A Gladwyne stalwart pursues tradition over trends

Crabcake with Thai red curry sauce is one of the few dishes bearing a modern touch. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer Staff Photographer)

For a moment, he thought of calling his new restaurant "Albert's."

But even as a young man, Albert Breuers knew that notion smacked too much of ego, especially in historic downtown Gladwyne. The German chef, descended from a line of Dusseldorf restaurateurs stretching back nearly four centuries, decided to stick with local tradition.

The moody white tavern on Youngsford Road, its varnished-log dining rooms festooned with antlers, muskets and pewter mugs, would remain the Old Guard House Inn.

Within weeks of the opening in the spring of 1979, a distinguished Main Line matron reassured Breuers that the lack of change suited his clientele just fine.

"If you keep your nose clean," she informed him, "we're going to let you make a living here."

Almost a quarter-century later, very few local restaurants have managed to survive so resolutely within that old-world bubble of "Continental" dining, with its black-tie servers dishing out Dover sole and snapper soup. Even fewer have managed to do it with the consistent high quality and self-assurance of the Old Guard House Inn.

There have been a few gestures toward modernity, though with mixed success. A Thai red curry sauce was a delightful accent to the bountiful lump crabcake, the lightly spiced coconut cream adding a hint of exotic intrigue. The wild-mushroom spring roll, on the other hand, was doughy and bland.

For the most part, Breuers feels no compulsion to chase trends. Being the caretaker of a dwindling tradition is a higher priority.

"We don't invent things here. We just do them," Breuers says proudly, "the same way over and over again."

It's a motto that plays well with the largely silver-haired clientele, the well-heeled Main Liners who don't flinch at the menu's lofty prices. But anyone who arrives with an understanding of what this restaurant is not (exciting, surprising, innovative) should still recognize the quality at the heart of its food.

The deep-fried oysters are large and crisp, with centers soft as pudding. Classic soups are redolent of pure, patiently steeped flavors. The lobster bisque is infused with apple brandy and lobster, a handful of tiny claws bobbing in the creamy orange broth. From the tomatoey snapper soup waft tradewinds of nutmeg, clove and other spices that perfume the tender meat. The mushroom bisque is foresty and rich.

The beef carpaccio has a vibrant blush, and I happily wrapped the sheets of raw beef around small toasts scattered with capers, shallots and shards of Parmesan. Steamed mussels basked in a garlicky wine sauce so fragrant that you could inhale it from across the table. Even a simple chopped salad delivered unusual satisfaction, the ripe tomatoes and crisp bacon mingling in homemade Russian dressing.

On occasion, the food seems archaically heavy. I loved the herb gusto of the penne tossed with chunks of filet mignon and carrots in red wine demiglace. But I wouldn't call it a bolognese, as it was billed, and I definitely wouldn't consider it an appetizer.

The lobster Guard House was another example of too much of a good thing. The egg-washed tails were sweet and tender, but, submerged in a pool of brown butter, they sacrificed any delicacy to a lipid overload that left a burnt aftertaste. It was one of the few dishes I felt was - at $33 - priced too high.

I wouldn't complain about the quality of the Dover sole. The fillets were firm, fresh and luxurious, and properly napped with light, lemony cream. But for $34 (the menu's highest price), I'd hoped for a shade more fanfare, at least a tableside deboning.

The wait staff seemed professional enough to attempt it, even if there were moments when its attention drifted.

But I had no quibbles with the rest of our entrees, especially those flavored by Breuers' German heritage. The Wiener schnitzel was tender and crisp, the medallions of breaded veal sided with delicate lemon butter. The schweinepfeffer is a rarely seen dish, its soft morsels of pork loin cloaked in a rich brown peppercorn sauce.

A butter-glazed side of chewy, pipe-cleaner-shaped spaetzle and a mound of tangy red cabbage braised with apples were a natural complement to the pork. Then again, those sides harmonized equally well with the excellent roast duck, whose soy-sauce-crisped skin and exquisitely tender meat also came with a cloudlike corn fritter.

With its solid menu and unique, intimate decor (the log veneer was added in the 1930s to shore up the deteriorating sand-and-horsehair walls, circa 1790), the Old Guard House has a package that most other "inns" would coast on (usually to a slow demise).

But this is clearly a complete restaurant. The martinis are as cold and crisp as they come. And while the wine cellar isn't enormous, it is stocked with high-quality bottles from California, France and Italy. The selection of German wines, ironically, is conspicuously thin.

The desserts also displayed rare care and attention. Pastry chef Michelle Glancey turns out elegant confections: chocolate mousse wrapped in a tube of delicate chocolate tracery; tender pecan pie topped with a layer of creamy caramel; a fan of baked apple perched on a pillow of airy puff pastry; and ice-cream-filled profiteroles with a textbook crisp crust.

Only the preordered chocolate souffle was a letdown, cooked to the consistency of spongy cake and delivered too far ahead of the other desserts.

But with a taste of "Inge's famous bread pudding" - a cupful of freshly baked croissant soaked in rich, raisiny custard - it's easy to forgive the occasional slip, not to mention the uncharacteristic attribution.

Inge is Breuers' wife. And after 24 years of "keeping his nose clean," that seems a small but well-earned concession to vanity.

Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.