Birchrunville Store Cafe
First the bad news: you'll never find this place, even though they finally put directions on the web site, and they'll tell you how to get there when you make reservations. And you must make reservations, it's a tiny place and pretty popular, so there's not much chance of getting a table without a reservation, (but then again, it's always worth a try, I've managed to squeeze in on short notice.) Even getting reservations is not easy, weekend nights are often booked for months in advance. But it's worth calling, and even leaving one's name in case of cancellations, openings do arise. Dropping-by unannounced is a long-shot, it's not as if there's a back-up restaurant in Birchrunville, a tiny crossroads with a few houses that I suppose constitutes a village. It's a pretty desirable address, surrounded by old-money horse farms and tragically, a few recent McMansion developments encroaching on the old pastures. But if you can get yourself to Kimberton or Yellow Springs, or can at least follow a map to routes 401 and 113, you're getting warm, and it's worth the beautiful drive through rolling hills, just leave a few minutes extra to get lost the first time you go.
They tend to do two seatings, one between 6-6:30, the next between 8-8:30. I recommend the later one, it's easy to lose track of time and it's such a small place they WILL need your table back if you're in the first seating, and this is the kind of place that makes you want to linger. The website asks for a $100 deposit for groups of more than 4, and I can't blame them, in a tiny place like this an abandoned reservation means a serious loss of income.
They also offer multicourse tasting menus by prior arrangement. In the fall of 2007, we noticed that they've restricted the tasting menus to Thursdays, so book it well in advance. I've indulged three times, and all were not only excellent meals, but also amazing bargains, only $75 for 6 courses (call the restaurant to check availability and current price.) The chef will just come up with a menu based on what's good that day, so you may not get a menu in advance. Bring a few diverse wines, and you'll do OK, on one occasion the chef even used some of our wine for the sauce for one of our courses!
On two separate occasions, we've been served items during the tasting menu that we'd mentioned ahead of time would be a problem due to food allergies, so if this is a issue for you, you might want to skip the tasting, or to make sure the chef knows well in advance, and is reminded again the day of, and perhaps again as you arrive. The tasting menus are pretty special, an opportunity for the chef to stretch out and experiment, but ordering off the menu is rarely disappointing either!
As a BYOB, the wine list is your own, and sadly there's no place to pop in and grab a bottle nearby, so plan ahead. If you get there early on a nice night, bring an extra bottle to start out on the porch, watching, well, there's no traffic, so I guess you can watch the cats walk down the road.
The menu changes, but we've pretty reliably found starters along the lines of a goat cheese salad or other composed salads, pate, perhaps a soup or two. Recently we had escargot in puff pastry this time joined by portobello mushrooms in an impossibly rich winey reduction that had us both swooning. My Arugula salad with herbed cheese was the freshest baby peppery greens lightened with a vibrant dressing textured with truffle oil. Lobster Bisque was velvety and surprisingly light, with all the flavor of the classic but in a more refreshing style. We had some more of those flavors in a gnocchi special. The small potato dumplings were just a touch overcooked, but still tasty with a delicate creamy sauce studded with lobster meat.
I have not noticed consistent availability of vegetarian entrees, so if someone in your party eschews all meat and fish, it's worth a call ahead to see if they'll have something to eat.
We've had a rack of lamb that was wonderfully tender and juicy, infused with rosemary, over an unfortunately tiny mound of herby risotto. A buffalo filet was the winner of the evening, with none of the free-range chewiness that I've come to expect, instead this one cut as easily as butter, but had a depth of flavor that puts beef to shame. An intense drizzle of wine reduction lent another dimension, as did the wild trumpet mushrooms, baby root vegetables and cubed portions of classic gratinéed potatoes. It was perfectly cooked, beautifully presented, one of the best things I've eaten in years.
Duck is always good here, I thoroughly enjoyed a recent preparation with roasted vegetables and figs, the sweetness of the fruit melding perfectly with the roasted duck and intense jus.One meal started with a Country Duck Paté, which was a good deal more elegant than the name suggests, an only slightly chunky terrine of delicate duck meat, served with toasts, cornichons, caramelized onions, and what I think was a cranberry compote.
Next course was a Lasagne of Wild Mushrooms and Peas, featuring loads of chanterelles and their relatives interleaved with sheets of tender pasta and a thick brown sauce. Absolutely perfect on a damp fall night. We also tried a starter of Veal Cheeks that had that indulgently gelatinous mouthfeel, and an amazing depth of flavor. A highlight among highlights.
As a complimentary intermezzo from the chef, we received Seared White Tuna with Balsamic Reduction. This was a cube of delicate fish, firmed from a quick encounter with the fire, glazed with a syrup of reduced vinegar. It had a nice mild flavor that meshed well with the sweet balsamic. We were caught mopping--up the sauce with the rolls...
