Exton Eatery Focuses on Gluten-Free

Forage American Brasserie challenges Exton’s chain-restaurant culture.

Forage’s heritage pork belly

FORAGE AMERICAN BRASSERIE  120 Woodcutter St., Exton, (610) 524-3334, www.forageexton.com.  cuisine: Modern American with French influence.  cost: $10-$18; $50 chef’s tasting.  attire: Stylishly casual.  atmosphere: Rustic chic with warm touches.  hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4-8 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.  extras: BYOB; exclusive small plates and raw menus; large-party and alfresco seating.

Ralph Fernandez is a master improviser. These days, the seasoned chef is challenging the corporate dining scene in Exton with the unconventional Forage American Brasserie. Back in April, he and partner Derrick Wheeler revamped a BYOB in the prefab Main Street at Exton shopping district. The space previously housed the short-lived Vella Grill and, before that, a middling Mediterranean concept called Freskada.

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The dining room, with its subtle rustic touches and chef Ralph Fernandez (left) with chef de cuisine Dan Gervasi.

Forage is the first shot at a suburban Philadelphia restaurant for Fernandez, who spent over two decades with Harrah’s Philadelphia and, most recently, Philly’s Moshulu and White Dog Cafe before settling in Chester County. Tucked away near the likes of Bed Bath & Beyond and Buca di Beppo, Forage may not be easy to find, but it’s worth the effort. And Fernandez is eager to elevate Exton’s so-so culinary rep.

At first glance, Forage is reserved in appearance, with its tinted floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, though, cosmetic updates like rustic barn beams, pots of succulents, moss-green walls, and red-leather booths give the dining room an au courant feel to match the food.

“I’m cooking from the heart here—and smart,” says Fernandez, who touts ingredients of the highest, freshest quality and a focus on gluten-free, raw and vegan specialties. (His wife has celiac disease, so it’s a consideration that hits close to home.) 

Left: Organic beets, shaved fennel, orange-chili oil, pickled red onion and roasted pistachios, with black pepper ricotta; Forage’s heritage pork tenderloin  with parsnip puree, pistachio brown butter and grilled vegetables.

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Farm-to-table is the norm at Forage, thanks to its partnerships with local growers at Shellbark Hollow and Milky Way farms, plus a working relationship with the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative. “Everyone is ‘chained out’ in the suburbs, but they don’t need to go to the city,” says Fernandez. “We care what people put in their bodies.”

The menu is structured to encourage sharing, and the selection is eclectic and downright trendy. A locally sourced cheese board offers accoutrements like house-preserved port cherries and fig jam. The shaved Brussels sprouts are lent  some serious heft with double-cut, applewood-smoked bacon chunks. For an even heartier nibble, try the seared heritage pork belly with braised mustard seeds. French-inspired fare includes fork-tender, zinfandel-braised short ribs sprinkled with crispy shallots, and a house-made herb pappardelle crowned with shaved Grana Padano.

On one especially memorable visit, a focal point was the chef’s nine-course signature tasting, a remarkable deal for $50. Vibrant tricolored beets shared a plate with black-peppered ricotta and roasted pistachios, all of it accented with orange-chili oil. Another standout was the delicately charred Spanish octopus, enhanced with an invigorating blend of harissa and citrus. The vegetarian dish that impressed us the most was the cracked-grain salad, with wheat berries, red quinoa, corn puree, chai-spiced grapes and arugula.

Fernandez is definitely doing his part to upend the predictability of the Exton dining scene. And while his staff could use a tad more professionalism, Forage appears quite capable of living up to its considerable promise.

THE SKINNY: With its inventive small plates and specialized (raw, gluten-free) offerings, Forage American Brasserie is a sustainable, seasonal breath of fresh air in a stale suburban food scene. 

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