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Out with the Inn
Hip and historical, Brandywine Prime gets it (mostly) right.

THE SCENE: Having never been to the Chadds Ford Inn, I could approach its successor with a blank slate. From what I’ve heard, though, Brandywine Prime, the inn’s lighter, airier reincarnation, is a welcome addition to this burgeoning corner of Wyeth country.

To achieve Brandywine Prime’s blend of historical and contemporary details, the inn was stripped to its bare walls and structural supports. The original stone ensures a colonial feel, but the modern lighting—both natural and artificial—combined with the polished zinc bar and cool, earthy paint, make the place feel refreshing and hip, as opposed to stuffy and reserved. Exposed ceiling joists, refurbished hardwood floors, halogen lighting, a glassed-in wine cellar (pictured below) and steel staircase punctuate the look.

Upholstered banquettes, booths and cubes in warm hues help to soften the harder design elements and lend a comfortable air to the minimalist décor.

Viewed from the large parking lot, the exterior holds its own charm, with its lovely porch and Victorian-style roof. The entrance is handicap-accessible and features a cement-and-stone walkway accented with flagstone, covered by a wooden pergola and lit by gas lanterns.

 

Guests can enjoy a casual meal in the raw-bar lounge (pictured above) or in the more remote and modestly sized dining spaces on the lower level. Upstairs, there are two private dining spaces that accommodate about 85-100.

THE FOOD: “Seafood and chops” pretty much sums up the fare at Dan Butler’s (Wilmington’s Deep Blue and Toscana) latest culinary outpost. A mix of Asian, French, Italian and regional influences, the menu is built around his affinity for locally grown, seasonal ingredients and Prime, dry-aged beef. Highlighting Butler’s eclectic side: coriander duck breast with goat cheese, pomme purée, wild ramps and baby carrots in a blackberry port wine reduction; and pan seared sea scallops with chickpea purée, pea tendril salad, charred tomato vinaigrette and crispy sage leaves. But he gets an equal thrill out of turning on customers to the intense flavor, taste and texture of dry-aged beef.

Appetizers include a number of raw bar options, including a sampler of oysters, scallop ceviche, tuna tartare, hamachi sashimi and American paddlefish caviar. Beef tartare, mushroom Napoleon and duck confit spring rolls are also on the menu, along with one or two daily specials. We tried the mussels with crispy pancetta, which proved to be a deliciously smoky and supple companion to the tuna tartare. Bursts of red, green and black tobiko, spicy-sweet pineapple-chile reduction and crispy fried wontons enlivened the petite round, its only flaw being a fibrous texture and missing avocado mousse. A hearty serving of mixed field greens with shaved fennel, toasted almonds, aged goat cheese and apple honey vinaigrette added a refreshing finish to the first course and aroused the senses with its sweet, salty and tart notes.

The vanilla corn cream sauce accompanying the BP crab cakes was so rich in fresh corn flavor it was like sticking a straw into a kernel. The cakes were more backfin than lump—but they improved exponentially when combined with forkfuls of lobster pomme purée.

After a second brief stint on the grill, the Australian rack of lamb was perfect—succulent and full-bodied.

 

I loved the home-style vegetable medley, which that night was a rustic combination of Swiss chard, corn, baby carrots, turnips, pearl onions, and diced red and yellow bell peppers sautéed in curry oil (a little too subtle) and prepared to a welcome crispness. Our cowboy and rib-eye steaks (pictured above) were ordered “Pittsburgh rare” at the suggestion of our server, who praised the charred exterior and juicy pink center. What we got was Pittsburgh raw, so we sent them back to the kitchen. Done correctly the second time around, both cuts were notably tender, barely requiring a knife—lightly charred and juicy. A heap of truffle-mashed potatoes and locally grown mushrooms added an earthy richness.

The dessert sampler—peach cake, cheesecake and bread pudding—didn’t knock our socks off. Of the three, the bread pudding had the most pizzazz, with its toffee overtones and spongy, moist texture.

THE EXPERIENCE: For a summer’s eve, Brandywine Prime was surprisingly subdued. However, the lull didn’t translate into lax service. As soon as we entered, we were greeted by a pleasant, smiling hostess who pointed us to our dining companions at the bar. There was no pressure to head to our table, which allowed us to peruse the wine list—fairly priced with many choice wines in the $30-$50 range and a nice blend of California and other domestic bottles, along with a fair representation of French, Italian and other international wines. Among the robust reds to complement those dry-aged steaks, the 2003 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was excellent and fairly priced at $80 per bottle.

At the bar, we whet our appetites with a couple of glasses of white, a Mojito and a Cosmopolitan. The wine pours were generous, but the cocktails were a bit out of whack—the Mojito meek and the Cosmo too laden with cranberry juice.

Wine and food go hand-in-hand here, and to encourage a well-rounded experience in which guests can indulge in at least one bottle, Brandywine’s list features 30 wines under $30. Pricing is notable: Where you’d expect the usual mark up, a good bottle can be procured for $25-$40. There’s also a worthy selection of whiskeys, scotches, brandies, ports and craft beers, and plenty of top-shelf spirits, sparkling wines and after-dinner cordials.

Once seated, we found our server to be wholly knowledgeable and friendly—comfortably attentive but never overbearing. Courses were well paced, and we never had to wait for anything.

The inconsistent preparation of the meat was a little concerning. At a steakhouse, knowing the difference between raw, rare and medium rare is elementary stuff. Undercooking three out of three entrées isn’t a good percentage. Still, delivering three complimentary shrimp cocktails to tide us over while our steaks took another turn on the grill was a noteworthy gesture. Another oddity: hearing that the chef didn’t “feel like making more avocado mousse” for the tuna tartare. If it’s on the menu, it should be on the plate. Surprisingly, our server handled the gaff by making the mousse herself.

Food came out at a comfortable pace, and our waitress’ menu suggestions were spot on. Servings were well proportioned (except, of course, for the Cowboy Steak, which could probably feed two) and left room for the next course.

THE SKINNY: With their steaks-and-seafood theme, Butler and chef de cuisine Keith Rudolf appear to be playing it safe and aiming for mass appeal. Knowing that Butler was invited to cook at the James Beard House last May, it would seem in line to expect a more adventurous kitchen. In today’s culinary climate, where “exotic” is ubiquitous, innovation is a chef’s best elixir. And while our experience was fulfilling enough, describing the cuisine as “daring” or “imaginative” is a push.

From a customer standpoint, shunning the à la carte pricing typically implemented at modern-day steakhouses is good for perceived value. Even so, entrées average around $24; “Steakhouse Grill” offerings run $32-$36, plus an additional $9 for “surf” accompaniments.

Certainly, Brandywine Prime fills a niche. There are so many places to visit along the river that having an upscale yet informal place to kick back with friends over a cocktail, appetizers or a three-course meal is a welcome perk. Boosted by daily happy hour specials, the raw bar is a draw, and the neighborhood feel should really kick in when Lafayette, the sit-down café next door, opens. Reaching “destination” status however, will require some daring moves in the kitchen.
 

 


DETAILS
Brandywine Prime
Location: 1617 Baltimore Pike, Chadds Ford; (610) 388-8088, brandywineprime.com.
Cuisine: Steak and Seafood.
Prices: $20-$25 for most entrées; steaks top out at $36.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. daily. Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Attire: Casual.
Extras: BYO-friendly; one bottle per table with a $10 corkage fee; two private dining rooms and soon-to-be café serving breakfast and lunch.

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