As entrées: Pistachio and Herb Crusted lamb Loin, and Wild Boar Tenderloin, Stuffed with Prunes, Roasted Garlic and Rosemary. Two absolutely perfectly medium-rare loins were elevated from their sometimes too-mild state by the crunchy, salty, herby coating. They were seated in an intense wine sauce that seemed to magically amplify the natural juices of a meat. It's a trick this chef uses for many of his preparations, but I never tire of it, those classic reductions are just so satisfying. Potatoes Dauphine accompanied, which were basically hush puppies that had gone to finishing school in Europe: crunchy, fried dumplings of creamy mashed potatoes. Just like with the lamb, what could be a pedestrian dish is elevated to something exemplary by sheer skill and insistence on fine ingredients. Pork tenderloins are so often a big yawn on contemporary menus, but the added flavor and density of wild boar, and aggressive flavorings made this truly memorable. The meat was wrapped in this sheets of something porky...prosciutto, or something similar, and the stuffings of prunes, garlic and herbs rendered this juicy and complex on the palette. Well-spiced, smooth puree of sweet potato gave an autumnal accent. The same vegetables as appeared with the lamb accompanied, and seemed every bit as appropriate.
Caramelized Apple Tart: this was basically a tarte tatin, but with a lighter hand, not quite as darkly rendered, with an airy, delicate puff-pastry. But it packed all those familiar flavors, the edge of burnt sugar, the crunch of crust, the deep mellow sweetness of soft apples. Adding Vanilla gelato might have been gilding the lily, but I never complain about that if it involves gelato.
Croissant Banana Bread Pudding: a paradoxically light bread pudding, somehow the leafy layers of bread maintain their airiness amidst the custard, managing to float above the pool of Creme Anglaise.
Other times, we'd tried the molten chocolate cake, which is no rarity these days, but wonderful nonetheless. Grand Marnier Crème Brulée wasn't bad, but much better was the apple tart, just millimeters tall, but deep with flavor from the thinly sliced fruit, tender crust, and vanilla gelato. We often see some UFO-looking Mille-Fuille-y thing moving through the dining room, suffice it to say: leave room for dessert.
Here are some dishes that arrived during a tasting menu:
Lobster, Squid, Tuna
Sweetbreads and wild mushrooms
Loin of Rabbit
Cappuccino Creme Brulée, Banana Mousse Cake
Yet another tasting menu:
Out of sheer selfishness I'm hesitant to recommend this restaurant too highly just because it's small enough that it's already hard to get in. You'd think it's too hard to find that we'd never have that problem. But the food here will stand up to anything you'll get in downtown Philly, so if you're frustrated by the crowds at the hip bistros, consider taking a drive out to the country. You'll be glad you did.
I won't, but you will...
It's been several years now since the death of the original proprietor of this charming little rural restaurant, which is ensconced comfortably in a former general store, but CDP and I still have a hard time calling it anything but "Gar's," (even though that was never the official name.)
George Arthur "Gar" Reed III died in the restaurant, a few hours before opening time on July 24 1999. Born on April 5, 1945, he was only 54 but frankly looked almost twice that old, all the better for his role as the ancient, crusty, curmudgeonly chef, always armed with a glass of red wine, a cigarette and a funny story. He'd wander the small dining room at the end of the night, stopping by to say hi to old friends and longtime customers, and even sitting with us relative newcomers, regaling us with hilarious monologs of the annoyances of life in the kitchen. Gar's food was elegantly straightforward, with occasional odd twists, like chicken with pickles in a cream sauce (it was good). His duck preparations were rightfully legendary, changing from night to night, and included one of the best confits I've had anywhere. And when served up by a friendly casual staff in a warm, tiny BYOB out in the middle of nowhere, the meals achieved that magical status one always hopes for: the perfect blend of flavors, atmosphere and comfort. So we were sincerely saddened by Gar's passing, and then skeptical when we heard that the place had been almost immediately taken-over by famed chef Francis Trzeciak from the Main Line's Quisset. It took us a long time to decide to return, it would be impossible to duplicate the whole feel and mood of the place, it seemed so tied to Gar's personal vibe, and had created such a perfect space that we'd be heartbroken to find it changed. It took over a year for it to feel right to go back, but I'm glad we did.
And of course it IS different, but just barely: it's a touch more refined now, but still looks pretty much the same, and has a similar relaxed feel, and most importantly, wonderful food. The overall style of the menu is much the same as Gar used to do it: five or six appetizers and entrees, vibrant modern versions of continental classics and more contemporary nouvelle ideas. And while the execution is certainly a bit more assured, I'm happy to report that it's not coldly professional, the magic seems to have remained in the place. It's easy to picture Gar still sitting out on the porch, complaining about something, savoring another uncountable glass of cabernet.
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