Destination: Sovana Bistro

A Kennett Square mainstay transcends the hype.

THE SCENE: Tucked away at the far end of what’s essentially a gussied-up strip mall, Sovana Bistro keeps its exterior charms hidden in winter. But when spring fever hits, the sidewalk and patio come alive with tables, chairs and an array of colorful potted plants.

Inside, there’s a comfortable energy (pictured below). Warm woods, earth-tone walls and cottage accents say shabby chic, but the plush banquette (in the main dining room), leather seats (at the bar and in the private dining room), 30-foot cathedral ceiling, floor-to-ceiling windows, white tablecloths and contemporary tableware have a city-slick feel.

The 100-seat dining room is tightly packed with tables, but the wall of windows and the cavernous cathedral ceiling keep the space from feeling claustrophobic. In the evening, subdued lighting and the dark-hued ceiling’s night-sky ambiance offer sanctuary from the outside world. On the other side of the dining room, a 12-person counter (great for single diners) provides views of the kitchen. Beyond that is a private dining room, along with a bar coming in mid-June.

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THE FOOD: Crafted from local and global ingredients, Sovana’s French bistro fare draws on Mediterranean flavors and preparations. Daily blackboard selections include whole roasted fish that tastes like it came straight from the Adriatic coast, laced with a kalamata citronette (lemon-infused olive oil), shaved celery and swirls of balsamic reduction. Executive sous chef Chris D’Ambro’s tapas-style antipasto of the day weaves sweet-sour-salty tastes and a variety of textures into savory combinations such as crispy pork belly (roasted and braised then crisped to order with a squeeze of lime juice) and fingerling potatoes, chickpea fritters, roasted butternut squash and cippollini onions, blood oranges and fennel, and shrimp and calamari salad (a savory blend of flavors from ocean and land—exotic yet familiar).

Sovana’s soups are born of bold stocks flavored with things like prosciutto, Parmesan rinds and roasted mushroom stems. A snow-white bowl of steamy potato soup got its dash of color and smoky flavor from short-rib cannelloni and a drizzle of herb oil bordelaise sauce, its velvety texture as comforting as a cozy blanket. Swapping my spoon for a hunk of house-made rosemary-Parmesan focaccia led to a few extra tastes.

Chunks of beefy portobello and shitake mushrooms and a delicate enoki garnish had us gobbling up a bowl of the creamiest, un-pasty risotto I’ve had in a long while. The heavier dish paired well with the acidic flavors of the quail salad, a fair-sized mountain of frisée and herbs topped by half a quail and tossed with a tangy lemon-black pepper dressing. An over-easy quail egg and bits of pancetta added a satisfying contrast in flavor and texture, the emulsifying powers of the yolk tying together all the flavors.

For our second course, we settled on the lamb cacciatore, the prosciutto di Parma pizza and the fish du jour. The cacciatore—a twist on the classic Italian dish traditionally made with chicken, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms—had a Tuscan flair, the braised lamb shank a brilliant substitution. Tender bites of lamb seemed to melt into the Pecorino-laced polenta—smooth, with a deft balance of tangy cheese and sweet creaminess. A side of broccoli rabe with toasted garlic and cannellini beans had us panting, the latter’s mild flavor soaking up the toasted garlic and olive oil and the rabe coming closer to sautéed spinach in texture.

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The wild striped bass was a moist and meaty center-cut filet accented with a tomato crème sauce and white-bean puree. As much as we enjoyed it, the roasted whole fish sampled on a subsequent visit left a deeper impression. (More on that in a few lines.)

Pizzas are one of Sovana Bistro’s signature offerings, prepared in a gas-fired hearth that utilizes water-soaked wood chips to lend a distinct aroma that pervades the entire restaurant. Made with semolina and bread flour, the cracker-crisp crust imparts an earthy taste. Our toppings—prosciutto, arugula, roasted red peppers and a decadently rich goat cheese—made for a winning salty, sweet and peppery contrast.

We began our next visit with potato leek soup and tuna tartare. The soup’s aroma and appearance hinted at the one we’d tried on the first visit, but the dollop of slightly charred sweet potato puree and drizzle of herb oil swirl was distinct. Molded into a cylinder and layered over a bed of crushed avocados, the jewel-toned tuna practically dissolved on contact, supple and lively with bits of micro-cilantro and lime vinaigrette. The house-made chips were addicting—thin, crispy and perfectly salted.

From the blackboard, we chose the short ribs, served over a silky pomme puree with a mushroom and parsnip puree tart. The serving appeared a bit small at first, but the ribs’ rich, almost sticky (in a good way) sauce and buttery texture—the result of 2 ½ days of nurturing—justified the portioning.

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The roasted whole fish that night was dorado—a bit bony but delicious, its milky white flesh breaking off in big chunks dripping with kalamata citronette. The accompanying chickpea fritters were bland, with a not-so-subtle, oily taste. A side of roasted artichokes would’ve been the perfect addition.

For dessert, we tried the warm pecan tart topped with roasted banana ice cream and served alongside a small glass of frothy liquid bananas that was so good I could’ve licked it off my arm. Same with the ice cream, which was spiked with a little bourbon. Sovana’s “crisp of the moment” was another highlight—warm cherries and pears with yummy bits of buttery, cinnamon-sugary flour and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

But the star of the evening was the lemon olive oil cake (pictured below). Layers of oil-infused cake, Meyer lemon curd and meringue were served alongside a just-tart-enough blood orange sorbet, a petite pile of Clementine and blood orange sections, a few spots of basil sauce, tiny cubes of candied fennel, and a fried basil leaf.

THE EXPERIENCE: We first visited Sovana Bistro on a Sunday night, and nearly every seat was filled. Our waiter knew the menu, and with the exception of a minor oversight on a request and the delivery of someone else’s pomme frites to our table (a plus for us), we couldn’t complain about anything. Service on the second visit was a little less attentive, as our waiter was besieged by a sudden deluge of patrons and couldn’t find his way back to our table.

Despite all the hard surfaces and the close proximity of the tables, the noise level was well under control. And though the wait staff was zipping from table to table both nights, the ambiance was surprisingly relaxing.

THE SKINNY: I took my sweet time getting to Sovana Bistro—2008 marks their 10th anniversary—but my lapse in judgment (and lengthy trek) was more than fairly rewarded. A devout following of regulars and destination diners has kept chef/owner Nick Farrell and his staff on their toes, and it’s obvious Farrell has hit on a way to successfully marry innovation and tradition.

Classic techniques never go out of style, and nothing on the menu shouts fusion confusion. A forward farm-to-table mindset and respect for the land (and what comes out of it) define Sovana’s mission. Farrell and D’Ambro (pictured above) share an elevated appreciation for the region’s agricultural offerings—and the philosophy that the quality of any one ingredient can make or break a dish.

Lucky us.

Location: Willowdale Towne Centre, 696 Unionville Road, Kennett Square; (610) 444-5600,
Cuisine: American, French and Italian bistro fare
Price: Average entrée $26
Attire: Suburban chic, business casual
Atmosphere: French bistro with an Italian soul
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday.
Extras: BYO ($5/bottle liquor service fee), takeout, private dining room, outdoor seating

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