Alison Two Review: Twice as Nice
A QUARTET OF 30-somethings raises cocktails for a toast. The women haven’t seen each other recently; they chat away, with extra time and attention given to the apparent guest of honor, visiting home from L.A., where she now lives and works. Last time they met, this group probably carpooled to Center City to flaunt their Christian Louboutins at Buddakan or Amada. But since Alison Two, chef Alison Barshak’s second restaurant, opened in Fort Washington, it isn’t necessary to endure the Schuylkill to have a legitimately cool night out, even with a friend from L.A. to impress.
[sidebar]The dearth of great restaurants in the Philadelphia suburbs has never made sense to Barshak, a Lafayette Hill native who first rose to acclaim as the debut chef at Striped Bass. (Under her direction, the restaurant was chosen as the best new spot in the country by Esquire magazine.) Since then, she’s worked in plenty of big-city restaurants, and she still keeps an apartment in Manhattan. But Barshak’s culinary nerve center is here. “It isn’t just people who live in the city who like to eat and like to go out,” she says. Regulars at Alison at Blue Bell, Barshak’s other venue, have been clamoring for a splashier restaurant — complete with a bar — for years. And with Alison Two, she’s given them a restaurant on par with the best in Center City.
Barshak makes it look easy — you’ll find her happily chatting with customers and even clearing plates at the bar — but Alison Two took more than a year of planning. The interior of this historic structure was rehabbed to Barshak’s specifications; as a result, there’s a place for each character-rich design detail the chef wanted to spotlight, like the iron garden gate that separates the bar from the dining room, the custom cobalt stained-glass sconces, and the refurbished mirrors that were salvaged from the Plaza Hotel. Rich-looking fabric hangs everywhere, damping noise and creating private nooks.
There are a few giveaways that Alison Two is in the ’burbs — one window offers a view of a sprawling parking lot; there’s actually enough elbow room between tables — but for the most part, it delivers the strong sense of place, the feeling you are somewhere specific and special, that most suburban eateries lack. The competent, well-trained servers ferry trays and field queries about the wine list — an edited, eclectic selection of glasses and bottles chosen by beverage director Tom Pittakas — with a professional poise rarely spotted in restaurants outside city limits.
But more than anything else, it’s the food that sets Alison Two so far ahead of the local curve. Barshak’s style has been shaped by her work experience and extensive world travels: A shrimp papri chat salad was inspired by street food in Singapore’s Indian district, and seared tuna, joined with tender oxtail morsels and pho-style rice noodles in a savory broth, is based on the flavors of her sojourn in Vietnam. Barshak’s talent lies in her ability to draw on these disparate influences without rendering her dishes fussy or fusion-y. Her personal culinary style — a delicate hand and an understanding of seafood — combined with her international prowess unifies the diverse and impressively large menu.
Even in dishes created by her chef de cuisine at Alison Two, Bill Lewis, you can see these unmistakably Alison elements in play. The two chefs complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. “I’m meat-challenged,” Barshak says. So Lewis takes the lead on those few dishes that are based on ingredients like beef or lamb. His steak dish, a rib eye from Painted Hill Farm, distills the iconic steakhouse experience into a single plate, with accents like crisp and creamy blue cheese fritters, an old-school potato gratin, and an intense cabernet reduction. It may be Lewis’s creation, but it shows the creativity and elegance fans expect from the Alison brand. Lewis is also responsible for the harissa-rubbed lamb shoulder, though the accompanying chickpea and hazelnut salad with Afghani yogurt sauce adds an exciting element to what could have been a straightforward dish. It’s the international edge that keeps the menu out of the doldrums, despite tired tropes like romaine salad and a brownie sundae.
Barshak says part of the inspiration for Alison Two came from the comment cards left by the clientele at Alison at Blue Bell. Her legions have rewarded her for fulfilling their wish list by packing the place on weekend nights. Even on Tuesdays, the banquettes are lined with young couples on dates, while happy-hour groups hang out at the bar. Most tables can’t stop talking about the food. Barshak is a fixture, running around her new, larger space with her trademark long red braid flying behind her. She says a quick hi to regulars, but mostly she’s patrolling the place, making sure her restaurant is just what her customers want it to be: a fine-dining oasis that perfectly fills the suburban restaurant void.
Fort Washington, 215-591-0200,