Michael Falcone is used to seeing raised eyebrows when customers read his menu at Funky Lil' Kitchen, which, in an old industrial burg like Pottstown, can seem a tad exotic.
Yes, those are really veal cheeks. Yes, there's actually duck in the tacos. Yes, the hemp brownies are legal.
But the most exciting answer Funky Lil' Kitchen has given me is: Yes, there's definitely a Pottstown restaurant worth the drive from Philadelphia.
This may not seem exciting to some cosmopolitans who think of Pottstown simply as the Land Beyond the Nuclear Towers. But for anyone who has family or friends in Reading, as I do, it's a perfect halfway spot to meet. And for residents of the new bedroom communities along the Route 422 corridor, Funky Lil' Kitchen is a virtual urban oasis, a quirky, sophisticated antidote to suburban sprawl.
Opened last summer in a former luncheonette, this 28-seat BYOB has charcoal-gray walls animated by the swirling pink glow of lava lamps and a bustling open kitchen. With its blend of culinary ambition and casual bistro style, it's the sort of place that has marked the turning point for happening neighborhoods in Center City.
Whether or not Pottstonians are ready to "get funky" (as the restaurant's T-shirts suggest) is another question. Judging from its light midweek business, I'd say Funky Lil' Kitchen is still ahead of the curve in the hoped-for rebirth of this former steel and tire manufacturing town.
The dinner entrees, at $19-$24, may be a shade expensive for the neighborhood's blue-collar vibe. But the prices are more than fair, given the quality of the cooking, generous portions, and good ingredients used in some rather surprising ways.
Falcone is a Restaurant School grad and line-cook veteran of several area kitchens - Adriatica in Old City and Restaurant 110 in Wayne (both now closed) and Jenkintown's 211 York. But the food here is better than what I ate at any of those establishments.
Free to express his own vision in his first venture as chef/owner, Falcone risks cooking from the heart instead of playing it safe. For the most part, he carries it off.
His masterfully braised veal cheeks are poised on a mound of homemade spaetzle ringed with a rich cabernet broth. I would have preferred soft tortillas to the hard, commercial shells on his tacos, but the flavors inside were splendid: nuggets of duck confit laced with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and a schmear of Boursin cheese.
Onion soup gets a new twist from croutons sauteed in bacon fat, their salty crunch adding a smoky layer of extra depth. A generous undercurrent of bacon also bolsters exceptionally tender escargots sauced with garlic-scented cream.
But Falcone's calling card is his penchant for whimsically swapping savory and sweet references throughout the meal. Crispy-edged Belgian waffles infused with rosemary and roasted garlic are slipped under pork loin topped with tart green apples and sauteed cabbage. Bread pudding becomes a convincing appetizer when mixed with mushrooms, apples and leeks, but a sauce of pureed onions makes it sing.
Apple cider lends just the right hint of orchard sweetness to an appetizer of fresh pappardelle tossed with roasted squash and salty shavings of dried prosciutto. Sweet grapes add a juicy pop to a lusty plate of roasted Italian sausages with sauteed bitter greens.
Seafood is also nicely prepared. Beautiful seared scallops arrive in a pool of saffron-tinged citrus broth surrounding a pan-fried chickpea cake. A rustic saute of root vegetables and Brussels sprouts gives standard crabcakes an earthy oomph. And the rainbow trout is remarkably satisfying, plumped with mushrooms, spinach and bacon that amplify its delicate savor.
There were a few disappointments. The roasted beet salad was limp and overdressed. The lump crab meat was smushed into bits on a pappardelle entree, and the pasta's sweet sauce, a carrot juice reduction, could have been more subtle.
Falcone clearly loves his juicer. He even sends out complimentary carrot-and-cantaloupe smoothies in shot glasses - a vitamin-rich intermezzo - between courses. They're one of the many small gestures that give the restaurant an endearing personal touch, from the amuse-bouche (salmon rillettes dolloped on cucumber) to the pink and white starlight balls that twinkle from the dining room ceiling and the long-stemmed carnations presented to every female diner at the end of the meal.
The servers are pleasant, well-informed and eager to please. But it is Falcone's clever cooking that should win the restaurant a much-deserved following.
His adventurous desserts weren't always quite as solid. His grapefruit "brulee" - a caramelized grapefruit half - looked like someone had taken a torch to Grandpa's breakfast. The champagne gelee was meant to evoke a deconstructed mimosa but tasted like wine-flavored Jell-O.
I much preferred the more familiar comfort of the banana-and-walnut bread pudding moistened with dark chocolate sauce. The pear rice pudding was also a perfect balance of creamy richness and roasted fruit.
And who could resist the Kitchen's groovy hemp brownie, served with a miniature glass bottle of cold milk and a pitcher of coffee-infused creme anglaise? It's so good - and so legal - that even a state trooper could enjoy the fudgy, ganache-frosted square topped with the tiny hemp seeds.
No, it won't make you loopy. But yes, it might tempt you to drive to Pottstown for dinner.