon-bottomed Kwak glass. A proper tulip to suspend the foamy head of my Affligem blonde in all its lemony spice and malty glory.
That kind of attention wins extra points with the dedicated beer-geek crowd. But the selection alone is already strong enough to draw a following, with two dozen constantly changing taps ranging from Belgium's finest through English bitters, German weiss, local stars, and other sought-after American brews, like a Pliny the Younger so potent this driving crowd is limited to two.
Our well-versed server, Kevin Rhodes, also didn't hesitate to drive us off-tap into the 200-bottle list, and we were rewarded with a delicious rarity called Houblon, a maltier Belgian take on IPA from the makers of La Chouffe.
With the Beer Yard, one of the region's best specialty distributors, nearby for a supporting role, it's no wonder Teresa's beer program is strong. What would eventually distinguish Teresa's from other Belgian-style pubs in the city is a more consistently cooked menu, especially with the entrees.
It is already distinctive, with an unexpected sprinkling of authentic Mexican flavors to spice up the core of Flemish standards. Inspired by Teresa's Mexican kitchen staff, the restaurant's best starters include smoked pork carnitas with salsa verde and queso fresco, crispy chicken flautas, and a tomatillo appetizer - a cleverly tangy twist on fried green tomatoes.
For the Belgian traditionalists, the mussels are also expertly done. Plump and sweet, they are available in a range of zippy flavors: the "Dirty" moules enriched with bacon and bleu cheese, the more classic "Provincial" dressed in white wine and fines herbes, and "Drunken," my favorite, the dubbel-splashed shells cradling crumbles of chorizo beside the mollusks.
The amazing fries that accompany those mussels were impossible to stop eating, the handcut Yukons perfectly crisped with a double-fry and served with a chile-spiced remoulade.
Those fries also make a nice starter alongside a platter of Teresa's artisan cheeses (we had some real winners, like Taleggio and Valdeon) or the bread board with charcuterie.
The entrees, though, were inconsistent. A delicate waterzooi stew was among the best, an assortment of fish and seafood braised in a lightly creamed white-wine broth. The two other fish entrees - cod and Arctic char - were also fine, but were both redundantly served in a similar sauce.
The Belgian carbonnade beef stew, meanwhile, was leaden and oddly oversweet. The barbecued chicken had a nice spice-woven sauce, but the meat was dry. I loved the bacony Brussels sprouts with the pork, but the thick chop was terribly overcooked.
A steak-frites brought a decent bistro cut of top sirloin for $17. But the good veal and rabbit sausage was grilled to a dry crisp, with a smear of goat cheese that didn't do enough to perk up the sandwich.
The kitchen also needs to work on desserts. The dark chocolate mousse wasn't dark enough. And the intriguing homemade ice creams were a little raw, including a mint flavor oversteeped and bitter, and a surprisingly incendiary scoop of "hot chocolate" ice cream fired with cayenne.
If I thought "warm beer" was tongue-in-cheek, they weren't kidding about the "hot" ice cream. There was, thankfully, plenty of cold ale to quench the fire.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Chabaa Thai Bistro in Manayunk.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.
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