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Culinary to-dos and deals for insatiable epicureans …

High-caliber Bargain: Blush Restaurant in Bryn Mawr answers the question, “Can you score a hot summer deal on eclectic cuisine without sacrificing quality?” Dare to doubt, but Blush is offering a four-course dinner for two—with a bottle of wine—at a deal-busting (it is the Main Line, after all) $99. If you blew your budget at the Shore like I did, but scoff at the idea of sacrificing your taste for dining out, this is your ticket to satiety, available Fridays and Saturdays thru July and August.
 
If this deal doesn’t suit you, maybe Blush’s one-on-ones with Chef Nick Farina will. A fun way to take the dread out of Mondays, Farina will prepare a taste-tailored tasting menu for your table. Three courses will run you $30; five-courses, $50. Rap awhile with the chef to air out any dislikes, food allergies or dietary restrictions, then sit back and wait for Farina to surprise your palate. Blush is located at 24 N. Merion Ave. in Bryn Mawr. For reservations, call (610) 527-7700.
 
Count Down to the Olympics with Yangming and award-winning Chinese master chef, restaurateur, culinary professor and cookbook author Ren-Wei Jia. Jia will be spending a month in Yangming’s kitchen preparing a number of exotic and traditional Chinese dishes in honor of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. His residency will run thru Aug. 16, and diners will be able to expand their palates with some of Chef Jia’s favorite creations. Highlights from the cold small-plate selections are honeyed lotus root, Shanghai crispy fish and five-spice beef. Hot-plate items include Hangzou “cat ear” pasta with chicken, crispy pork and daikon pastry, and eight-treasure sweet rice. Entrée offerings have plenty of panache. Crispy tofu paper ringing bell with duck, dragon-well tea shrimp, West Lake beef soup and minced fish with pine nuts are just some of Jia’s specialties. Haverford Avenue and Conestoga Road, Bryn Mawr, (610) 527-3200.

Why-I-Didn’t-Look-So-Hot-in-My-Bikini-while-vacationing-down-the-Shore reasons one and two: Blackfish Avalon and Quahog’s Seafood Shack.

If you’ve been paying attention to the buzz, chef/restaurateur Chip Roman has made another solid impression on foodies with his second restaurant, Blackfish Avalon (2109 Dune Drive, Avalon, 609-967-9100). The second coming of Blackfish snubs its sib’s minimalist IKEA-Pottery-Barn-Restoration-Hardware looks for a plusher, more mature ambiance with a low-key color scheme of halogen-lit white-and-gray and touches of blue, cushy banquettes, wall-to-wall carpeting, upholstered chairs and soft lighting. The dining room is also about triple the size of the Conshy locale. Luckily, Roman’s head has remained the same size.

In a very un-summery (and un-PC) move, I ordered the foie gras brulée with compressed strawberries and rhubarb to start, which was insanely delicious—velvety, sumptuous, seared just until pink in the center, and as memorable as those alluring bites of fat on the edge of a perfectly grilled steak. The slightly tart strawberries and rhubarb played well against the foie’s buttery flavor and were a good segue into a chilly plate of Cape May salt oysters, which made a very theatrical appearance topped with carbonated Meyer lemon, watermelon and pink peppercorn. My first bite proved quite lively as a wave of citrusy effervescence lapped around my tongue, delivering a subtle Pop Rocks explosion that turned into Fourth of July when I bit into the crisp oyster and also got a mouthful of sweet watermelon and peppy pink peppercorn.
 
I couldn’t help ordering the “Surf and Turf,” seared day-boat scallops with glazed beef short ribs and parsnip puree—wholly wintry, but an enduring favorite of mine. Roman probably thinks I’m a nut for my parsnip puree obsession (I wrote about it in our “Best of the Main Line” feature as part of my Last Supper, and then dragged him onto the 10! Show to make it), but the milky, sweet puree is one of the most comforting side dishes I’ve ever tasted. (I’m also a sucker for grits.) Who needs crème brulée, right?

14 to 100 in No Time Flat: Quahog’s Seafood Shack (206 97th St., Stone Harbor, 609-368-6300) is another new shore hotspot, brought to us by Argentina-born surfer-chef Lucas Manteca and his wife, Deanna Ebner, owners of the teensy-weensy B.Y.O., Sea Salt. I’ve been waiting to get a taste of this funky New England-seafood “shack” since Memorial Day Weekend when I first saw the black-and-white, clam-shell-logo’d postcard when peeking around Stone Harbor’s shops. The mere thought of a little Cape Cod or Maine coming my way was titillating to say the least. I am gleeful to report that expectations were met and exceeded.

Refreshingly casual, this comfortable and classy “shack” offers dolled-up, but simply prepared, New England fare—minus the fried and heavy. Along with the standard menu, there is a lengthy list of daily specials, mostly sustainable fish that you’ve never heard of. That of course, is a good thing and just one of the ways Manteca and head chef Carlos Barroz are minimizing their—and patrons’—ecological footprint. (Yes, you should expect a surfer to care about the planet.) Other eco-friendly practices include biodegradable take-out containers, donating used cooking oil to a fuel conversion company, using furniture and accessories recycled from other restaurants, and keeping it local with produce from nearby organic farms. 

The menu features traditional seafood bites, along with more exotic fish like pacu (a Brazilian freshwater fish), barramundi, escolar, skate and fried smelts—better than French fries—sardines and a handful of other unusual gifts of the sea.

There are two dining spaces, each seating 50 and touting their own individual flair. Inside is kitschier and more intimate, with checkerboard tablecloths and napkins fashioned out of dishcloths. Outside, the covered patio makes a statement with a painted red floor, enormous blackboard, picnic-style round tables, and mismatched chairs from one of my other favorite haunts, Congress Hall in Cape May.

Everything we tried was very good, but I’d be remiss if I did not gush just a wee bit about the lobster rolls and the skate. We probably could’ve cooked two 1 ¼-pound-plus lobsters at home for the price we paid for one of these luscious, diamond-studded—oh wait, I meant Sriracha/Japanese-mayo-spiced—bites of sweet, tender meat, but to our gourmand pleasure, they were not a disappointment. Of course, I was too preoccupied by the caramelized, crispy forkfuls of pan-seared skate wing to contemplate any lobster envy. Perched atop a chunky bed of melon gazpacho and garnished with a wonderfully golden-brown, crispy blanket of pancetta, the sweet shreds of flesh left me feeling very smug about my ordering decision.

And let’s not overlook the wonderfully convenient and fabulous marketing ploy: an arrangement with Fred’s Tavern & Liquor Store (on 96th) for B.Y.O.B. service.
 

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