The One That Got Away
Butterfish eludes its older sibling’s mystique.
THE SCENE: Depending upon how you navigate the West Chester area, your preamble to this modest BYO may include views of a park, hip boutiques, eateries and rows of quaint old homes beneath a canopy of even older trees. The surroundings are quite familiar to Andrew Patten, who worked at the Jamison Dairy as a teenager. Patten’s new eatery, Butterfish, is in the East Bradford Shops, which occupy the site of his former employer.
The new sibling of downtown West Chester’s renowned Spence Café, Butterfish puts a comfortable spin on fine dining. Operating under a “less is more” design code that emphasizes the food, the simple space is warm and inviting, with soothing butter-hued walls, cherry tables and woodwork, slate flooring, and a gallery-style display of local artwork. A long community “bar” sits at the far end of the restaurant, perfect for solo diners. The spacious, open wait station offers snippets of servers in action and allows for tête-à-têtes between counter diners and staff, fueling Butterfish’s neighborhood feel.
One of the restaurant’s most appealing aspects is its calming, spacious feel—a result of its minimalist décor. There’s plenty of room between tables for discreet conversation, and at night, the rooms get a bit more dressed up with white tablecloths and candles. Still, Butterfish is less dramatic and enchanting than its Gay Street counterpart, with lighting that hasn’t quite found its mojo. Deeming it a quixotic spot might be a stretch. The best seats in the house are two corner tables—one in the furthest dining room to the right of the doorway, the other on the far left as you step onto the slate floor.
THE FOOD: Chef Don Maue (pictured above) (Spence, Duling-Kurtz House) graciously denies any claims to the culinary concept behind Butterfish, instead giving all the credit to Patten. While the gourmet-meets-home-style New American menu plays most heavily on seafood, carnivores won’t feel neglected. The kitchen’s palette leans toward familiar ingredients and flavor profiles, and the simply delivered menu is a persuasive read. Comfort food touches include baked macaroni, steakhouse creamed spinach and jalapeño cornbread with honey butter.
An inherited built-in hickory-pit smoker was the impetus for Maue’s smoked fish, beef brisket, pork and chicken offerings. So far, the only fuel being utilized is local apple wood from places like Highland Orchards. Instead of diving into a sampler, we opted for dishes that offered a small taste of the kitchen’s specialty. At brunch, it was the tomato Florentine soup with smoked scallops and the smoked salmon eggs Benedict.
The tomato soup was luscious, its concentrated, tangy flavor and robust smokiness thick but not gummy. In order to fully appreciate the transformation from sweet to smoky, though, bigger chunks of scallops would’ve been better.
The smoked salmon teetered on the drier side, but it had a sweet, mild flavor that stood up against the heavier hollandaise. While specified as caper hollandaise, the only capers I saw were tossed loosely on the plate. And other than a hint of cayenne, the sauce was bland.
Butterfish’s knockout brunch item was the tempura-fried soft-shell crabs eggs Benedict, the crustaceans standing in for English muffins. I’ve had too many poorly cooked soft-shell crabs to get excited, but the crispy, flavorful coating and moist body thwarted any skepticism. The meat came off in lobster-like chunks.
Dinner began with a basket of house-made ciabatta bread served warm, its pillowy center encased in a deliciously crisp, grainy crust. The interior was so fluffy yet sturdy, we longed for a bowl of mussels or rich bisque for dipping.
Culled in Southeastern U.S. waters, Calico scallops are smaller and less sweet than bay scallops, and they’re prone to toughness. At Butterfish, they were supple and moist, served on the half shell nestled alongside a generous spoonful of lump crab meat. Mixed with toasty bread crumbs and lightly napped with herb butter (the citrus flavor eluded us), the savory combination ranked highest among our selections.
The ginger shrimp tempura with wasabi aioli and sweet Thai chili sauce had nary a sign of ginger and suffered from a too-heavy coating that lacked crispness. Although the brilliant pool of condiments diminished the medium-sized shrimp’s impact, the wasabi aioli proved sublime, creamy with just the right punch of heat. A bottle of the stuff would perk up anyone’s home pantry (hint, hint).
A modest plate of Colorado baby-back lamb ribs with jicama slaw and sweet onion barbecue sauce seemed a poor substitute for anyone craving a gamey, succulent mouthful of lamb. There was no distinct lamb flavor—only an abundance of sweet, smoky barbecue sauce and more fat than meat. The accompanying Asian slaw—a combination of pickled red cabbage, bok choy and jicama—was the sole highlight.
