RATING |

With Avalon's trickling, flower-bedecked fountain and flagstone floors, eating inside feels like dining on an outdoor patio.

It may just be a coincidence, but this new West Chester destination has one of the more gracious outdoor patios around, too, an alfresco hideaway so well appointed, with its rain-free awning and piped-in music, that it kind of feels like eating indoors.

Maybe you can't please everyone all the time, but Avalon tries at virtually every turn, from its live jazz on weekends to the out-of-the-way upstairs dining room favored for first dates.

There's even a less expensive bistro menu on weekdays to lure locals, with entrees in the high teens to complement the loftier special-occasion prices (high 20s) on the standard menu.

Presenting so many personalities can be tricky for a new restaurant trying to establish its identity. But I can't fault owners John and Michelle Brandt-Lee, who last November took over a year-old restaurant that was struggling to complete a fine-dining metamorphosis from its previous incarnation as a coffee shop.

West Chester's burgeoning dining scene is such fertile ground for new restaurants that it would be hard for even a seasoned entrepreneur to decide which way to go. As first-time restaurateurs, John (a Web page designer) and Michelle (a former operating-room technician) get credit for aiming high.

True, their well-meaning ambition doesn't always pay off. The space, for all its attractive polish, comes off as somewhat cold, with so many hard surfaces that a single rowdy table can make it difficult for patrons seated nearby to hear one another. The young servers are also well intentioned, well informed and nattily dressed, but they try too hard and end up seeming a little stiff.

Time and more experience can smooth that out. And the Brandt-Lees bought themselves some slack by scoring the most elusive ingredient: a talented young chef.

Michael Merlo, 33, is no stranger to the Philadelphia region, having cooked at the Ebbitt Room of the Virginia Hotel in Cape May, Brasserie Perrier, La Terrasse, Striped Bass, DiPalma, and, most recently, the Marshalton Inn, also in West Chester. I've always enjoyed Merlo's food, but his wanderlust, considerable even for a young cook, makes him hard to get attached to.

Perhaps Avalon will be the place where he finally settles. The meals I sampled there recently revealed fare worth sticking around for.

Merlo has a modern style, blending French technique with an international range of flavors that has style but almost never impinges on the purity of his good ingredients. There may be Japanese spice tingling on the edges of his seared tuna appetizer, but the ruby-rare fish is the star.

Generous lumps of crab come nestled in a radicchio-leaf cup dolloped with mashed avocado whose creaminess adds just the right shade of extra sweetness to the fresh shellfish. Tender morsels of lobster poached with butter and herbs tumble out of the shell onto a succotash of corn and snappy fava beans that are the essence of summer.

The kitchen could use more consistency. The crisped calamari, lightly bound with aioli and molded into a bouffant on the plate, relies too heavily on its crunchy crust. The "vine-ripened" tomatoes in the mozzarella appetizer were suspiciously pink and crunchy in mid-July. And Merlo's paella, a generous mound of saffron rice and seafood, was far too dry and lacking in flavor (especially the nuggets of chicken) to merit its $26 price tag.

The selection of brought-in desserts, too, was hit-or-miss, with a nice chocolate-caramel tart and a clever peanut butter napoleon balancing the cold creme brulee and unwieldy burrito-like sandwich of cinnamon-dusted pastry and banana mousse.

More often than not, however, Avalon's food was a satisfying success.

The clear gazpacho was one of the more intriguing dishes, a crystalline "water" of pureed soup that had been slowly strained through linen and topped with finely shredded beet and carrot. When stirred, the nest of vegetable "noodles" sent plumes of color into the clear broth, mingling with the large curls of citrus-cured shrimp. Rarely does something transparent deliver such vivid flavor.

Other dishes focused on straight-ahead good cooking. Tender littleneck clams were bathed in buttery wine broth laced with an aniselike kiss of tarragon. Roasted red pepper bisque took on the tang of the creamy goat cheese whisked in.

An excellent dry-aged sirloin steak rode atop silky mashed potatoes whipped with truffle. Two meaty crabcakes, bound with just a little fish mousse and breading, found a natural garnish in sweet corn and earthy black beans. And I loved the tropical bourbon-glazed pork tenderloin with mango salsa even though the meat had cooled by the time it arrived at our table.

Merlo's fish dishes were consistently excellent. The grouper was bronzed with an achiote rub that lent the fish a musky depth rather than distracting spice. A pompano special was also notable, its silvery skin crisped and set over an Asian noodle cake slicked with a sweet-and-spicy soy drizzle.

Perhaps Merlo's best dish came out of the challenge of creating the bistro menu. A $15 leg of chicken stuffed with wild mushrooms, then sliced into rosettes and served over whipped potatoes and a roasted garlic demiglace, had all the finesse and oomph that some of his more elaborate creations lacked. I was disappointed to later learn that the restaurant had switched to stuffing a chicken breast, bowing to the dark-meat-phobes who complained that the more flavorful leg wasn't a big-enough portion.

It just goes to prove that you can't make everyone happy all the time, even though Avalon admirably tries and usually succeeds.

Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.