Historical digs meet fashionable fare at General Warren Inne.
THE SCENE: One of the Main Line’s most enduring and historically rich culinary outposts, this 18th-century inn’s mix of dark woods, white linens, candlelit tables and classic details from the past has long attracted traditionalists seeking a subdued, refined dining experience without the trendiness and theatrics of modern eateries. Adding to the allure: low lighting, Persian carpets, period paintings, mounted revolutionary firearms and antique maps (including one of the British 1777 encampment in Tredyffrin prior to the Battle of Paoli).
Graceful but unpretentious, the General Warren is everything Stephen Starr’s restaurants aren’t. There’s no theatrics, and the staff’s up-front affability defies the building’s history as a Tory stronghold where Loyalists plotted against Revolutionaries and the British planned the Paoli Massacre (lore has it a local blacksmith was tortured on the third floor).
The Warren Tavern’s two-year-old reincarnation (pictured above) offers family-room coziness embellished with high-tech TVs,
granite accents and a horseshoe-shaped bar. The diverse cast of patrons ranges from corporate honchos, anniversary/birthday revelers and younger executive types to Main Line mavens and diehard regulars. Devoted supporters exalt its country club feel.
THE FOOD: Despite the inn’s throwback aura and presence of gastronomic stalwarts such as chateaubriand, rack of lamb (pictured above), beef Wellington and frog legs, the American-Continental menu dips into the 21st century with a seared yellow fin and cilantro black-bean cake appetizer and entrées such as soft-shell crabs with herbed polenta, wilted frisée and jalapeño citrus beurre blanc; and pan-seared curry-marinated king salmon with lump crab, charred tomato basmati rice, shiitake mushrooms and baby leeks.
Six of us shared the Caesar salad for two, prepared tableside. The dressing was light and flavorful—not the usual cloying, heavy stuff that congregates at the bottom of the plate in a puddle—with ample hints of lemon, garlic and shaved Parmesan, not to mention a slightly overpowering trace of Worcestershire.
A round of Cape Cod oysters bejeweled with a vibrant pineapple-mango salsa hit the spot on a hot summer night, their crisp texture and briny flavor embellished by the salsa’s sweet-sour nuances. The crab cake appetizer was equally palatable, its soft, sweet meat offsetting the accompanying Asian slaw, crispy and with a lingering taste of sesame—though the honey-wasabi sauce got lost in the mix and could’ve used a bit more kick. Meanwhile, the yellow fin appetizer was a little overcooked and dry, its flavor overwhelmed by the peppercorn coating.
Main course samplings included a generous bowl of scallop and shrimp risotto with white truffle glace, chunks of ham, perky spring peas and chewy morels—an appealing contrast of texture and color. Smoky bites of ham were softened by the creamy risotto and contrasted well with the meaty morels. The white truffle glace had a surprising boldness that countered the shellfish’s sweetness, and there was just enough saltiness to enhance the other elements without a sodium overdose. The hearty diver scallops were firm yet tender; the shrimp, however, were a little tough.
Our waitress cited the beef Wellington as the inn’s signature dish, and one mouthful proved why. The massive filet was truly extraordinary in tenderness and cooked to a divine state of medium rare. Enlivened by a rich wild mushroom demi-glace, pâté and mushroom duxelles and a puff pastry that was admirably light and flaky, this version makes mincemeat out of any I’ve tasted elsewhere.
And a thumbs-up to the lamb—tender, tasty and sizably portioned, with a zesty fennel and caraway crust that had a bit-too-dominant mustard overtone but was otherwise sublime. Though the baby leeks were somewhat fibrous, they were mouthwatering when combined with salty bits of Tasso, baby new potatoes and shallots.
One of the evening’s specials, the brawny pork porterhouse was served with a crumbled bacon and spice rub, prepared medium well and extremely succulent. A simple but savory combination of mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots made for a homey side dish.
The wine list features selections from all over the world, with a heavy emphasis on California and France and a “Value Wines”—under $50 a bottle—grouping. For more serious oenophiles, there are many luscious, big reds to marry with menu items, including an excellent selection of pinot noirs. An impressive list of French wines is nicely divided into regions—Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône and Provençe—while the International section highlights wines from Argentina, Australia, Italy and Germany. A “VIP Wines” grouping aims at big spenders unafraid to drop $100 or more on a bottle. The roster of champagnes and sparkling wines is equally notable.
Accompanied by robust coffee served in warmed cups and a round of port, favorite desserts included the poached fruit with house-made ginger ice cream and chocolate chili pot de crème. Cooked down ever so slightly, the poached fruit retained its structure and delivered a refreshing tanginess complemented by the ice cream.
A silky mix of dark chocolate, dulce de leche and crème fraiche, the pot de crème had notable heat that pleasantly intensified the deeper our spoons went. Still, the chocolate’s subtle cherry and apricot notes were muted by the heavier-tasting caramel.
THE EXPERIENCE: Dining out is a cumulative experience, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to our waitress, Rose Ciarlone. Friendly, approachable, knowledgeable and candid, her mission was to provide us with a memorable repast. Pacing between courses was unhurried and technically sound; we never had to ask for anything that should’ve been brought to us, and she breezed through the tableside preparations with ease.
When we were seated, I was somewhat surprised to be at the table closest to the kitchen doors, as the dining room wasn’t full. I deliberately took the seat closest to the kitchen doors and was pleased by the lack of disturbance. I had no trouble hearing the conversation in our group and didn’t once get bumped or feel movement behind me as servers came and went.
Four courses makes for a long stay, which didn’t seem to be an issue. When we ordered a round of port, it was clear we were planning to close the place down—on a Tuesday in sleepy Malvern—yet we never got the sense that the staff was trying to hurry us out. The check was delivered when our coffee cups were empty and our body language signaled it was time to go—punctuating the relaxed, welcoming tone set earlier.
THE SKINNY: Sophisticated but not quite chic, romantic but not necessarily hip, the General Warren Inne stands tall by doing its own thing and doing it well—serving straightforward, upscale fare with understated luster.
The lack of a “scene” fosters a truly intimate experience for guests. That also makes it an excellent choice for business executives looking for the right stage to close that big deal without fear of being overheard. The food is pricey enough to discourage most people from stopping in for a quick bite (unless they order off the tavern menu) yet not so exorbitant as to seem self-indulgent.
The old-school tableside preparation and convivial, attentive service sets the inn apart from edgier, faster-paced establishments, and the wait staff could teach a thing or two to most Center City servers I’ve encountered.
DETAILS: General Warren Inne
Location: 9 Village Way, Malvern; (610) 296-3637, generalwarren.com
Cuisine: American-Continental with a few fusion twists
Hours: Dinner: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Attire: Informal to semi-formal, business, Main Line chic
Extras: Guest suites for overnight stays, two private dining rooms for groups of 15 to 50, al fresco dining on an all-weather deck, garden patio area for cocktail receptions