An inn built when the Common- wealth was still a colony reinvents itself
When the Chadds Ford Inn opened in 1736, its earliest regulars were the travelers who used the Brandywine River ferry. Built like a fortress, with substantial stone walls, the inn survived the 1777 Battle of the Brandywine, and stayed in business for an astonishing 228 years after the Hessians defeated George Washington.
By 2005, the landmark building on Route 1 was worn out. Delaware County developer Joe Grace bought it, and paired with Dan Butler — the energetic owner of Wilmington’s Toscana and Deep Blue — to remake it as Brandywine Prime, with prime-grade steaks and fresh seafood as its niche. The menu developed by Butler is more contemporary than tradition-bound, admirably suited to affluent locals, as well as to the travelers who now come by car and SUV to visit the Brandywine Valley’s museums and battlefields. The local Historical & Architectural Review Board kept close tabs as Philadelphia’s H2L2 architecture firm tore out dropped ceilings that hid hand-cut beams, and removed walls to open up the first and second-floor dining areas. The wide, welcoming wooden front porch was left intact, but much plaster was chipped away indoors, exposing the same beautiful gray stone seen on the exterior. The downstairs bar, which has its own more casual menu, is crowded and noisy — in a good way. The upstairs dining room is quieter, and drinks are sometimes slow to arrive for second-floor customers.
To establish a new culinary identity, Butler dressed the wood tables minimally, with tailored, neutral-toned placemats, and chose a trusted chef from one of his other restaurants to run the kitchen — Bucks County native Keith Rudolf from Deep Blue, Butler’s sophisticated seafood house across from the Hotel du Pont. All the country inn/Continental cliché dishes have been swept out the door: Mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat are out; mushroom napoleon, with grilled portabellas, pillowy mascarpone, peppery arugula and crisp phyllo squares, dressed with rosemary-shallot vinaigrette, is in.
Rudolf’s boldest appetizer is his bay scallop ceviche prettily presented to look like an oyster shooter, the shellfish immersed in a wide shot glass filled with strawberry gazpacho and topped with a refreshing tangle of finely cut cucumber and fresh mint. The pristine yellowfin tuna tartare comes with a visual pun on the plate — what appears to be a spoonful of wasabi is actually a buttery dollop of pureed avocado. Cornmeal-crusted fried calamari is a must-try just to dip into its outrageously delicious aioli sauce flavored with spicy chorizo sausage. The fried spring rolls can’t compare to those at Benny Lai’s Vietnam, even if they are filled with duck confit.
I applaud Butler’s decision to serve cuts of meat that aren’t ridiculously oversize, and to include side dishes with the steaks, although the servers withhold the prices when they recite specials. Some of those specials are 16-ounce cuts that break the $40 barrier. At some point, Butler hopes to use beef from owner Grace’s cattle ranch in Williamsport, dry-aging it in-house to intensify the flavor. The dry-aged steaks served now come from other suppliers.
The wine program is even more sensible, generally holding the bottle prices to double retail, instead of the triple or more that we routinely see in Philadelphia. I counted 10 wines available for $30 and 26 for under $30, four of which were half-bottles — all good juice. To compete with the popular BYOBs, the restaurant allows customers to bring one bottle per table for a $10 corkage fee.
The kitchen has nailed the execution of its meats. The dry-aged New York strip, served with a sweet-savory pomegranate-cabernet sauce, is distinctly beefy and delivered as ordered; the tender 12-ounce veal chop is an impressive visual, its frenched bone jutting out like a salute. The eight-ounce burger, fashioned from ground tenderloin, strip and rib-eye trimmings, is as flavorful and satisfying as a steak. The braised lamb shank served over merguez-sausage-flecked Israeli couscous, which may be on summer hiatus by now, is succulent. Silky mashed potatoes come studded with luxurious chunks of lobster meat, or laced with truffle oil. Rich duck confit risotto was an atypical accompaniment for seared scallops, but a welcome one. The miscues, which included jawbreaker-crunchy brussels sprouts and audibly gritty sea scallops, were whoppers. The crabcake’s Old Bay, cayenne and bell pepper seasoning clashed loudly with the vanilla-scented cream sauce beneath it. Service isn’t nearly as polished as it should be. At this price point, food runners shouldn’t be asking who gets what, and replacement forks and coffee refills should be second nature. A pile of discarded wine and produce boxes left out in back of the restaurant during the dinner hour was a turn-off for customers entering from the parking lot.
The titanic cheesecakes and dense bread puddings that chain steakhouses push as meal-enders are, thankfully, absent here. Pastry chef Jeanette Behrens, the dessert-maker for all three Butler restaurants, doesn’t overburden customers, most of whom have cheerfully cleaned their plates. Her apple crisp, ginger crème brûlée and banana napoleon are petite, well-crafted sweets, another sensible idea from a restaurant that caters quite well to our 21st-century desires.
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