RATING |

We had arrived at the edge of suburban civilization as we know it. On one side was a Whole Foods Market. On the other side of Wilmington Pike was a herd of deer munching across the rolling Delaware County fields of recently cut alfalfa, their hungry eyes ablaze with the setting sun.

Was that fresh sturgeon I smelled, smoking sweetly on a grill somewhere behind Junto, the restaurant prettily lit with strings of white lights, attached to a strip mall here? Is that the gypsy guitar of Django Reinhardt beckoning me inside the simple elegance of this airy "modern farmhouse," where a vintage Speed Queen washtub in the corner brims with ice and chilling BYO wines?

Indeed it was, and I was heading in. Because what came next was one of the best meals I've eaten in the Pennsylvania suburbs in a very long time.

Pink rounds of springy mortadella, house-made with hazelnuts, came on a plank with pungent dabs of root-beer mustard, house-baked fig bread, and chunks of glossy Thumbelina goat cheese. Warm crab fritters were fluffy at the center, where corn kernels popped with September sweetness over pickled okra and a spicy-sweet pepper relish made from Anaheims and Hungarian wax hot chiles. Meltingly tender beef cheeks, pan-crisped to finish, perched atop snappy green lima beans tossed in silky, piquant tomato puree.

And those were just the openers of a $55 tasting that certified this tasty fact: MacGregor Mann is a name to remember.

This bucolic corner of Chadds Ford, 40 minutes from Center City, may seem a curious place for a cook of Mann's talent and pedigree to land in his chef-owner debut. Then again, for the 33-year-old who rose through the Garces ranks to become chef de cuisine at Amada, then jetted off to Copenhagen for a stint at world-famous Noma, it made plenty of sense. The suburban rents are friendly, for one.

But those Whole Foods shoppers are exactly the demographic that just might get the hyper-seasonal, kohlrabi root-pickling, house-smoking, kraut-curing, raw-sheep's-milk-ricotta-making ethos that drives the menus in Mann's ambitious kitchen, served by a well-prepared staff with a professional tone (captain Amy Shelden is a vet of Susanna Foo and Lacroix).

And while that field across the road does not produce the reindeer moss that Mann was charged with tweezering clean for consumption at Noma, he and his crew at Junto (JUN-toe) have foraged more than enough wine berries, wood sorrel, and wild asparagus there to get their specials-board juices pumping. Some of the area's better farm stands - SIW Vegetables and Pete's Produce - have provided the rest of the seasonal inspiration, as Mann works to connect local bounty with the Pennsylvania Dutch flavors he grew up with in York.

The toasty cornbread sticks that welcome diners with silky dabs of clove-scented apple butter are the first clue of his back-to-roots mission, and among the many family recipes scattered here. A steel crock of sauerkraut - cabbage cured for a month to bright tartness, then warmed with sweet sparks of brandy-soaked dried-apple snitz and porky chunks of summer sausage - arrived with such a heady aroma of smoke and tang, I could travel to Lancaster on its fumes.

But Mann avoids any overly forced thematic cliches with a repertoire that seamlessly incorporates his full range of experiences. Zesty pink shooters of tomato-melon gazpacho come with a crab salad that zings with horseradish-pepper spice, evoking meals of Amada past.

Similarly, there are naturalistic nods to the New Nordic style of Noma - like the birchwood shavings through which he strains chicken stock, adding a subliminal forest savor to the glaze over a sublimely moist chicken breast, fanned beside a corn porridge topped with a summer succotash threaded with morsels of smoked leg meat. Or the butter shot through with tender green spring spruce tips that melts atop an epic 28-day-aged rib eye. That 20-ounce slice of prime-grade Berks County Hereford beef was amazingly tender and complex, with a pile of tiny roast heirloom potatoes and smoked turnips on the side that made it a worthy centerpiece for sharing at $65.

The tasting-menu option is a great way to experience a cross section of a menu that had few weak points. Though there were a couple, like a corn-chicken soup with less-than-crispy fried corn nuts that lodged in my teeth (and dumplings too tiny to convey much of their huitlacoche flavor). A handful of desserts showed creativity but lacked finesse, with too much gelatin in the sheep's-milk panna cotta, and less-than-delicate buckwheat profiteroles.

But there were so many highlights, especially with seafood, that my quibbles were minor. Huge scallops were perfectly fried in a sheer tempura crust made from sweet corn, amped by an intense brown chip of dehydrated scallop and a creamy remoulade of pureed mussels and lovage. Tart sorrel granita and shavings of fresh horseradish enlivened briny raw Cape May Salt oysters. Beautifully steamed black bass fillets basked in anise-scented froth over poached fennel. A lemon verbena white wine butter glaze added a subtle herbaceousness to that juicy fillet of smoked sturgeon.

Mann also has his way with pasta, spinning fettuccine from black garlic for a rustic entree tossed with creamy dabs of house ricotta, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, tomato water, and summer beans. A giant ravioli, though, delivered a surprise. Cut into its silky ricotta filling, and a golden egg yolk oozes out, enriching a contrasting tumble of sweet peaches, peppery kale leaves, and richly smoked nuggets of pork shoulder glossed with sassafras-infused jus and - my favorite touch - a subtle dusting of shaved walnuts.

Rarely has eating on the suburban frontier been as rewarding as this.

INQUIRER.COM

Chef/owner MacGregor Mann introduces Junto at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Chat online with Craig LaBan 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.

Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Society Hill Society. claban@phillynews.com.