THE SCENE: Stepping into A La Maison on a busy weekend night can be a bit daunting, especially when you come in the back way and have to walk through the vast dining room to get to the hostess. Even with a reservation policy, this new kid on the block sees lots of walk-ins, which makes for a bustling, buzzing ambiance.
Once you acclimate to the high decibel level, you’ll forget about the activity and noise, and start to focus on the sights and scents of this softly lit French bistro. Tables are spaced tightly, so it can be a little awkward squeezing your behind into your chair, but good timing on your hostess’ part should help you avoid any mid-bite interruptions.
To fully appreciate A La Maison, visit during the day—ideally, on a bright, sunny afternoon, when sunlight splashes across the lemon-yellow walls courtesy of the floor-to-ceiling windows along the restaurant’s front (likely a cooler spot during the winter, but great for an afternoon of people watching). Mocha is the bistro’s other accent color, adding a bold contrast and blending nicely with the medium- to dark-hued furnishings and the vast worn-wood floor.
Characteristic of a true bistro, the tables, chairs and their embellishments are simple: wood, no cushions, ordinary glasses and plain white china. Still, French kitsch abounds, from the colorful tin teapots and giant copper spoons hanging from wooden racks, to the enormous copper espresso machine, champagne bucket full of fresh flowers, and the colorful 1940s-style prints on the walls. A brawny, weathered wood- and copper-topped bar sits to the left of the front door, along with a quaint table for four set with Pierre Deux linens.
THE FOOD: A graduate of the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College and once a private caterer, chef/owner Darlene Boline Moseng puts her own rustic, homestyle spin on such traditional French comfort fare as steak or moules frites, bouillabaisse, coquilles Saint Jacques, crêpes, coq au vin, cassoulet, and beef Bourguignon. The half-dozen baked snails we ordered were arranged nicely in their fancy escargot dish, barely breaking the surface of the garlicky, Chartreuse-infused butter. Any longer in the oven would’ve turned them to rubber. Luckily, Moseng knew just when to take them out.
The warm goat cheese and caramelized onion tart was a delight for its exceptional creaminess and sweet onions. But the soggy crust was disappointing and made the combination feel too heavy. The pâté du jour—a hearty, lightly seasoned terrine composed of pork, veal and beef—paired well with the chutney, gherkin pickles, and a simple salad of crisp, organic mesclun greens and toasted walnuts in a light raspberry vinaigrette (ordered separately).
Another salad—frisée with truffled potatoes, lardons and a sizable confit’d duck leg—also hit the spot. The leg was crispy, moist and meaty, and the lardons had a nice crunch. The frisée could’ve used a squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt and pepper, but there were no shakers on the table (a pet peeve of mine). The truffled potato cubes had a nice hint of truffle oil, but they also needed a pinch of salt.
Despite some online comments to the contrary, the steak frites featured an excellent prime N.Y. strip—impressive in size, temperature and flavor. The sauce—a classic maison (red wine, shallots and mushrooms)—was velvety and bold, but didn’t overpower the meat. The frites, however, were limp and weighed down with what I suspect was truffle oil—which is normally a winning combination. But without a crispy, golden brown skin, they were downright soggy.
The fish du jour—a monstrous piece of sushi-grade tuna—was a showstopper, its jewel-toned triangles encrusted in pine nuts. The flesh was moist and supple, nearly melting on contact. The moules frites was also tasty, though the mussels were left to simmer too long, losing their size and tenderness. The duck breast with cherry port demi-glace offered savory sweet-and-sour mouthfuls.
A pile of beef short ribs, with mashed potatoes and root vegetables, came blanketed with a rich, silky bourguignon sauce in a warm, covered dish. The meat fell off the bone, and the reduction (red wine, onions, parsley, thyme and butter) had us smacking our lips.
For dessert, the tart citron was petite, but definitely not dainty. The tart hadn’t quite set, leaving the curd runnier than it should’ve been. Still, the flavor didn’t suffer, nor did the crisp, buttery crust, topped with a lightly browned meringue peak. A full-bodied cup of coffee proved a good dessert companion.
At brunch, the onion soup gratinée made a stunning entrance in an antique-ish crock capped with a lightly bronzed layer of Gruyère. With its sweet, caramelized onions and a flavorful stock, the soup was balanced, had body and wasn’t overly salty.
The salmon with spinach and the chicken cordon bleu crêpes du jour were both topped with a creamy béchamel sauce. The crêpe itself was thin and light, but strong enough to hold the filling—which, along with the sauce, was disappointingly bland.
THE EXPERIENCE: While hits and misses tend to go hand-in-hand with new restaurants, A La Maison has incited some heated debate over its quality of food and service. I had no issues with the latter. The staff was cordial and unpretentious.
On a packed Tuesday, we lucked out with a seasoned veteran of Le Bec Fin. Our wines were opened promptly; he patiently answered our many questions; and on a subsequent visit, he welcomed us back and shook hands.
Noise is definitely a factor at A La Maison, as is the tight fit between the tables. The butcher-block table used for cutting fresh baguettes is eye-catching, but it takes up valuable dining space.
If, at first glance, the $27 entrées seem off-putting, consider the generous portions. That should make you feel better about the bill.
THE SKINNY: A La Maison is more successful in capturing the essence of a French bistro with its décor than its food—although they do make a solid effort on the latter front. And from the swell of patrons that come and go seven nights a week, it’s clear this is the kind of restaurant folks want in their neighborhood—casual, smart, friendly, just a little edgy, and comfortable.
Generous portions aside, it would be nice to witness more culinary creativity—and seasonings. I applaud the minimalist approach behind the small menu, but many of the dishes lack depth. Unexpected twists—like the tuna entrée, with its Asian flair—worked best.
Location: 53 W. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; (484) 412-8009, alamaisonbistro.com.
Cost: $30 and under.
Attire: Anything goes.
Atmosphere: A lively yet relaxing, low-key and unpretentious, neighborhood vibe.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Brunch: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Extras: BYO with full-service coffee bar and weekend brunch; chef’s table accommodates 10-12 guests.