454 East Main Street
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist – or a food critic – to recognize that the chain restaurants have invaded Collegeville’s Providence Town Center like a plague of locusts. A fact, in my opinion, that doesn’t bode particularly well for those in search of an even semi-decent dining experience. Fortunately, there are still a sufficient number of independently owned & operated eateries in the area to provide welcome respites from the all-too-familiar corporate cookie cutter cuisine and service.
One such is the newly opened Chow Bistro, which adds a much needed touch of class to the chain-inundated Collegeville dining scene. Ensconced in the first floor of a stately old stone building adjacent to Ursinus College, Chow is owned by Chef Guy & Cathie Clauson, former proprietors of Phoenixville’s Garden Café and Black Lab Bistro.
The well-spaced comfortable interior is a decorative potpourri, replete with paintings, wall screens, and assorted objets d’art. And the cuisine is similarly eclectic, ranging from Thai red curry to fish tacos & chicken enchiladas to hand-cut tagliatelle to surf & turf & all-American Yankee pot roast. For the most part, the food is carefully prepared and attractively presented.
Appetizers offer diners such diverse options as fried calamari “South Philly Style” with marinara sauce and long hot peppers; flatbread with duck confit, sliced mission figs, chèvre cheese, and onion jam; almond crusted Brie; and spiced lamb kebabs with tzatziki sauce (a blend plain yogurt, cucumbers, olive oil, and garlic).
The kitchen, however, does seem to have a particular talent for turning out first-class greenery, so salads make absolutely marvelous starters. The baby kale, for example, combines red onion, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds & Gorgonzola cheese with the tender greens and tosses all in a warm apple-wood bacon-honey vinaigrette. Extraordinary. Even better, though, is the baby arugula salad (pictured), which incorporates chunks of seedless watermelon, crumbled feta cheese, and a marvelous lime-honey dressing.
The Caesar salad – freshly torn romaine leaves, garlic croutons, and shaved Asiago cheese – is also quite good, although I found the dressing extremely astringent. On the other hand, a special Cobb salad (pictured) – finely chopped chicken, bacon, hard-cooked eggs, tomatoes, avocado and cheese tossed with an excellent vinaigrette – is always a good bet for lunch.
Menu main courses, supplemented by a number of daily specials, offer diners some very interesting possibilities. So let’s begin with a personal fave, the chicken caprese. In many upscale eateries, chicken dishes have come to be looked upon as somewhat pedestrian; but Chow’s rendition is a real crowd pleaser.
Caprese (pronounced kuh-prey-zey), literally means “prepared in the style of Capri.” Here the boneless breast is lightly crusted with parmesan cheese and then topped with melted mozzarella, diced tomatoes, and basil leaves. The kicker, though, is provided by a perfectly seasoned pillow of zucchini “noodles”; that is, lengthwise slices of wafer-thin zucchini. The presentation, a feast for both eye and palate, is a beautiful combo of colors, tastes, and textures… but the whole is infinitely more than the sum of the parts. Incredibly delicious.
The hand-cut tagliatelle (long, flat pasta ribbons similar in shape to fettuccine) is yet another presentation that is sublime in its apparent simplicity. The pasta is tossed with truffle butter, parmesan, and diminutive slivers of asparagus and then crowned with a fried egg. At an additional charge, you may also opt for morsels of duck bacon… and I highly recommend that you do, as their presence contributes a flavorful intensity and exciting textural kick to the dish.
Chef Clauson is also quite adept at seafood preparation… and the Hawaiian butterfish* (see note at the end of this review) is obviously his magnum opus. The filet is seared with adobo (a seasoning composed of paprika, oregano, salt, garlic, and vinegar) and grilled. It is then set on a seabed of Mexican green rice and topped with mango salsa. The fish itself is as white as the driven snow, buttery & succulent. But more than this, it is incomparably delicious; and the interplay of sweet & spicy flavors on the palate is completely seductive.
The red snapper with marinated grape tomatoes & zucchini risotto, a daily special, is also quite good; but it can’t hold a candle to the aforementioned butterfish. Other seafood possibilities include a sesame crusted salmon filet with wasabi aioli, scallion noodle cake, and cucumber-seaweed salad; fish tacos; shrimp & lump crabmeat risotto; and lump crab cakes. There’s also a version of “surf and turf” featuring char-grilled filet mignon and lump crab cake.
