A La Maison
Average entrée price: $25.
Food: Rustic French classics.
Get: Appetizers. They’re generously portioned and show more finesse than the entrées.
Don’t get: Desserts. Gummy bread pudding and ho-hum chocolate pot de crème aren’t worth the calories.
The idea of a bistro is seductive for a chef, particularly for Darlene Boline Moseng, owner of A La Maison in Ardmore, who has vacationed in France 10 times. In describing the inspiration for her new BYOB, she recounts authentic old restaurants where Europeans feast on French comfort food. Think steaming crocks of onion soup, silken pâtés, and winey braises filled with meat tender enough for toothless grandmères.
The archetype is alluring. But it takes more than a room full of French trinkets and a well-stamped passport to bring that ideal to life for diners. Parc, for example, manages to tempt otherwise reasonable people into faking French accents because the baguettes are just as French as the banquettes, and a service misstep rarely intrudes on the collective reverie. At A La Maison, the antique mirrors suggest France, but the inconsistent cooking and sophomoric waitstaff are constant reminders that you aren’t anywhere near Paris.
Escargots bathed in white wine and butter lacked the usual garlicky punch. Another bistro requirement, steak frites, paired a buttery strip steak with limp, undercooked fries. A striped bass special (which had bits of attached butcher’s twine that dangled in the pureed potatoes) was overcooked and splashed with a bland sauce. When I asked about the inspiration for the dish, Moseng said, “Oh, I don’t know. My sous-chef created it.” A trustworthy sous-chef is valuable, but to bring any restaurant vision to life, a chef-owner must master the details, approving not just the recipes but every finished dish that leaves the kitchen. The service was similarly uninformed; waiters didn’t know the details of certain menu items (and didn’t check and report back) and vanished for long periods of time.
Moseng is a graduate of the Restaurant School of Philadelphia and a veteran caterer. Her talent surfaces in fits and starts across the menu. The moules frites, an oversize appetizer, has heady whiffs of shallots, bacon and the sea, and the chicken liver pâté is velvet on the tongue. Another supersized starter, duck confit salad, balances rich duck with lacy frisée kissed with the tart tang of vinaigrette. If this level of execution were consistent, A La Maison might be the bistro of Moseng’s imagination. But basic cooking chops and a crush on France don’t add up to a great restaurant.