Labor of Love

Dinner and a movie in Bala Cynwyd—Avril style.

The restaurant’s tan and mocha hues, black leather banquettes and white tablecloths make for a romantic mealtime rendezvous.THE SCENE: Even if it had nothing but tables, chairs and an espresso machine, Avril would lure customers with its luminous environs and close proximity to the Bala Theatre. As it turns out, there’s more than looks and convenience to recommend this 48-seat French-Italian bistro.

Warm and inviting, with a touch of primness, Avril’s tan and mocha hues, vibrant oil paintings, black leather banquettes and white tablecloths make for a lovely and romantic mealtime rendezvous, whether it’s dinner or Sunday brunch. The dining area’s classical soundtrack adds to the sophisticated ambiance. For maximum privacy, request a corner table closer to the kitchen.

THE FOOD: Avril’s seasonally inspired, rotating menu features Northern Italian and Southern French dishes with a hint of German influence. Eclectic and somewhat frilly initial selections included a wild mushroom barquette (pastry canoe) with sea scallops and endive tarte tatins; crab-stuffed crêpes with artichoke and asparagus gratin; duck breast with peaches; lavender-scented grilled shrimp, scallops and calamari; and a decadent, espresso-infused mousse with seared foie gras on brioche.

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Now that the cold weather has hit, comfort fare is the rule at Avril. Think hearty soups, home-style braised brisket, coq au vin and pasta Bolognese, plus well-conceived vegetarian offerings—all of which convincingly demonstrate chef/owner Christian Gatti’s penchant for cooking with the season and using time-tested techniques.

Gatti favors silky, buttery sauces, creamy cheeses, risotto and polenta, and provincial ingredients like rabbit, quail and trout. But his true specialty is homemade pastries, breads, pastas and desserts. Tarts, kugelhopf (part bread, part cake), puff pastry, focaccia, crêpes, profiteroles, brioche and flan all find their way onto Avril’s menu.

Avril’s French take on the traditional pot pieFor starters one night, we tried the smoked trout served with crème fraîche, apple-butter vinaigrette, and an apple poached in white wine and spiced cider; a hearty gratin of roasted beets, parsnips and turnips in cream with blue cheese crumble, pickled red onion and a grilled boudin blanc (pork) sausage; and an artichoke, spinach and goat cheese tart with robustly flavored artichoke chunks and a flaky, buttery crust.

Our entrées were even more decadent. The grilled lamb chops were served alongside a curry-scented carrot custard. Another dish had slices of juicy, crimson-colored duck fanned atop a smoky French lentil demi-glace, separated by sweet, soft sections of roasted pear.

The wild mushroom and pumpkin ravioli featured handmade ribbons of delicate pasta over layers of sautéed spinach, mushrooms and cheese. The surprisingly light forkfuls of the accompanying pumpkin flan went down smoothly, and the hidden garlic cloves and pumpkin seeds added pizzazz to this simple, rustic dish.

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For that evening’s special, Gatti offered two nicely sized quails stuffed with fennel sausage and farro (a firm, chewy Italian grain similar to barley), laced with a fig demi-glace and served with savory bits of sautéed zucchini and radicchio.

How we saved room for dessert was a mystery, and it was worth it. The lavender crème brûlée was surprisingly fragrant and creamy, with a tempting layer of burnt caramel. The pistachio cake had a hearty multigrain texture—crispy but not too hard, with a nice nutty flavor. Still, we could’ve used more than a drizzle of the crème anglaise.

Bouillabaisse with fennel- and tomato-based broth, mussels, shrimp, bass and haricot vertsTHE EXPERIENCE: We sat down to a round of wine freshly poured into sizable, handsome goblets, adding a touch of elegance to our arrival. At least one of us had set our sights on the brisket, which was unavailable. No worries. But the foie gras shortage was a little harder to take.

Other quibbles were relatively minor. The scant piles of overdressed greens that came with two of our appetizers blurred the line between rustic and sloppy. The salt and pepper shakers were MIA—and frankly, a careful sprinkle of the former would’ve given most dishes a lift.

THE SKINNY: After encountering a fair amount of not-so-positive advanced press about Avril’s food and service, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But its proximity to the Bala Theatre underscored my personal views on any sort of criticism—that you never really know what to think until you see for yourself.

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To say that our experience was a good deal different from the less flattering ones I’d read about on the foodie websites is an understatement and a relief. With so many chains and mini-empires overshadowing the little guys, the idea of neighborhood restaurants has always been one that I’ve embraced.

Chef Christian Gatti with his wife and business partner, April Lisante.Fully aware that, to some Main Line appetites, “eclectic” is a dirty word, I question the mass appeal of the menu. I’d hate to see Gatti compromise his culinary convictions. But with a movie theater attracting a diverse audience, he might want to consider a few more basic stews and additional pastas. After all, for patrons to buy into such a rich and savory concept, it has to make sense—and during the winter months, what makes more sense than slow-cooked comfort food?

Either way, enthusiasm abounds in Avril’s dining room and behind the line. Consistency, though, is the mark of a truly great restaurant. And that’s something we won’t be able to gauge until Avril’s seen a few seasons come and go—say, maybe sometime in April.

Location: 134 Bala Ave., Bala Cynwyd; (610) 667-2626,
Cuisine: Northern Italian/French Provincial.
Chef: Christian Gatti, former pastry chef at City Tavern and an alum of White Dog Café and Audrey Claire.
Cost: Average entrée $19.
Attire: Main Line casual.
Atmosphere: Upscale neighborhood bistro with sophisticated panache and low-key attitude.
Hours: Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Sunday brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Extras: BYO only, no corkage fee; outdoor seating for 16 (in-season); chef’s table.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!