The jumbo lump crab cakes with roasted asparagus and lemon basil tartar sauce (more lemon than basil) offered satisfying bites of both lump and back fin, though the crab was a bit dry. With a pool of tartar sauce that also enveloped the mashed potatoes, the dish came off as sloppy.
Fittingly, the star of the meal was the restaurant’s signature dish: sautéed Hawaiian butterfish with ginger beurre blanc and macadamia green apple salad (pictured above)—a combination we likened to Hawaiian Thanksgiving. Also known as escolar and walu, high-fat butterfish has a tender texture and a rich, sweet flavor; its moist, white flesh resembling halibut. Maue’s version was excellent. Delicately seared with a subtly spicy coating, it was meaty and succulent with balanced flavor and a great texture that stood up well when forked along with the creamy mashed potatoes.
The beurre blanc, however, was shy on ginger notes, accented only by the wet heap of ginger slices plopped atop the fish. Another hit was the simple preparation of sweet, fine-textured tilapia topped with a mountain of lump crab meat and a side of creamy, buttery mash.
Less exhilarating was the bronzed Idaho rainbow trout, not quite blackened and topped with Louisiana shrimp-and-crawfish stuffing and Creole-seasoned tomato butter. A few minutes in a hot pan would’ve added a richer flavor to the trout. Still, the shrimp and crawfish were juicy and tender, with a little pop and a nice buttery bounce.
A brief note on the sides: The candied sweet potato casserole—well-cooked hunks of potatoes served in their own juices, hefted with marshmallows and served in a crock—was cloyingly sweet like a dessert. We weren’t quite clear as to which dish it would complement, but our collective sweet tooth won out over logic. The roasted asparagus with Asiago cheese was a small but toothsome portion of petite, al dente asparagus blanketed in nutty Asiago.
THE EXPERIENCE: We arrived a little on the later side prepared to face some heat, as it was 15 minutes to closing time. While our late entry was met with enthusiasm, we were mildly snubbed on wine service, likely due to the prompt arrival of one dining companion who’d already settled in by uncorking two bottles of red and requesting four glasses. But we were toting a white and a rosé that needed to be freshened up a bit in an ice bucket.
It’s understandable that our waitress (pictured above) might assume that two bottles of red for a party of four on a Tuesday night would be sufficient. Even so, she failed to check to see if we had any wines that needed to be chilled.
We waited for nearly 10 minutes before getting up and walking over to the wait station. Upon placing our request, we quickly received a bucket and a whole lot more attention. While service was satisfactory for the duration of the meal, there was an underlying tension that made us feel unwelcome.
A similar negative vibe surfaced the day we went to brunch. A phone call asking about hours and whether we needed reservations elicited a curt response. And once we got to the restaurant, the marked juxtaposition between the comfy ambiance and the chilly demeanor of the staff was offputting. Thankfully, our server was relaxed and friendly, offering some relief.
Needless to say, courteous, attentive service is a must at any restaurant—particularly a place charging upwards of $26 an entrée.
THE SKINNY: Butterfish’s lack of drama and grandeur appears to be by design—aimed at patrons seeking a made-to-order dining experience atypical of trendier, more theatrical eateries that force-feed customers themes and vibes. And while its intentions are noble, Butterfish suffers from too little panache.
No matter how good the food is from the start, and how much the kitchen improves, you have to wonder if there are enough captivating elements to form an emotional connection to Butterfish or its food. Nothing stands out—and the lack of polish hampering the service doesn’t help matters. All of which could become a real problem when there are so many other options near and far.
Charisma doesn’t require fancy packaging, but you must strive to cultivate and hone it. Having witnessed Patten’s work at Spence, I’d say Butterfish is underachieving in this department. “Casual” and “unpretentious” are fine selling points, and you can’t complain about the ample free parking. But it’s the little things—like the hefty $3 split charge and the staff’s sour attitude over the phone—that left us hungry for something more.
Location: 700 W. Nields St., West Chester; (610) 738-8800B
Cuisine: Eclectic American—emphasis on seafood
Prices: $8-$12 lunch, $18-$26 dinner
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Sunday brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Extras: Corporate boxed lunch packages, catering for special events, in-house private functions.
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