Many a restaurateur has soared or sundered on the whims of a hired chef. And for an owner new to the biz - as John Brandt-Lee was in 2002 when he bought Avalon in West Chester - the situation was particularly vulnerable.
So what happens after a friendly review, like the one I gave Avalon in 2003, when the lauded talent leaves just a few months later? For Brandt-Lee, it meant that another chef with another menu and style was given the keys to his kitchen and clientele. But the new hire - the well-traveled Clark Gilbert, who knew from the start his time at Avalon would be limited - brought with him a novel concept: cook's training for the owner.
He said: "You're going to learn - if not to become a chef - to at least not let a chef have you [at his mercy] again."
It was the beginning of a fortunate new chapter for Avalon and its owner. Gilbert, now the proprietor of Gemelli in Narberth, was a fine steward for the menu. More important, he was the perfect mentor to give Brandt-Lee the fundamentals and launch him on a new career in chef whites. After several years of apprenticeship under Gilbert and two more cooks, he's been running his own kitchen now for more than a year.
And Avalon doesn't just feel renewed. This 90-seat BYOB feels like a completely new restaurant - because in many ways it is. The once wide-ranging contemporary menu with French accents has been totally refocused on Italian flavors, fresh pastas, and personal twists reflecting Brandt-Lee's newfound passion. (Ironically, he was once a steak-and-potatoes guy.)
The sleek, bi-level, stone-floored room, one of West Chester's go-to upscale destinations, has had some special-occasion starch removed, as the white linens were replaced with handsome wood-topped tables, and the bird-bath fountain near the entrance was removed for a marble-topped table laden with charcuterie and artisan cheese.
That bounty of nibbles set front and center is now one of Avalon's best assets. The dozen cheeses and half-dozen salumi there, including unusual finds such as Piedmont Raschera, Nebbiolo-encrusted Testun al Barolo, sublimely rich Gorgonzola Dolce, and Fra Mani salumi, rank among the best arrays in the burbs. (The mole-infused salami from Mario Batali's dad, Armandino, was an unexpected Mex-Italiano treat.)
The mere invitation to antipasti, though, sets a leisurely tone for sharing and multicourse sampling that suits Avalon's flexible new mood, whether for a date, a business meal, or a friends-night-out casual meal. The warm and well-trained staff is up to any occasion - though one server, with the droning monotone of a GPS guide, could have trimmed about two-minutes from her run-on opening spiel.
The four-course "giro" menu deal ($35 weekdays, $40 weekends) is an affordable way to take the measure of Brandt-Lee's progress as a chef. (Even better on Friday nights, when he gives away a complimentary craft beer and cheese pairing.)
Considering the insular nature of his self-funded training (aided by avid reading, TV watching, and dining out), Brandt-Lee's cooking shows some impressive instincts.
The sweet-tart crunch of matchstick apples and almond-panko crumbs, plus creamy mascarpone cheese, adds another dimension to the usual roast beet salad. A light hand at the sauté pan - just searing fresh calamari in an olive oil-wine Provençale sauce heat-flaked with chilies - highlights a rarely seen delicacy with usually fried squid.
There are some inventive stuffed pastas, such as the cannelloni crepe wrapped around an airy fluff of creamy shrimp mousse; or the half-moon agnolotti filled with caramelized onions and Gruyère cheese that pair with tender snails in garlic butter. Brandt-Lee's best entrees also tap into the rustic Italian tradition of slow-cooked meats, whether it's the pork shoulder and sausage in rich tomato gravy, or a lamb shank stew with root vegetables sparked with a spicy lamb meatball.
Any one of these would satisfy a cold-weather craving. But ample room for Brandt-Lee to grow is also evident in details that hold some dishes back from a higher level. The chef's time-saving love of the pressure cooker shortchanges some meats (like the lamb) that would gain tenderness and depth from a slow braise. Likewise, his short rib was a tad too stringy to make an effective stuffing for ravioli, which also suffered from a wide and doughy crimp.
In some cases, the chosen pasta shape was off. The ricotta gnocchi were three times too large and dense for an otherwise wonderful fall sauce of diced butternut squash in brown sage butter. The linguine was nicely house-made, but it was too fine and delicate to stand up to the zesty chew of minced surf clams in garlicky wine sauce.
In some cases, Brandt-Lee has already seen and corrected flaws - like the dry venison Bolognese that's been replaced with a hunter-style blend of mixed meats. He might also consider upgrading the steak: I loved the look of a perfectly seared strip fanned atop a creamy orzo risotto, but for $27 (the menu's priciest entrée), I expected the deeper savor of a better grade of meat. The short rib and Gorgonzola arancini were good enough, but would have been better with the meat tucked traditionally into the center - any good arancini's trademark surprise - rather than blended throughout the rice.
For the most part, though, Avalon already has most of the right flavors in line. One of the most intriguing, a "salad" of deep-fried bacon smoked in red wine chips, paired with tomato jam and creamy blue cheese, should not be missed. For lighter tastes, Avalon also delivers well on seafood, including a tasty bowl of well-cooked "cioppino" in saffron broth, and crisply seared organic salmon ringed by eggplant caponata kissed with the balsamic-like sweet tang of saba.
Brandt-Lee, like most chefs, is insecure about dessert. But he shouldn't be. OK, I wanted an actual crust for the "crustless" Honey Crisp apple tart. But what's not to love about a croissant bread pudding with pumpkin ice cream and gingersnap cookies, or creamy rice pudding topped with port-soaked cherries, or chocolate-hazelnut filled crepes? The big test, though, is his twist on the obligatory chocolate fix. Rich pudding comes blended with Valpolicella wine (a Batali move, but . . .) then glazed with wild cherry syrup that flows around every dark spoonful like a crimson liquid mirror.
It's the kind of chef's whim I like - and just what this newly self-sufficient restaurateur needs to continue to soar.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Le Viet in South Philadelphia. Contact him at email@example.com.