For two talented Phoenixville natives aiming to pay homage to their town's history, it must have taken every ounce of restraint not to name their new restaurant the Blob BYOB.
Driving down Bridge Street one late-July eve, I noted the old Colonial Theatre ablaze with its annual Blobfest festivities, and the potential tie-ins to the 1958 sci-fi cult film were obvious. I also know more than a few restaurateurs (with liquor licenses, of course) who have compared the BYO craze to that insatiably hungry gelatinous monster.
But chef Andrew Deery and his wife, Sarah Johnson, no doubt, had something more elegant in mind when they resurrected the bones of the derelict Phoenix Tavern into a charming 40-seat eatery called Majolica. The name alludes to a type of glazed earthenware that was the late-19th-century glory of this Chester County manufacturing town, where Griffin-Smith-Hill Pottery produced sardine boxes, oyster plates and strawberry platters that are still collectible.
A key to the pottery's continued value is colorful glazes that remain vivid over the course of time. If my impressive meals at this nine-month-old bistro are any indication, Majolica the restaurant has a bright future, too, with the kind of sophisticated dining that can jump-start any aspiring downtown revival.
In the spirit of the region's best new BYOBs, Majolica delivers that sophistication - both in food and service - with an unpretentious and casual ease. The decor is simple yet elegant, a polished glass storefront giving way to hardwood floors, a plush waiting couch, exposed brick, copper-top tables, and artsy black-and-white photos hanging from misty green walls. Along the front wall is a beautiful antique breakfront filled with a variety of Spiegelau glassware - one of the many elegant touches that are a step above what you'll find in most neighborhood cafes.
The service team led by Johnson, who worked at the Birchrunville Store Cafe, is also a delight, eager to please and well-informed on the food.
The most notable upgrade, though, comes from Deery's kitchen, where the Savona and Kimberton Inn veteran is making the most of great ingredients in striking combinations.
You get a hint of this from the moment a complimentary amuse-bouche arrives. Whether it's a marble-size ball of fried halibut "brandade" alongside a tart cube of malt vinegar gelee one night, or a miniature parmesan cup filled with goat cheese mousse another, these tiny bites explode with complex flavors and textures.
Deery's cooking is focused enough, though, that little touches - a dusting of thyme petals, a few dabs of aged vinegar, or a chiffonade of basil - are able to transform a dish.
The sweetbread appetizer, for example, was beautifully prepared. But those perfectly crisp nuggets took on some surprising shades of flavor with a glaze of hazelnut oil, and a finely diced salad of apples, currants and celery - an underused ingredient that added a hint of anise.
Deery revels whenever possible in the bounty of local, seasonal ingredients, from the extra-ripe blueberries he turned into an intermezzo sorbet glossed with extra-virgin olive oil and ribbons of basil to the sweet diced peaches he used as a pedestal for a crisply seared slice of foie gras scattered with sea salt. Even the wonderful coffee is blended for Majolica and roasted nearby at Kimberton Coffee Roasters.
No dish spoke more clearly of summer, though, than the milky white corn soup, which our server poured from a carafe tableside around a mound of crisply fried cherrystone clams.
Deery, who spent five years cooking in Maine, also has a way with shellfish. He steeps lobsters gently, rather than boiling them, for a superbly tender cocktail of chilled meat served with fingerlings and preserved lemon aioli. His steamed mussels - a dish I've grown tired of - were among the best I've had, the mollusks tender and clean and completely perfumed by the Pernod flambe.
With dishes such as his deconstructed frisee salad and classic hanger steak frites (complete with amazingly crisp hand-cut french fries), it's clear Deery has an affinity for bistro cuisine. My single disappointment was his rabbit, which brought a lovely tenderloin in mustard sauce, but also a surprisingly bland and chewy leg confit.
The other entrees, though, more than compensated for that slip. A lamb loin fanned over earthy shiitake caps and a marmalade of ginger-poached raisins was surprisingly hearty. A notably meaty breast of duck was sparked by the yin-yang flavors of finely shaved bitter Belgian endive and sweet apricots spiced with peppercorns.
The two fish entrees were also splendid. A thick piece of porcini-dusted halibut posed over a vibrant green parsley butter with chanterelle mushrooms. And an amazingly good Scottish salmon (seared crisp outside but still moist inside) was set over the double crunch of a brioche crouton and braised celery ringed by truffle butter.
Good restaurants are often the best foragers for great ingredients, and Majolica should be commended for giving the cheeses of Hendricks Farm in Telford, Montgomery County, some much-deserved exposure, with a gorgeous plate that sides Hendricks' fine tomme-style and soft-rind cheeses with honeycomb, roasted hazelnuts and sweet berries.
The cheese plate is one of several worthy finishes at Majolica, which shows an extra effort when it comes to dessert.
At the heart of its best offerings are homemade ice creams and sorbets. Coconut sorbet, cradled in a macadamia nut tuile, has an exotic flair with ginger-poached pineapple. Profiteroles with vanilla ice cream are classic, but elicit aahs when a server pours a carafe of warm dark chocolate sauce over top. The best, however, was a hazelnut cake ringed by a sunburst of roasted figs, then crowned with honey ice cream and a fragrant purple shower of lavender flowers.
I suppose that is a far cry from Blob cuisine. I can only hope it is as enduring as Phoenixville majolica.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.