Can a talented new chef revive the Blue Horse Restaurant & Tavern?
Like many suburbanites, chef Grant Langdon Brown, formerly of Center City’s Meritage, wanted a shorter commute. Yes, the dining scene beyond city limits lacks Philadelphia’s vitality, but the Blue Horse Restaurant’s large kitchen and top-shelf equipment were major draws. And, Blue Bell is considerably closer to Brown’s Collegeville home.
[sidebar]But the restaurant’s reputation needed repair. Under the previous chef, Blue Horse scored a measly 16 out of a possible 30 points for food in the Zagat guide. Brown scrapped the entire menu in favor of the traditional Euro-centric fare he championed at Meritage. But months after his arrival, word hasn’t gotten around. On two separate Friday nights, the dining room was deserted.
It’s true that the faux stone accent wall, the industrial carpet, the knockoff Tiffany lamps and the pleather banquettes are less than inviting. Sad environmental details, including a candle whose wick has never been lit and a stained seat cushion, diminish the mood. But Blue Horse’s worldly wine list and Brown’s appetizing menu contrast sharply with the ambience.
A whole section of the wine list is dedicated to “interesting reds.” But the server can’t describe a bottle listed only as “Taltarni,” a vineyard name. She dashes off to fetch the sommelier, who looks at the menu and says, “I don’t know. Why don’t I get the bottle from the cellar and we’ll explore it together?” The list brims with good, affordable choices both familiar and “interesting.” But you’ll need to navigate it yourself.
Brown’s dishes are mostly excellent — if only clumsy service weren’t in the way. A duck entrée pairs pan-seared duck breast with a duck potpie in a citrus-tinged sauce. The well-balanced dish plays the savory, sweet and sour notes in harmony, but servers don’t ask about preferred temperature, and the duck breast arrives overcooked for our tastes. On another occasion, entrées were served just moments after first courses, forcing a rushed pace and tepid mains.
It’s impossible to miss the kitchen’s talent. Brown’s crave-able seafood chowder is a creamy, fragrant dish with tender clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops cooked to order. The Alsatian pâté sampler features a rustic, rabbit-based country pâté and a creamy, elegant chicken liver version. The gnocchi, made with potato and chestnut flour, are sautéed until golden before being tossed with buttery wild mushrooms and chestnuts.
Many of Brown’s dishes shine even if everything else is going wrong. But with entrées priced in the $30 range, it takes more than tasty fare to satisfy. Installing a masterful chef may be the single most important step in reviving a restaurant, but it isn’t everything. Service and setting must match the cuisine for an evening worth savoring.