Can the Dilworthtown Inn capture the attention of a new generation of diners with Blue Pear Bistro?
Chateaubriand, beef filet for two drizzled with béarnaise, hasn’t been au courant since Jackie O frequented Le Pavillon. Yet the Dilworthtown Inn still lists the $71 entrée on its menu. And it’s ordered as often as a dozen times a night at this candlelit throwback, where men still tend to wear jackets for dinner.
[sidebar]The restaurant has been serving a similar roster of clichéd dishes — rack of lamb with mint, Caesar salad tossed tableside — to a gray-templed clientele since the ’70s. A recent special of squash ravioli sprinkled with pine nuts was a tacit acknowledgement of the intervening decades. But much like the profusion of candles and the country wall stenciling, the dish is both too sweet and a little stale. It’s the taste of nostalgia. Some things, like Dilworthtown, will never change.
Recently, though, Dilworthtown owner James Barnes realized that the retro aesthetic could use an update, one that would capture the attention of younger diners whose ideas about restaurants are more rooted in trends and TV than tradition. In September, he opened Blue Pear Bistro in the renovated historic building next door, hoping to draw young professionals who won’t plunk down $150 for their parents’ idea of a romantic night out.
Dilworthtown’s marketing brain trust dubbed the new restaurant a “hip-storic” bistro. It’s a cringer of a moniker, but one that underscores Blue Pear’s mission to distinguish itself from its forebear. Votives are nestled in design-conscious holders; black-and-white photos of global food markets line the walls. These are welcome hints that Blue Pear is in touch with 2008, but other aspects of the place grasp at hipness beyond its reach.
The bar area of the restaurant hosts an energetic young crowd, but the room’s wood-grain wallpaper, a trio of TVs and Ikea-esque lighting fixtures are more hotel-lobby than homey neighborhood bistro. Snazzy bar snacks are commonplace at happy hour, but some look better than they taste. The grilled cheese sandwich, served with cumin-scented tomato bisque, is made from bread with the texture of Wonder. The accompanying soup has only an evanescent whiff of cumin. But the sandwich’s crustless triangles are carefully composed on a thoroughly modern skinny rectangle of a plate, just like you’d see on an episode of Iron Chef America.
Another self-conscious update is chef David Fogelman’s chicken nuggets. The tender bites are made from a mix of buttermilk-marinated light and dark meat, coated in panko crumbs and fried crisp. Served with a truffle/honey mustard sauce, the dish is a winner, but just slightly more sophisticated than the fast-food staple that inspired it. And the plating scheme, which threads the nuggets on skewers and plants them in a dried-bean-filled flowerpot, contributes little and wastes a pile of perfectly good black beans.
The menu is dictated by prevailing trends, with categories like “small plates” and “medium plates.” It’s verbiage that’s more meaningful to restaurant owners and PR flacks than to diners. Servers say all plates are meant for sharing and advise ordering any combination of items according to your appetite. But labeling a plate “small” doesn’t make it tapas, and at Blue Pear, “medium” is a typical portion of protein with a starch or vegetable accoutrement. It doesn’t matter what they call them: These are appetizers and entrées.
The servers certainly lend an air of youth culture to the restaurant. Most of them are good-looking kids from West Chester University who have little in common with their tuxedoed, seasoned counterparts next door. Dilworthtown servers boast an average of nine years’ experience and expert knowledge of that restaurant’s 800-bottle wine list. A Blue Pear server nervously explained that its short wine list focuses on “new” wines, though the list actually comprises the usual suspects from France, Spain, California and Australia. These kids may be on the dean’s list, but most have no idea what kind of Troegs is on tap, what cheeses are available, or which of the charcuterie plate’s four meats is cured in-house. (FYI: It’s the lamb shoulder confit, whose salty bite melts into a rich meatiness.)
Blue Pear is at its best when it isn’t trying so hard to be cool. The appealing second-floor lounge, with low lighting and posh leather armchairs, embraces its granny-chic pedigree. The medium-plate side of the menu is firmly rooted in French bistro traditions. Prince Edward Island mussels, served with a paper cone of slender fries, appear on half the tables on any given night, and for good reason. The plump morsels are meaty and deliver concentrated, briny flavor. The creamy broth is infused with saffron and spiked with a hit of cayenne — a delicious dip for the aioli-slathered grilled bread that comes with the pile of fragrant shellfish.
Steak frites, a dish by which bistros beg to be judged, is juicy and flavorful. The sirloin is served over roasted fennel and with the same crisp fries that accompany the mussels. A recent special that paired striped bass with chanterelle and oyster mushrooms over wine-braised beluga lentils lends itself to a partner from the trend-immune, Southern-influenced menu of side dishes, which, as advertised, are portioned to share. The sweet and creamy parsnip puree complements most of the savory meats. A side of grits, rich with butter and topped with a puddle of lamb jus, is a natural match for roast Jamison Farm lamb, served with parsnips and black-eyed peas.
Desserts offer another glimmer of Blue Pear’s real personality and potential. The only update foisted upon the classic brownie is a few welcome wine-poached orange segments. The coconut arborio rice pudding goes a little further with the addition of basil syrup. Both dishes show off what Blue Pear can be at its best: an approachable eatery that puts its own stamp on the classics and forgets the trends.
Blue Pear Bistro, 275 Brintons Bridge Road, West Chester, 610-399-9812, bluepearbistro.com.