Monday, May 4, 2015

Harlan's

Steven Skinner and his wife Karen Skinner of Villanova enjoy a quiet dinner by the front window at Harlan´s.                                      (Photo:  Bob Williams)
Steven Skinner and his wife Karen Skinner of Villanova enjoy a quiet dinner by the front window at Harlan's. (Photo: Bob Williams)
About the restaurant
130 Ford St.
Conshohocken, PA 19428
(610) 828-2222
Rating:
Neighborhood: Conshohocken Parking: Free parking in a small lot behind the building; enter on George Street via Merion Avenue.
Hours: Mon-Fri (lunch) Mon-Sat (dinner)
Payment methods:
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Cuisine type: American; Pub
Meals Served: Lunch Dinner Late Night
Style: Chef-owner Harlan Russell has converted a century-old Irish bar into a bustling New American pub that embodies the evolving personality of West Conshohocken with unpretentiously updated, affordable comfort food that appeals to both its blue-collar clientele and newer corporate neighbors. Service is homespun, if not always polished.
Specialties: Crab-and-corn chowder; game sausage; pork chops; herb-roasted turkey cutlet; duck breast with sweet-potato fritters; strip steak; apple pie; pecan pie.
Alcohol: Wine List: The 10-bottle list of inexpensive international wines (almost all under $40) doesn't match the menu's ambitions. There are more interesting choices among the dozen beers on tap.
Smoking: Smoking at the bar only
Travel Deals
The partition that separates the bar from the dining room at Harlan's may be only four feet high. But, like the restaurant itself, it symbolizes the shrinking divide between the old and new worlds of West Conshohocken.

The pub side of the self-styled "neighborhood bistro," set at the bottom of steep Ford Street and surrounded by picturesque hills lined with tidy rowhouses, embodies the town's blue-collar spirit.

A century-old carved oak bar welcomes a mix of folks. There are municipal workers peaceably settling in for a brew and a bowl of chili or a roast pork sandwich, as well as, one recent evening, a crowd of manly men indulging in the timeless sport of tavern shouting: "You suck! . . . No, YOU suck! . . . No, YOU . . ."

"Duck" is more the operative word in the dining room. There, it is grilled to tender perfection and fanned around cider-braised red cabbage and sweet-potato fritters.

On other plates, seared diver scallops ring a crunchy shaved fennel and citrus salad. Patties of finely ground venison sausage scented with allspice cozy up to candied plums and a pool of bourbon-splashed whole-grain mustard.

This fare has "corporate office tower" written all over it. And plenty of those sleek high-rises are visible barely a block away, creating a new, upscale skyline along this old mill town's Schuylkill riverfront.

The beauty of Harlan's lies in how these two opposites coexist, melding far better than at some nearby restaurants that pander to tony Main Liners with martini bars and $2 valet charges. (Free parking, don't you know, is d?class?.)

At Harlan's, there isn't an entree over $19.50. And though the menu has traces of nouveau style, from the hazelnut-crusted game and maple-glazed fish to the fruit coulis and a penchant for cooked beets, it is dedicated to American comfort foods that appeal to almost everyone.

Not surprisingly, chef-owner Harlan Russell is himself a neighbor who frequented this address when it was McGuire's, a classic shot-and-a-beer hall that anchored the community since the 1880s.

He and partner Henry Fischer poured more than $250,000 into renovations, installing a new kitchen, fixing everything from the sprinkler system to the stucco facade and adding a Victorian-style balcony and quaint green shutters.

The 48-seat dining room was completely redone, too. It is devoid of pretense, decorated simply with old photos and knickknacks that evoke the casual spirit of a neighborhood pub (as does, unfortunately, the place's frightful din).

The service isn't always polished - forget about getting any real information about the small wine list. But it is earnest and homespun, anchored by Russell's wife, Diane, whose gee-whiz stories of sleep-deprived Harlan stomping around the kitchen completely charmed our table.

Being a first-time owner has been a bigger challenge than he expected, Russell admits. But creating the menu was easy, drawing on his greatest hits from past restaurant gigs, from Rembrandt's to Liberties and the Inn Philadelphia, where he cooked for almost four years. Everything is made from scratch from high-quality, mostly local ingredients.

Russell has an affinity for Southern flavors. He serves his panfried split pork chop - delicately breaded and deliciously juicy - with cheddar mashed potatoes, applesauce, and deep-fried green beans. An excellent prime-grade strip steak was seared to a peppery crust, then splayed under a tangy bourbon-infused cream sauce (which was laid on a little thick).

Considering that I dined there in the midst of the holiday season, it was remarkable how much I enjoyed the amped-up turkey dinner. The succulent, herb-marinated cutlets came with a stuffing-like bread pudding, strips of crunchy baby carrots, and freshly made cranberry relish.

Russell's satisfying soups rise on the strength of pure indulgence. The creamy crab chowder had an undercurrent of bacon and brimmed with sweet corn and nicely seasoned crab. Cream also enriched the root vegetable bisque but didn't obscure the earthy sweetness of the turnips, carrot, garlic, fennel and celery root.

Some other dishes didn't quite deliver the satisfaction they could have. Russell goes all out with his ribs, giving them a cuminy dry rub and a brief turn in a hickory smoker. The flavor was there when I tried them, but the ribs were strangely bare of meat and overly charred.

I loved the smoky maple-steeped Virginia ham appetizer, but the fritters that came with it lacked much puff or the advertised taste of apple or onion.

Sometimes Russell tries to do too much at once. Between the hazelnut crust and the Frangelico plum coulis on his venison cutlets, I could barely taste the meat.

His crabcakes were meaty and flavorful, but overwhelmed. Essentially three separate New Orleans dishes were smushed onto one: The crabcakes were fine (though, on my second try, slightly dry) and the duck-livered "dirty" rice authentic. But the crawfish etouffee gravy killed the dish, not simply from a clumsy use of spice but from its suffocating thickness.

The San Francisco-style cioppino was far closer to the ideal, a bowl of smoky tomato broth filled with nuggets of seafood - tender scallops, large shrimp and slices of Chilean sea bass - and cuminy chorizo. It was already a great value for $18.50, so why then plop a scoop of overcooked lobster risotto in the middle of the bowl? There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Unless, of course, we're talking about Harlan's down-home desserts. The pumpkin cheesecake is superbly light and rimmed with gingersnap crumbs. A bottle of Hank's root beer turns a scoop of frozen vanilla ice cream into a fizzy float.

The apple pie tucks saucy, slow-cooked fruit inside a flaky double crust. I only wish mine had been warmed.

There was some philosophical debate at my table about whether chocolate and pecans can coexist in the same slice of pie. But in Russell's Grandma Hollahan's recipe, they came together in such perfect balance - the chocolate adding a deeper shade of richness to the tender, snappy nuts - that I gave my blessing to every bite.

It wasn't, I realized, the first time Harlan's had brought two diverse schools of taste into happy harmony.

Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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