789 East Lancaster Avenue
Tucked away next to the Villanova Post Office, in a portion of the space previously occupied by the gargantuan, ill-fated Maia, Dana Farrell’s Avenue Kitchen appears to attempt to stake out a middle ground between her other culinary ventures: her former association with The Classic Diner in Malvern with ex-husband Tom Farrell; and her current interest in the Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar in Glen Mills with partner Dave Magrogan.
Avenue Kitchen’s upscale décor – sleek all-white interior adorned with subway tiles, antique mirrors, and aluminum chairs – may at first strike one as unabashedly cold & stark au courant; but rustic wood tables, comfy booths, subdued lighting, and other subtle aesthetic touches soften things up significantly.
The cuisine, in the hands of Ms. Farrell’s brother, Chef Gregory Smith, provides some homey influences as well. It’s basically upscale American fare with a few interesting international twists and creative turns, but with enough familiar points of reference to appeal to a broad range of appetites.
Problem is… Avenue Kitchen has something of a split personality; it is, in reality, TWO restaurants. Drop in for lunch and you come away with one (generally positive) impression. Settle in for dinner, on the other hand, and you tend to harbor a few second thoughts.
However, let’s begin on a positive note, based upon several luncheon visits. Salads are particularly enjoyable (you may also add chicken, shrimp, salmon cake, steak, yellowtail tuna steak, or salmon to the greenery at an additional charge). The Mediterranean chopped salad, for example, replete with cherry tomatoes, English cucumber, sliced red onion, pitted Kalamata olives, and generous chunks of feta cheese, is obviously freshly tossed and enlivened with a subtle, palate-pleasing white balsamic vinaigrette.
Equally up to the mark is the baby arugula & goat cheese salad. The greenery is nicely trimmed, pristinely fresh, and supplemented by cherry tomato halves, and morsels of endive & shallot. Once again, however, it is the dressing – in this case, an ethereal sherry wine vinaigrette – that acts as a sublime culinary catalyst. Meanwhile, the deep fried golden brown goat cheese patty succeeds in providing a perfect crispy/creamy textural contrast to the peppery arugula.
Moving on… Although this is not an Italian restaurant per se, I would certainly recommend the wood-fired pizzas. Recently sampled, for instance, was the pie boasting sweet Italian sausage as well as mozzarella, spinach, roasted garlic, and San Marzano tomato sauce. The crust was thick but crispy and the toppings generously applied and alive with flavor. An excellent effort… ditto another Italian staple, the rigatoni Bolognese made with a first-rate short rib meat sauce.
Sandwiches also have a good deal to recommend them and represent a range of possibilities…from the upscale brioche lobster roll & grilled yellowtail tuna steak to the sublimely simple short rib cheese steak and three-cheese grilled cheese. In this latter category you also find a top-notch rendition of the classic corned beef Reuben on marble rye and a revved up version of the BLT (pictured), boasting wedges of avocado and thick slathering of zippy chipotle mayo on toasted sourdough.
But if you happen to be in the mood for a burger, the kitchen does a fine job with a grass-fed prime beef patty on brioche companioned by caramelized onion, aged cheddar, and lettuce and tomato (pictured). For a variation on the theme, you might also consider giving the salmon burger a try. Accoutrements include roasted garlic aioli, arugula, and a soft pretzel roll.
Luncheon visits here were all thoroughly satisfying… Dinner, however, proved to be a different story. For starters, the kitchen seemed to lose its way. While the aforementioned salads were exceptional at lunch, the Caesar sampled at dinner was generic at best. The torn romaine leaves were undeniably fresh, but the promised homemade garlic croutons tasted mass produced, and the roasted garlic Caesar dressing was rather sparingly applied, rendering the greenery unappetizingly dry.
My wife’s Prince Edward Island mussels, however, were the real problem. The pale ale broth awash with generous chunks of sweet sausage was just fine, but the mussels themselves were unbelievably tiny. Yes, yes, PEI mussels are small… But I have never, and I do mean never, seen bivalves so puny. Perhaps the restaurant purchased a truckload at bargain prices. Tiny, puny, minuscule, dwarfish, Lilliputian, call them what you will; one thing is certain, however: Their jumbo-size $16.00 price tag is no bargain.
When it comes to entrées, the meatloaf with mac & cheese is about as homespun as it gets. The grass-fed meatloaf is set on a pillow of tender haricots verts and smothered in a rich dark brown gravy. The accompanying mac & cheese (also available as a side), a combo of Gruyère, cheddar, and provolone is a creamy, decadent delight. Excellent.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to believe that the pan-roasted branzino could have been produced in the same kitchen as that gloriously simple meatloaf/mac & cheese – yes, it was that bad… But let me qualify. The filet, set on a seabed of potato purée, was quite tasty on its own… when it was eventually discovered, that is. I say this because it was buried beneath an unsightly – and not particularly flavorful – mishmash of baby carrots, fava beans, roasted mushrooms & cherry tomatoes, and an artichoke barigoule (artichokes braised with onions, garlic & carrots in a seasoned broth of wine & water). I don’t expect culinary presentations to be works of art… but I do expect that they will appear at least semi-appetizing – and the branzino certainly was not. To paraphrase that old axiom: The palate can only ingest what the eye can endure.
… And, as if to add insult to injury, the branzino filet was also quite small. Both my wife and I have rather diminutive appetites; but even by our standards, the portion size was woefully deficient – perhaps the reason for the attempted camouflage. There’s nothing deficient about the price, however. At a whopping $28.00, it is the second most expensive item on the menu.
But it’s not only the food that makes a bit of an about-face at dinner; the general atmosphere takes a nosedive as well. On a recent visit, for example, we were greeted and seated by a teenager wearing a white shirt, bowtie, rose colored slacks, and Docksiders… At a typical family chow-down, hey, no problem. But is this the image a supposedly sophisticated Main Line eatery that has been variously described as chic and upscale wishes to project…? Apparently so.
Then there’s the clientele, especially the representatives populating the bar area, which, unfortunately, is merely an extension of the dining room, not a separate entity. It wasn’t exactly the From Dusk Till Dawn crowd – more like an impromptu cougars’ convention – but there were still some pretty strange vibrations floating around, which is not particularly conducive to a comfortable and relaxing dining experience.
The bottom line: If I happened to be in the area, I wouldn’t hesitate to pop back into Avenue Kitchen for lunch. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be terribly anxious to book a return evening’s engagement. There are simply too many other excellent restaurants in the area that offer better food, more pleasant surroundings, and a comparable – or superior – bang for your hard-earned buck.