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Best of Both Worlds

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THE SCENE: At bistro M, the latest spin-off of Murray’s Delicatessen, it’s whitefish and pastrami by day and scallops and steak frites by night. Formerly the Berwyn Ice House (the history of which remains somewhat of a mystery), bistro M has a suburban vibe that’s part New York City loft, part Main Line not-so-shabby chic. High concrete ceilings with open duct work and exposed brick lend an industrial feel—one that’s gussied up by ebony bamboo floors, a swanky, mocha-hued ultra-suede banquette, crisp white linens, hip lighting, a few bare antique farmhouse tables, and white-leather-cushioned seats with ebony backs resurrected from West Chester’s old Turks Head Inn and painted by co-owner Gayle Teti (also an interior designer).

Walking in through Murray’s proper—a quick right turn between the designer drinks refrigerator and the world-class deli counter—delivers you to the Green Room, a transitional space made inviting with a tasteful cluster of cushy seating, soothing green walls and four tables that, when pushed together, become the chef’s table. The transition into the main dining room is marked by a sudden rush of spaciousness, enhanced by a glass wall at the far end of the room and minimalist décor. The copper-hued wall bolstering the banquette shimmers with actual bits of copper, radiating a relaxing aura against the candlelight. Velvet draping (for the ceiling) is in the works to keep the decibel level in check.

THE FOOD: Moving from a head-cook-run deli kitchen to an executive-chef-run, upscale bistro is a bold move. Throw in seasonal menu changes and a commitment to lighter local and organically grown ingredients (really the opposite of traditional deli fare), and suddenly management might find that its eyes are bigger than its stomach.

But where others might be daunted, Teti is easing into the updated model with little anxiety. The small plate/big plate menu is not a new concept, but the trend doesn’t seem to be fading, so we can’t fault her for jumping on the bandwagon. The small plates aren’t diminutive and can easily be shared—and should be if you want to make it to dessert (so far, I haven’t succeeded). The espresso and cappuccinos are delicious though.

Seasonal menu changes, rotating blackboard specials and reincarnations keep things fresh. Soups are chef Joseph Dougherty’s forte, as evidenced by the refined corn and chanterelle chowder, which defies tradition with petite cuts of chanterelles, heirloom potatoes and sweet corn kernels. The addition of marjoram in the cream adds subtle hints of sweet pine and citrus that mingle nicely with the pungent mustard oil garnish. Dougherty coddles his soup stocks, and it shows. The base is deliciously bisque-like with an enlivening aroma and velvetiness that dances on the tongue when blended with those tiny morsels.

Salads, too, are appealing—especially the mixed greens and spiced, poached green Anjou pear salad with blue cheese, toasted almonds and crispy pancetta—a nice complement to the season with its mix of crunchy/creamy/salty/sweet flavors and textures.

One of the more innovative dishes on bistro M’s menu: a lively combination of baby organic greens, goat cheese, rye bread crumbs and pickled beets dressed with an olive-oil-citrus vinaigrette and pistachio-arugula pistou. The pickled beets get their kick from a brine of coriander seeds, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, extra-virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar and black peppercorns. The beets are fashioned into squares rather than chunks (hence their reincarnation on the new menu as “carpaccio”).

Dougherty’s scallops are flawless—pan-seared to a supple medium rare and served with a varying roster of sides like cabbage slaw with sautéed gala apples and a crisp topping of fried salsify noodles. Alas, you won’t find them on the winter menu.

The red Anjou pears accompanying my whole fish of the day—red snapper—arrived looking a little pale, with nary a hint of yummy caramelizing (likely due to being plucked too soon, limiting the grill’s ability to work its magic). The snapper was simply prepared, pan seared, then baked with an untraditional mirepoix of zucchini, squash and onions, and a light baste of herbs and butter. Inside, Dougherty tucked lemon slices and fennel fronds, but the overall flavor was a little too subtle for an already mild fish. A few drops of lemon juice perked things up. (Dougherty will accommodate squeamish guests by removing the head and tail of the fish upon request.)

Our steak frites—garlic- and herb-marinated flat-iron steak with Parmesan and truffle pomme frites, haricots verts and glazed pearl onions in a balsamic demi-glace—had cooled by the time it arrived at the table but rewarded us nonetheless with a smoothly textured mouthfeel and juicy, medium-rare bites. The flat-iron comes from the second-most tender muscle and is considered only slightly less tender than filet mignon. Also esteemed for its rich flavor, it was no match for the bite of N.Y. strip I experienced on another visit to the restaurant (pictured below).

The twice-fried pomme frites intrigued with its nuances of olive and truffle oils and Parmesan. A little sea salt would’ve added just the right touch.

The Ahi—served with charred peppers, arugula, green olives, crispy potatoes and lemon oil lightly accented with a perky chimi churri sauce—was over-seared for this crowd, resulting in a pink (rather than red) interior and muting the fish’s rich, beefy character. Still, the crispy and slender shoestring potatoes played well against the sweetness of the tuna.

Although paired with a generous pile of lump crab and corn ragout, the big-plate salmon fell flat. The bouillabaisse jus was barely audible, the crispy leeks too parched and the organic salmon less robust than its wild-caught cousins.

THE EXPERIENCE: There is an undeniable neighborhood feel to bistro M, which is a big part of its charm. Service is impeccable—attentive without being obtrusive. The friendly staff is familiar with the menu and unafraid to offer their opinions.

The conviviality of the place lends a relaxed feel to any meal. Table-hopping by patrons isn’t uncommon, nor taboo, which suits the upscale, laidback, come-as-you-are-but-bring-a-good-bottle-of-wine scene that bistro M is going for.

The menu is appropriately sized and, for the most part, in tune with the season. The portions are great for sharing, and the contemporary white plates in varying shapes and sizes punctuate the colors and textures of each dish while complementing the upscale experience Teti wants to convey.

THE SKINNY: bistro M does an excellent job of marrying a subtle, upscale urban edge with homey charm. While humility is in short supply in today’s restaurant environment, Teti (pictured above) and her well-trained servers are unabashedly gracious. The only potential threat to M’s approachable nature and hip, bohemian flair is its slightly steep price point (small plates average $9; big plates, $22)—the frequent foe of many a BYO.

By nature, bistros are supposed to be eclectic and spontaneous. A Culinary Institute of America graduate with four years of experience in the kitchen at the Hotel DuPont, Dougherty was originally hired as a sous chef under Tim Olivett, who left at the end of last year. And it’s clear that he can cook. But I’m curious if Dougherty is holding back—and hopeful that the food will get more innovative as he gets to know the local farmers and purveyors, and has a more solid read on customers’ palates. 


DETAILS
Location:
575 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn; (610) 644-1010, murraysmainline.com
Cuisine: Contemporary American bistro fare

Price:
$8-$15 small plates, $18-$30 big plates
Attire: Casual

Atmosphere:
Industrial chic with a comfortable yet sophisticated feel
Hours:
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Extras: No corkage fee, convenient parking and after-hours access to Murray’s Deli so you can grab fixings for the next day’s meal on your way out.

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