The old stone inn sits in the hills above West Chester, puffing chimney smoke into a starry winter sky, much as it has since 1814.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a place with more classic country allure than the Marshalton Inn, where plank-floored dining rooms are warmed with fireplaces and Oriental rugs, a dark-paneled tavern that abandoned candles for electricity just five years ago.
That bar is still a moody, cozy little nook to warm you with a snifter of Deerstalker Scotch before heading into the main room for dinner. But even a survivor such as the Marshalton Inn cannot thrive forever on rustic charm alone.
There have been so many chef changes, new menus, and shifting hours of operation in recent years that the restaurant's longevity streak seemed seriously in danger. By the fall, when David Cox finally arrived from Manhattan to become Marshalton's chef and co-owner, the dining room was serving as few as eight dinners a night.
I doubt empty chairs will be a problem for the near future if Cox continues to cook the sophisticated French country fare that highlighted my meals there recently. The menu is especially appealing to someone, like myself, who is obsessed with great cheese.
Cox, a West Chester native, spent the last several years as executive chef at New York cheese meccas Picholine and Artisanal before deciding to abandon his weekly commute to Manhattan from the town of Marshallton, where his wife, Wendy, and two young sons have been living.
He has brought that flair for fromage cookery with him. And the heady tang of molten cheese perfumes the air. It wafts up from the fondue pots that bubble on various tables, where long skewers holding cubes of bread dip into ivory pools of Vacherin Fribourgois and Emmentaler. Other pots simmering with creamy Stilton splashed with sweet riesling await skewers of steak.
A crock of French onion soup seems familiar at first, almost mundane, but its deeply steeped broth and tangy lid of melted Comte and gruyere are a perfect example of the honest bistro spirit Cox aims for, rooted in classic sensibilities but elevated with good ingredients and solid cooking. Cox even redefines macaroni and cheese with a five-cheese Euro blend (from mascarpone to Vacherin) that nails the balance between creamy luxury and pungent tang better than any other haughty-macaroni I've tasted. The butter parmesan bread crumbs on top don't hurt.
Cox's cooking always retains a solid French bent. His duck confit steeps in fat for 12 hours to an amazing, juniper-scented tenderness. House-cured salt cod and potatoes make a fluffy brandade filling for a puff pastry "ravioli" set over a Basquaise garnish of roasted peppers and capers.
Tender saddle of rabbit is elegantly stuffed with wild mushrooms and sided with wide sheets of house-made pasta. A strip of Scottish venison is seared with a light pepper crust that adds a spark of heat to the earthy sweetness of chestnut spaetzles tinted with a bitter kiss of 99-percent cocoa chocolate.
Wild Burgundy snails come sealed with pistachio paste inside puff pastry rounds, called pithiviers, with garlic butter. They were a delicious twist on the usual escargot, though my second-visit waitress refused to even try to pronounce the dish. She gave instead a blushing "aw shucks" shrug, as if to plainly acknowledge that the service here is content to be pleasant, not polished.
Meaningful advice on the wine list was even harder to come by - though the cellar has a relatively small starter collection of international value wines. There were a number of decent selections under $50 a bottle - a Sauvion Sancerre ($45); a Staete Landt sauvignon blanc ($40); a Jepson syrah from Mendocino in California ($37). But both the wine selection and the service need to improve if the Marshalton Inn hopes to step up to the next level. (While they're at it, can someone fix the heating system?)
Cox's cooking already approaches that next level with some frequency, but he's not yet nearing perfection. I loved his delicate Parisian-style gnocchi, airy choux pastry dumplings tossed in Parmigiano-Reggiano broth with bits of fennel sausage and broccoli rabe. And his "blintz" was a clever rebuke to the requisite crabcake, wrapping a simple crab salad inside a tarragon-flecked crepe with avocado and grapefruit. Beautifully seared scallops played against the sweetness of salsify root cooked three ways - pureed, fried and glazed.
The kitchen's other entrees, though, were more erratic. The hanger steak was a straightforward bistro cut, but less tender than others I've had. The unimpressive frites were hardly worth the scratch effort. Cox uses excellent fish - meaty red snapper, dewy fresh flounder - but the accompaniments for both were ho-hum. Likewise for the goat-cheese polenta that accompanied the lamb porterhouse, its corn flavor overpowered by too much cheese.
One might expect as much from Cox. With the exception of a warm chocolate tart topped with salted caramel ice cream, even his best desserts are cheese-centric. The cheesecake with praline crust, for one, is a direct homage to the creamy masterpiece from Artisanal. And I'd skip the thin hot chocolate any night for Marshalton's cheese platter, which included a "spoonable" cow's milk curd called Affidelice that is an oozy, slightly milder rendition of Epoisses. Which means incredibly stinky.
It's also the delicious aroma of a classic inn getting its second wind.