Avalon Review: Avalon Redux

Two generations of West Chester diners come to the table

WHEN JOHN BRANDT-LEE bought Avalon in 2002, it was a struggling 10-month-old restaurant ­teetering between success and failure. The former Web designer was convinced that an emphasis on excellent customer service would tip the balance in Avalon’s favor, and within a short time the restaurant became a modest success. But as Brandt-Lee settled into the role of restaurateur, a highly personal vision for a new eatery came into focus, and he planned to branch out with a second place.

[sidebar]

Inspired by successes like Nectar in Berwyn, Brandt-Lee wanted a restaurant with modern gourmet fare and a hip vibe. Eventually, though, he realized it would be a disservice to his customers to divide his time and energy. So he nixed his plans for that follow-up spot and set about remaking Avalon into a place where his loyal customers could comfortably rub elbows with West Chester’s many young professionals.

Now, the old French-Continental menu and colonial decor are gone. And the dining room, sleek with polished wood tables and moody lighting, is filled with West Chester students on first dates and book clubs geared toward the AARP set.

The updated menu is an even bigger appeal for trend-seeking diners. Taking a cue from runaway hits like Osteria, Brandt-Lee has focused on authentic handmade pasta dishes. He hired an Italian woman who makes pasta out of her Conshohocken basement daily for Avalon and other restaurants. And some of the dishes based on her noodles justify invoking Osteria’s name.
A generous portion of minced crimini, shiitake and portabella mushrooms fills delicate tortelloni; these earthy dumplings float in a fragrant truffle-infused broth. Another pasta standout is the wild boar bolognese. Wide ribbons of pappardelle provide a base for flavorful bits of boar and a thick reduction of barolo and tomato.

The best first course, a mixed antipasti board, also skews upscale Italian, with sliced-to-order charcuterie (including lomo, sopressata and prosciutto sourced from Di Bruno Bros. and Talula’s Table), artisanal cheeses, eggplant salad, and pears candied with sugar syrup and a hot kick of mustard. Other starters, like a ho-hum hummus bruschetta and a soggy calamari, seem like leftovers from Avalon’s former life.

Original regulars might also recognize the slightly tough duck breast, which is redeemed somewhat by delicious madeira-drenched beluga lentils and roasted asparagus. Specials based on chicken and steak will likely please the old guard, too. Keeping a restaurant fresh without alienating regulars is one of the business’s toughest challenges, and the new Avalon strikes a winning balance between trends and traditions.