I've met only one chef who dared to pair lobster tails with Pop Rocks and got away with it.
Then again, I was prepared for the unbridled spirit of Matthew Levin's culinary odysseys from the moment I walked into Moonlight, the weirdly white, starkly modern, lunar-landscape dining room in New Hope that, unfortunately, closed in the spring.
The senses are less prepared for avant-garde antics at the Bridgetown Mill House in Langhorne, where Levin now cooks.
This historic property exudes classic Bucks County elegance, from the flickering gas lanterns that line the driveway to the 18th-century stone house surrounded by eight manicured acres, towering sycamores, and the ruins of a 1704 gristmill.
The complex was purchased in 1995 by Kim and Carlos Da Costa, who renovated it beautifully and then opened it as a bed-and-breakfast with five charming rooms to let in 1998. But the Portuguese-born Carlos, a veteran server at Atlantic City casinos and, before that, at Le Bec-Fin, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he opened the inn's two dining rooms as a restaurant in April.
The main dining room, with its windowpaned view of backlit gardens, is a snapshot of country charm, framed with massive black-walnut ceiling beams, a fieldstone wall, and a tall hearth surrounding a crackling wood fire. Fresh-cut roses are on every table. Dishes arrive with pomp under polished silver bells.
But Levin's menu hardly yields to the Hallmark ambience, with esoterica like kobe beef tongue, smoked maple syrup, "carrot cake essence," and escabeche of geoduck clam. Until now, I'd never seen "saltwater bubbles" as a featured ingredient.
It would all seem positively off-kilter if Da Costa did not frame Levin's contemporary works in solid-gold class: gilt-edged Limoges china, delicately cut Portuguese crystal, patterned Egyptian-cotton table linens from Paris, and Christofle flatware. When the tuxedoed Da Costa and his staff remove those silver cloches in unison, the effect is a thrilling fusion of old and new.
Levin may be among the region's most experimental young chefs. But the 31-year-old veteran of Le Bec-Fin, the Ryland Inn in north-central Jersey, and Susanna Foo never forgets the flavor essentials. And while many cooks noodle with a pantry worthy of the United Nations, I've seen few use their ingredients so fluidly and so personally.
A savory cauliflower panna cotta came topped with lightly poached Kumamoto oysters, a dollop of caviar, and the startling addition of thimble-shaped ice cubes made from truffle juice. My eyes opened wide as the ice melted on my tongue, washing down the sublimely rich pudding with a shiver of cold, earthy pleasure.
An escabeche of giant geoduck clam from Barnegat Light, sliced into tender chips and cured in a spicy persimmon-vinegar marinade, was wrapped in a cannelloni-like tube of pristine sushi tuna. A satisfying bowl of lobster bisque tasted almost familiar but for the twinge of tangerine juice in its broth and a spoonful of lobster meat glazed with jalapeno olive oil on the side.
An appetizer of tender kobe beef tongue didn't quite speak for itself, but the spicy pineapple kimchee folded inside each slice gave my dining companions and me plenty to talk about. The carpaccio of raw fluke, on the other hand, was a model of subtle flavors, the pale ribbons of fish satiny-soft under a splash of citrusy soy.
Levin's seared foie gras, a dish he cooked at Moonlight, brought an ample hunk of caramelized liver alongside a swirl of sour cherries and a streak of pistachio dust.
Entrees at the Bridgetown Mill House are quite expensive, most in the mid-$30s. (A special three-course weeknight menu for $30 is a great deal.) But Levin doesn't skimp on portions or imagination.
A Pennsylvania venison chop was encrusted in star anise and black pepper, then paired with creamy chestnut puree, braised red cabbage, and a classic Grand Veneur currant sauce. A drizzle of house-smoked maple syrup added a sneaky shade of woody sweetness.
Less subtle was the hot-smoked branzino fillet, which sat beside a red chile pepper cone stuffed with chorizo and olives that evoked a potent Iberian mood.
The massive veal chop was a dream of butter-soft flesh accented with almond oil and paper-thin rounds of crunchy radish. An incredibly tender two-pound lobster arrived out of its shell beside a cannelloni stuffed with more lobster and a subtle tangerine sauce scented with vanilla.
The John Dory was another poster dish for sweet-meets-savory. The fillets were perched over warm rice porridge flavored with a "deconstructed carrot cake" of shredded carrots and gently sweetened cream cheese. It was an unlikely mix, but it worked.
A few experiments needed tweaking. An otherwise amazing entree of sweetbreads nestled alongside thick porcini mushroom slices in a crunchy Parmesan basket could have done without the pasty pine-nut puree on the bottom. The "drunken" beef sirloin over udon noodles had an extraordinarily complex flavor, but its elaborate marinade of aged sake, Grand Marnier, citrus, chiles, soy and apple juice (among other things) also toughened the meat.
I am still looking for the saltwater bubbles supposedly floating atop the sea bass "en croute." They must have burst.
The restaurant also needs to refine its finish. The desserts (white-chocolate bread pudding, tiramisu) are decent, but too staid after such a savory adventure. The cheese board, too, is uninspired.
So was the early wine list, which during my visits last month represented only a sliver of the 100-label cellar Da Costa hopes to soon build.
But Levin could not have found a more motivated benefactor. As the dapper, Cartier-pen-wielding maitre d', Da Costa provides guests with the kind of polished, professional service that Moonlight never had.
So I'll take him at his word when it comes to fulfilling lofty ambitions. This exciting new inn is already well on its way.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.