Sandwiches are offered at dinner as well as lunch, and the roast turkey club is certainly worth trying. The restaurant’s baked country white toast is packed with roast turkey, apple-wood bacon, Boston lettuce, and tomato and slathered with house-made mayonnaise. This all-American classic arrives at table with an attractive tiara of shoestring fries.
In three visits, the only major disappointment was an appetizer serving of mussels, a dinner special. Depending upon the broth in which they are served, mussels can often exude a somewhat “funky” aroma. But this was way beyond “funky”; the smell was overwhelming and totally off-putting. In fact, neighbors of ours, who arrived sometime after we did and were seated with a group several tables away, even commented that the mussels did not smell good.
And the taste… well, they were totally tasteless. In addition, instead of being plump and easily removed from their shells, they adhered tenaciously and, when finally extricated, degenerated into jelly-like shreds. The broth, which was billed as garlic-herb butter & white wine, looked and tasted like dirty dishwater.
I have no way of knowing whether they were improperly stored, or improperly prepared – or both – but they emerged from the kitchen at the speed of light, which is never a good sign in my book. I do know, however, that they were absolutely the worst mussels we have ever encountered in all our years of dining.
To the restaurant’s credit, they were immediately removed from our bill… But I do wonder how a kitchen that can turn out such excellent dishes as described above could allow such a horror to escape its precincts apparently unnoticed. I can only surmise that this was undoubtedly some absurd culinary anomaly that is highly unlikely to be repeated.
On a happier note, desserts are excellent across the board. Topping the list is the exquisite Meyer lemon curd tart. The Meyer lemon is a citrus fruit native to China and thought to be a cross between a true lemon and either a mandarin or common orange. It was introduced to the United States in 1908 by agricultural explorer Frank Nicholas Meyer, an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture. Chow’s lemon curd is addictively tart and intensely creamy, garnished with whipped cream and mint chiffonade. A marvelously refreshing ending to your evening at table.
Coming in a close second in the sweets department is the chocolate Belgian waffle Napoleon, a feast for both eye and palate. The chocolate waffle is light and airy, and the coffee-toffee ice cream pure delight. Warm ganache and caramel complete the delicious scenario.
The kitchen also puts out a first-rate crème brûlée with fresh raspberries (pictured), a down-home warm peach cobbler with granola & vanilla bean ice cream, mascarpone cheese crepes, and a tres leches cake embellished with roasted coconut and fresh mango sauce.
According to the proprietors, Chef Guy and Cathie Clauson, they are attempting to fill a much needed niche in Collegeville’s dining scene. For my money, they have most assuredly succeeded. Chow is already quite popular; and the restaurant’s clientele is certain to grow as word gets around.
Chow is open Tuesday – Saturday for lunch/Sunday brunch and dinner; closed on Mondays. The restaurant is BYOB… and an excellent vintage is certainly called for.
*Note: “Butterfish” has become quite popular on restaurant menus of late… But this designation is really a misnomer. The correct name of the fish is Escolar; and its current roster of pseudonyms also includes “Rudderfish” “Hawaiian Walu,” “Super White Tuna” and “King Tuna.”
With several varieties of fish in danger of being over-harvested and other species questionable due to their high mercury content, seafood purveyors need a fish that’s delicious, inexpensive, sustainable, and low in mercury. Escolar certainly fits the bill, as it is economical, politically correct and, as noted above, extremely tasty… Unfortunately it comes with a side effect that fishmongers and restaurateurs fail to mention.
Escolar is a type of snake mackerel that cannot metabolize the wax esters that are found naturally in its diet. These esters are called gempylotoxin, and they are very similar to castor or mineral oil. As a result, when Escolar is consumed in full portions, these wax esters cause gastrointestinal problems… So much so, in fact, that the species enjoys the dubious distinction of being dubbed the “Ex-Lax fish.” Beginning to get the picture…? I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Some government agencies actually warn consumers about the fish: In 2004, Washington’s health department issued a bulletin on it; and the European Union mandates that Escolar and its relatives be sold only in packaged form with health warnings. The fish is banned outright in Japan and Italy. However, in this country, the FDA lifted the Escolar ban in 1992, noting that, while it can cause rather embarrassing things to happen, it won’t hurt or kill you.
In spite of all this, however, the fish is very buttery, downright delicious, and should be enjoyed – as my wife and I did during a recent visit with positively no ill effects – but never in portions larger than six ounces. Portions below six ounces supposedly will not cause any peristaltic indisposition.
… But, it’s your call… Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.