Meg Votta knew she wasn't going to be here forever.
"She was a pragmatic woman who went into this with her eyes open," said Stephen Wagner, who with his wife, Jennifer, partnered last summer with Votta to open Sycamore in downtown Lansdowne.
It was a first ownership chance for chef Votta, 51, a Lansdowne local, who was a veteran of the Joseph Ambler Inn and Simon Pearce. And this warm storefront BYOB, with its rustic wood community table and coppery tin ceiling, was a long-overdue effort to bring ambitious dining to a corner of Delaware County that has been seriously deprived.
But few could have known, including Wagner, that a resurgent ovarian cancer would prevent Votta from surviving the year. She died in November, just six weeks after quitting the stove. But she did not leave without first passing on instructions to keep Sycamore ticking: "Sam was her first choice," said Wagner, "the only person she'd worked with that she trusted in her kitchen."
The Sam in question, 32-year-old Sam Jacobson, is yet a little-known name to most local diners. The British-born chef has spent most of his career in the trenches, working the line with Votta in Ambler, followed by a couple of years in the catering biz. But after two lovely recent meals at Sycamore, punctuated by seasonal ingredients and some surprising combinations, it is clear Jacobson is a cook coming into his own.
He wasted no time grabbing our attention with inventive little amuse bouches, Asian spoons cradling nibbles of double-smoked Lancaster ham and apple compote one night, a morsel of guinea hen atop a fiddlehead fern the next.
The "Farmer's Plate" is the perfect vehicle for prolonging the cocktail hour, a rare opportunity in BYOBs, but facilitated here by Sycamore's list of inventive mixers, a fun collection of herb- and spice-infused blends (like the cardamom-scented Indian Ocean) in icy shakers with proper glassware on the side. You bring the booze.
With highlights drawn from the restaurant's cheese and charcuterie selection - some feta-stuffed olives, raw raclette, a gold-mine-aged blue cheese, fabulous savory "truffles" of chopped chicken liver rolled in pistachios, and gossamer slices of porcini-crusted steak - it's clear this kitchen prizes a good ingredient. Add a half dozen oysters on the half shell splashed in rhubarb mignonette (tiny Malpeques one night, briny La St. Simons the other), and the evening is off to a running nibble.
Of course, looking around Sycamore's half-full dining room during my two visits (one midweek, the other Friday night), I had to wonder if something was amiss. The space itself is warm and inviting, with rustic touches from the community table to the dangling, exposed Edison bulbs and fall-toned room. The service is all smiles - even if it lacks some polish in timing and presentation that mark the city's best BYOs.
It's possible this historic little town tucked just beyond the West Philly border isn't yet up to speed with a kitchen eager to serve exotics like guinea hen, venison, Wagyu beef, and boar. But I think it's more likely the case that Sycamore has slightly outpriced itself for its location on the dining frontier, with entrées that creep too easily into the high-$20s, beyond the bistro zone that's more natural for this concept.
Wagner, a pharmaceutical-sales pro and borough councilman in charge of economic development, doesn't want to sell Sycamore (or Lansdowne) short by cutting back. But 17 covers a weeknight (their survival minimum, he says, from experience) is no way to build the neighborhood cornerstone that Sycamore could be. A soon-to-be-offered prix-fixe menu, three courses for $29 on Wednesday and Sunday nights, is a step in the right direction.
Judging from the current menu, though, Jacobson has the chops to make it work - with a few minor corrections.
His sherried cream of mushroom soup was too sweet and one-dimensional (except for the whole peppercorn we mistook for a stone; they kindly removed it from the bill). The crispy crab cakes were also a letdown, meaty but so carelessly mushed inside that they were dry and boring.
Desserts, too, require some light tweaks. A bit less Jell-O bounce in the buttermilk panna cotta. A better texture for the grainy ricotta cheesecake. Stick with the Banoffee tart, a banana-dulce-de-leche-whipped-cream ode to a pub classic in Jacobson's native England. The warm crepes filled with mascarpone and plum compote with rosemary were also a smart bet.
Jacobson has a knack for deftly blurring the savory-sweet border with cooked fruit. I learned that tidbit after an encounter with his most startling creation: grilled octopus with blueberry sauce. It's an unlikely combo I never thought I'd see on the same plate - let alone like. But surprisingly, I did, in part because of a third element - cumin-dusted sourdough toasts - that somehow wove the subtle flavor of those heat-charred tender tubes right through the vinegar-laced berry gastrique.
For the most part, though, Jacobson's plates succeeded not on shock value, but on more natural combinations that allow good ingredients to shine. Beautifully seared scallops over a dark pool of black trumpet sauce paired with spring leeks and half-moons of creamy-center Norwiss potatoes crisped in duck fat. Wonderfully beefy Wagyu skirt steak came with an indulgent gratin spiked with local bacon and a crunchy dusting of smoked salt. Spicy chunks of merguez added an exotic punch to the chewy-but-flavorful leg of lamb steak.
A filet of Japanese rock cod had a delicate, flaky white flesh, but it was a tangy dash of kalamata olive piquance whipped into the usual mashed potatoes, ringed by a crunchy, pickled veggie sauce vierge, that made the dish sing. A grilled loin of wild boar was almost steak-like in its mid-rare savor, but its porky spirit spoke up beneath a sweet-tart glaze of apple cider.
I loved the red gaminess of the venison cutlets and their snappy spring corona of fiddlehead ferns. The dish as a whole, though, could have benefited from a lighter garnish than the pancetta-studded polenta that never quite added up to a convincing saltimbocca title.
Of the more elaborate dishes, my favorite was the deboned whole Poussin stuffed with Brie and beet greens that came with cardamom-onion marmalade over local eggs scrambled with asparagus and truffle oil.
It was the Circle of Life on a single plate - in a bistro that has already seen more than its share of transition in its promising young existence. But in a town that didn't know it could support an ambitious restaurant, until it got one, it's no surprise Sycamore manages to deliver both chicken and egg in one satisfying bite.
Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews R2L in Liberty Two. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.