"And our special stuffed pork chops tonight cost..."
Did he say $83? We all leaned forward, but our waiter's words disappeared into the din of howling diners.
At the hot new 333 Belrose Bar & Grill in Radnor, the main dining rooms were loud enough. But in the tented terrace space where we weekend overflow mobs ended up, the sound of people in the throes of an exciting meal swirled like a sonic vortex.
"Too much Chianti," he said, signaling to one of several boisterous tables occupied by stylishly dressed women.
Perhaps. But I wouldn't sell short the excitement of Carlo deMarco's food, either.
Since the longtime chef at Bridget Foy's made the move 'burb-ho from South Street, he has certainly given the Main Line something to cheer about. His high-flavor eclectic cooking can be downright exciting when it works, moving from salsa to Szechuan in a flash, passing across his woody grill without losing sight of good solid cooking.
Fabulous cumin-scented calamari come with an unstoppable dip of pumpkin-seed aioli and tangy mango salsa. Rosy pink triangles of seared tuna tingle with an exotic dust of Chinese five-spice. Giant grilled shrimp are infused with earthy chile persuasions of guajillo mole. And succulent breast of chicken takes on a West Indies accent, its sweet and spicy banana chutney showing off shades of curry, clove and allspice.
DeMarco's creative food needs more consistency to reach the next level. There were a few dishes that didn't work - lamb shank that wasn't quite tender, a clumsy free-form lasagna, a chewy steak, too much prosciutto wrapped around the monkfish, and an occasional flan with hardened caramel on the bottom.
But mostly, there are a lot of big exciting flavors here for the right price, considering that most of the generously portioned menu is priced under $20.
It is a sentiment the excellent wine list also evokes, with several interesting bottles - most under $35 - that are good matches for the lusty cuisine, from the lush Garland Ranch sangiovese to Spanish rioja, Australian shiraz and a refreshingly spritzy Washington pinot gris.
The five-month-old restaurant, however, apparently isn't entirely able yet to cope with its own success. Service, in particular, lags far behind the kitchen. We waited to be seated more than 20 minutes after the time of our reservation, and, despite having called more than a week in advance, ended up in the circus tent, where the table wobbled every time our neighbors exploded into laughter.
The overwhelmed service staff routinely ignored newly seated diners for 5 to 20 minutes before giving them menus or water, or even saying "hello." Getting a refill on water after they saw you was another trick. If they had stopped by, our dirty plates probably also would have been cleared before the next course arrived, a goof that happened at two separate dinners.
But once we were settled, the food more than compensated for the wait. Perfectly seasoned butternut-squash soup was dolloped with gingered chantilly cream. A disk of soft goat cheese rolled in tender slivered almonds was the perfect rich touch to balance the lemony arugula salad. Steamed mussels bathed in a racy Szechuan broth infused with chile sauce and a soothing streak of honey. Crisp spring rolls snapped around glass noodles and gingery vegetables.
Crabcakes were impressively plump and sweet, with an exotic flair of cilantro and jicama salad - each puck-sized cake twinkled with slices of starfruit. I loved the adobo mahi mahi, which was brushed with a musky rub of fennel and cumin and then charred on the grill. The fire-roasted salmon also was good, grill-crisped outside, creamy moist inside, with a wonderful side of lentils studded with little squares of horseradish root.
Finely ground coffee is the secret ingredient in Java pork, a tender tube of tasty blackened loin that comes with a sweet and spicy splash of mango-lime salsa. Ribier grapes are what make the venison special. Nestled into red wine-steeped cabbage, they draw the fruitiness out of the meat.
Desserts were less adventurous than the savory offerings, but sometimes just as satisfying. The eggnog cheesecake was a nice seasonal twist on a rich classic. The chocolate banana-bread pudding was awesomely good - dense, but impossible to stop eating. The flans also had potential, but too much of the caramel had hardened onto the bottom.
The clubby barnlike structure that Belrose occupies, formerly the Oyster Bar and, before that, Carolina's, has been transformed into a stylishly simple space. The curving banquettes, blond wood panels, stainless-steel accents and tiny focused spotlights (and very cool bathroom sinks) convey the perfect blend of casual and sleek to match the food.
But deMarco's designer, his sister Kim Petrella, forgot one thing. Oh, the noise. I couldn't hear myself eat! Our poor waiter had jokingly told us with a poker face that the pork chop special would be $83. It was really $18 - but the quip fell flat in the numbing noise of the room. I'm sure it was delicious, judging from the rest of our meal. But just to be safe, we stuck with the printed menu.