Taste: Reviews: Trying to Get Comfortable
Dominique Filoni is best known for the luxurious dishes he fashioned for seven years at Savona in Gulph Mills, where creamy lobster risottos, seafood phyllo purses and truffled mashed potatoes were everyday indulgences for that restaurant’s deep-pocketed clientele.
At Bianca, Filoni’s new and more intimately scaled nook in Bryn Mawr, the indulgences are more affordable, but no less decadent. Here, the chef engages us with the rich comfort foods of his native Provence: buttery duck confit paired with baby artichokes softened in duck fat; roast chicken breast stuffed with chestnuts, bread crumbs and melted foie gras; wine-steeped short ribs coaxed to tenderness by nearly four hours of low heat; and a thyme-infused lamb shank that juts up from its cast iron pot like Mont Ventoux looming over the lavender fields. These slow-food standards represent what Filoni and his wife, Sabine, wanted to create: a down-to-earth neighborhood restaurant, rather than a special-occasion splurge.
Given that the neighborhood is Bryn Mawr, Bianca is no rough-hewn bistro. The chic young owners have warmed up the sleek space previously occupied by Toscana, adding textured wall fabric in a deep auburn hue, decorative sconces, cushy carpeting, and poufy drapery reminiscent of a Christian Lacroix party dress from the ’80s. A barman works the martini shaker with great élan, subliminally suggesting that an aperitif cocktail would be much more fun than a glass of chardonnay. The main dining room is quite convivial and astonishingly noisy during peak periods, which explains why regulars often ask for a table upstairs.
Bianca isn’t yet living up to expectations, partly because they are so high for a chef recognized as a Maître Cuisinier de France and, more recently, as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs (although at 35, he has nearly 20 years’ experience in restaurant kitchens). The food is further along than the well-meaning but unpolished service. The warm welcome and eagerness to please help offset the rough spots.
Filoni hasn’t completely abandoned luxury items, because his most affluent customers are sure to order them. Those customers have also demanded more status brands on the wine list, which initially topped out at $55. His starters include a delectable morsel of seared foie gras, served with a pinch of micro greens and caramelized pear compote tweaked with saffron. Yellowfin tuna, tissue-sheer and rosy as beef, is outlined with grainy mustard and garnished minimally with micro arugula and refreshing fennel shavings. Lobster cocktail, with succulent lobster pieces, is accompanied by tomato-herb mayonnaise and pleasantly puckery lemon confit, contemporary takes on the expected cocktail sauce and lemon wedge.
Lobster also plays a starring role in the menu’s only pasta entrée. A small seared lobster tail, two bouillon-poached claws (thoughtfully removed from their shells) and slivered snow peas top house-made fettuccine that’s a millimeter thicker than ideal, tossed with an overwhelmingly potent sauce based on strong-flavored lobster stock, fresh tomatoes, butter and Italian olive oil.
One of the best salads features ultra-thin slices of crimini mushrooms, artichokes and reggiano parmesan atop a refreshing mix of baby arugula, flat-leaf parsley and chives, dressed with lemon vinaigrette. The beet salad, on the other hand, is a simple composition of two roasted baby red beets filled with goat cheese mousse, run briefly under the broiler, served with curly endive glossed with hazelnut oil.
The short ribs and lamb shank are as good as you’ll find in Philadelphia, but the grilled rib eye, which requires closer attention, was delivered very rare instead of medium-rare, as requested. Soft polenta made with chicken stock, two cheeses and a touch of cream comes with the lamb shank, cozy and warm in a small cast iron pot with a lid.
Filoni has a nice touch with fish, having cooked plenty of it at Savona. The standout seafood dish is seared sea scallops on a pale pillow of risotto speckled with bits of butternut squash, lightened (though certainly not from a calorie standpoint) with whipped cream just before serving. Salmon dredged in crushed fennel seeds rests on slender, tender Belgian endive braised to tone down its bitterness, and a blood orange reduction amplifies the fennel’s licorice aroma. But the chef’s muse was out to lunch when he slipped lumpy mashed potatoes under a pair of delicate red snapper fillets and surrounded them with bouillabaisse broth dotted with clams and mussels. That dish was barely lukewarm when it came to the table, and the seasonal pumpkin soup suffered similarly.
There is a lengthy, if predictable, list of optional side dishes, including cute baby carrots, roasted fingerling potatoes and braised endive, but I’d like to see some less-common vegetables as well, such as celery root, and some gruyère in the potato gratin.
Desserts are a weak spot, except for the warm, elegantly thin apple tart topped with excellent rosemary ice cream, the ubiquitous molten-centered chocolate cake, and the mango and passion fruit sorbets. The cheeses, supplied by Di Bruno Bros., are worth ordering, if a server can vouch that they aren’t too cold.
Though Filoni maintains a consulting connection to Savona, his hands and heart are at Bianca. You are sure to see him standing at the kitchen doorway in his chef’s whites, watching the dining room intently, his expression that of a father witnessing a toddler’s first hesitant steps.