Confidence and French Classics at De La Terre
The Downingtown BYOB replaces tweezer-food fuss with a remarkable sense of itself.
You can tell a lot about a restaurant from the first bite it offers you. An amuse — chosen for you by the kitchen, presented with a little pomp, meant to show off, to hint at intent — can reveal everything if you’re paying attention. Does it come out on fire? Garnished with sparklers? It’s a smile and a handshake from the back of the house. Does it arrive quietly? Grudgingly? Is there joy in it? An amuse is a fleeting bite, but it means the world.
At De La Terre in Downingtown, there’s pride in the amuse. Control. A wink of art. A flicker of excess. Beef tartare, on a house gaufrette, presented on a small white plate. I’ve eaten my weight in tartare and have forgotten almost all of it. This one made me sit up straight in my chair. I bit the gaufrette in half, tasted the sting of shallots, the smooth fattiness of the raw beef, felt the snap of a perfectly fried chip, and thought, Oh, hello, chef. Where have you been hiding?
Turns out, State College. And the kitchen at Dandelion. And at Jean-Georges, too. Chef Andrew Hufnagel used to own Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar in State College, where he served crab risotto, truffled frites, and sous-vide pork chops over kale and white bean cassoulet to the neighbors and students whose parents were picking up the tab. After Zola closed in 2018 (the building was razed for a condo development), Hufnagel was without a kitchen of his own until now.
Hufnagel’s menu is classically French, with moments of scaled-back experimentalism rather than the cuisine’s implied stuffiness. These uncomplicated plates show a chef who’s confident enough that he doesn’t require fireworks, just flavor.
Take the crevettes — a half-dozen kombu-poached shrimp bedded in ice on a sparkling chrome tray, the pink flesh perfectly cooked and chilled, served with a lemon mayonnaise (thin, homemade, sweet) and a scratch cocktail sauce of shredded horseradish and just a touch of tomato to mitigate the burn. Or the hyper-classic onion soup in its stoneware crock, demi-rich and enlivened by sherry, topped with that blistered crust of broiled gruyère and comté.
The room is unaffected — clean lines, dark hardwood floors, table linens still creased from folding. There are candles. Plain white plates of bavette steak puddled with compound butter and piles of frites, espresso-crusted venison with chanterelles and a dark Périgueux sauce rich with winter truffles and madeira. De La Terre’s space feels like a restaurant — not a gallery, not a club or someone’s living room. There’s no artifice here. And that kind of self-possession only makes the energy coming from the kitchen feel more pointed and true — this sense that someone back there is doing great work, knows it, and can’t wait to share.
Not everything hits. The salmon was disappointing, settling limply into a slightly burned maitake brown butter sauce that tasted (oddly) like a saccharine teriyaki glaze. But a similar pine-nut butter sauce, scented with sage and dressing a plate of Parisian pâte-à-choux-style gnocchi (fat as baby fists, soft as marshmallows), was excellent (though the peels of black Périgord truffle crowning those gnocchi had all the flavor of damp construction paper). And while presentation normally matters to me about as much as the font on the menu, here, both plates were so architecturally classic (pools of sauces, the chaotic fall of garnishes) that I was temporarily misty for ’90s dining trends, before tweezers supplanted spoons at the pass rail.
I will always love a kitchen that puts as much care into its safety dish as it does its showpieces, because that’s leaving ego in the dust. That’s caring more for the menu and the customer than for your image. At De La Terre, they sometimes serve a burger on the dinner menu — a “Royale With Cheese” — for anyone spooked by the escargots or foie gras. I ordered one at an early dinner, because much as I love tartare and huckleberry gastriques, I was just really in the mood for a fat, bloody burger. What arrived was a thick American Wagyu patty, cooked medium rare and still cool in the center, topped with raclette, slivers of crisp fried onion, Bibb lettuce, and a tomato-bacon aioli, all mounted on a toasted brioche roll. Pair that with fistfuls of greasy frites, a complimentary splash of champagne from the house, and a bottle of red from my trunk, and you have the very definition of confidence and restraint. A great burger in a restaurant that can also do Hudson Valley foie with quince preserve is a kitchen that knows its business. That doesn’t have to show off for anybody. And that, all alone, is a dinner worth going out of your way for.
Maybe even all the way to Downingtown.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in Philly
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in Philly
★★★★: come from anywhere in America
Published as “Leaving Ego in the Dust” in the May 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.