Broad Axe Tavern, Ambler, PA – A Review

by artfuldiner on June 24, 2013

in Artful Diner Review, Opinion, Pennsylvania, Review, Wining and Dining

Broad Axe Tavern

901 West Butler Pike

Ambler, Pennsylvania

(215) 643-6300

The Broad Axe holds the distinction of being one of America’s oldest taverns, dating from the year 1681. The original building was constructed on an old Indian path that farmers traveled to take their grain to one of several mills in the area. Apparently the Tavern’s name is derived from the type of axe favored by early settlers.

Because the area surrounding the Broad Axe was often shrouded in dense fog and circumscribed by heavy forest, the location soon acquired a reputation for supernatural sightings. The most famous spectral tale concerns Rachel, daughter of the Tavern’s proprietor. As the story goes, she was pursued into the building by drunken hoodlums, never to be heard from again. Legend has it that her ghost still haunts the first floor bathroom… and has also been observed peering out a third floor window by passers-by at the corner of Skippack and Butler Pikes.

But the Broad Axe Tavern has infinitely more to offer than a somewhat obscure & mysterious verifiable history and juicy apparitional asides. The multi-million dollar renovations of 2009 carefully preserved the building’s historic character while adding more modern amenities and sprucing up the menu, thus making the restaurant an even more attractive stopover for those in search of a casual chow down.

There are dining areas to both the left and the right of the hostess desk as you enter… but there are some restaurants where, all things being equal, the bar/lounge is to be preferred over the regular dining rooms; and the Broad Axe Tavern, I believe, is one of them. Awash with comfortable high-top tables & chairs, this is a particularly pleasant, welcoming space – especially if you happen to be contemplating a quiet weekend luncheon à deux. By settling in here, you usually avoid the large, noisy, rambunctious parties – and their equally noisy, rambunctious progeny – that occasionally inhabit the dining rooms. During “happy hour” (Monday – Friday, 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.), of course, things do get a bit more lively.

One thing is certain… if you’re into brewskies in a big way, you’ve come to the right place, as the beer list is nothing short of phenomenal. According to the most recent count, the Broad Axe serves up 17 brews on tap, 149 different brands in bottles, and 11 different brands in cans… But oenophiles aren’t short-changed either. The wine list isn’t as spectacular as the catalog of brews, but it is still well chosen and holds some interesting possibilities, including a Louis Latour Macon Viré-Clessé, a first-rate French white Burgundy that’s perfect for warm weather quaffing.

Surveying the starters, you find all the usual suspects present and accounted for… There’s bruschetta, nachos, cheese steak spring rolls, duck pot stickers, calamari, loaded fries, chicken wings, hummus with grilled pita bread… Well, you get the idea. But if you’re in the mood for something just a tad different, you might give the deep fried green beans a try. A bit heavy on the  breading but still quite good… and the wasabi (Japanese horseradish) ranch dipping sauce definitely propels this appetizer out of the realm of the ordinary.

In addition to the appetizers, the soup/salad route also has a great deal to offer. The chipotle black bean soup, for example, is a rich, hearty concoction that serves up just enough subtle heat to keep the palate standing at attention. A dollop of sour cream provides a cooling counterpunch, while crunchy tortilla strips contribute a nice textural contrast.

In the greenery department, there are a number of options, including Caesar, Cobb, Mandarin and grilled tuna, several of which would most certainly double as entrées. Of particular interest was the roasted beet – Gorgonzola combo. Diced marinated beets and crumbled Gorgonzola blue cheese adorned a bed of peppery arugula & romaine lettuce tossed with a roasted garlic vinaigrette. From the menu description, this certainly sounded like an excellent starter… but the execution proved to be somewhat lacking. In point of fact, it was definitely on the bland side. The Gorgonzola, which, in reality, tasted nothing like Gorgonzola, lacked its characteristic pungent earthy punch; and the roasted garlic vinaigrette, which should have spiked things up considerably, was surprisingly lackluster, as well as stingily applied.

The above-mentioned salad, I believe, provides an important clue as to the dishes that are likely to fly here and those that may be prone to crash & burn… Stick with the so-called “Pub Grub” – sandwiches, burgers, flatbreads, tacos, etc. – and you’re on pretty solid ground. The entrées proper, however – “Large Plates” and “Inspired Dishes” in the restaurant’s parlance – tend to be more hit-or-miss. The skewered grilled shrimp with Cajun spices presented on a rice pilaf with a fresh vegetable medley was far from extraordinary but still quite satisfying. The Aegean Salmon topped with sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives, on the other hand, fell far short of the mark. Both the accompanying island of spinach orzo and the sea of lemon wine sauce were certainly acceptable… but the salmon filet itself was pan seared to a crisp – which resulted in a tough outer shell and an utterly tasteless interior.

The kitchen has good intentions; unfortunately, when it comes to more complex presentations, its reach seems to exceed its grasp. That being said, however, the Broad Axe’s casual fare still provides numerous first-rate options to assuage your hunger…

And the Prime Sirloin Burger, which may be prepared with a variety of embellishments, is a good place to begin. Grilled to a perfect medium, precisely as ordered, it arrived adorned with Swiss cheese, bacon, sautéed onions & mushrooms, and house-cut French fries. Even better, though, is the house specialty: the Axe Burger. This variation on the theme is dressed up with bacon, onion, cilantro, diced jalepeños (which treats the palate to a healthy amount of heat) & tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, and fresh slices of avocado. A winner on all counts.

Another menu highlight is the restaurant’s take on pizza, which substitutes flatbread for typical pizza crust. If you’re a thin crust pizza fan, this is something of a must. There are several incarnations, all of which headline a luscious homemade tomato sauce: margarita (mozzarella & Asiago cheeses, fresh basil, garlic); mushroom & mozzarella; and bacon, blue cheese, caramelized onion, and balsamic reduction. The absolute favorite, though, is the pepperoni & cheese; and it is cheesy… cheesy… cheesy… and incredibly delicious.

Other possibilities include a classic turkey club sandwich, excellent grilled Reuben, and another personal fave, the fish tacos. The beer-battered cod is perfectly crisp on the outside, moist & flaky at the core, and splashed with a dynamite chipotle crème fraiche.

The Broad Axe isn’t terribly adept at desserts, sporting the likes of the omnipresent Key lime pie and a disappointing house-made strawberry Napoleon that proved a feast for the eye but famine for the palate. The one exception, however, is the decadent and artfully presented banana caramel cheesecake Xango. This is one sweet ending that is guaranteed to knock you off the Weight Watchers’ wagon… but worth every last calorie – and most suitable for sharing.

Just one or two concluding notes… The most pleasant dining experience at the Broad Axe is Saturday lunch in the bar/lounge. The restaurant is relatively quiet and the service, which is always good, is particularly attentive.

On the other hand, a weekday dinner (and especially a free-for-all Saturday night) can be a bit on the zooey side. Once again, go for the bar area as your first choice. If this is filled, choose the dining room to the right as you enter, rather than the one to the left. The lefty is located next to the kitchen and sports an open window where food runners gather to pick up orders for delivery to tables and engage in idle banter and inane chatter. In other words, not only will you experience an elevated noise level, but also the constant comings and goings of seething humanity – which, I might add, is hardly conducive to peristaltic equanimity.

Bon Appétit!


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