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Second Coming

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Alison Barshak in her new digs: Alison two in Fort WashingtonChances are, if you’re into food and you’ve been in the area awhile, you’re familiar with redheaded culinary temptress Alison Barshak. Her rise to fame began when Neil Stein tapped her for landmark Center City eatery Striped Bass in 1994 after discovering her at Central Bar & Grill in Bryn Mawr. She became nationally known when Esquire named Striped Bass Best New Restaurant that same year.

A lot has been written about Barshak since then, including some stretched truths when she first ventured out on her own. The negative press surrounded a soured relationship with an ex-beau and a deal gone south that resulted in an ugly lawsuit. “I’m very direct and intense, and that scares people,” she told City Paper in 1998, a couple of months after news of the legal action broke. “I think whenever people suspect that a woman is becoming important in any biz, it’s because of her sexuality or because she’s a b—h.”

Barshak isn’t the only woman to face such scrutiny, but she remains a minority in her field. A decade later, there’s still only a smattering of female-run kitchens around Philadelphia. You don’t have to be an industry insider to realize that her success was earned with equal parts talent, passion, perseverance and grit. Most people don’t know that—other than a three-day seafood purchasing, storing and prepping course at the Culinary Institute of America—Barshak has had zero professional training. Yet she’s an amazing chef capable of transforming the most humble of ingredients into a meal fit for royalty.

These days, Barshak is riding a renewed wave of praise for Alison two, a bigger, bolder version of her original Alison at Blue Bell just minutes up the road in Fort Washington. Though notably flashier, with trendy décor and a hip bar loaded with equally hip spirits, Alison two retains the organic energy of its older sibling, a BYO that opened in 2003.

For those who’ve never met Barshak, what you see is what you get. She’s wholly herself, which means you always know where you stand. Her food may be tangled up in layers and innuendo, but Barshak is as straightforward and focused as a stiff cup of espresso. Although she readily alludes to Alison (the restaurant and the person) as a “journey,” she’s not following life—it’s following her.

Funky wrought iron and glass sconces illuminate a row of cozy two-tops.“I love food, but I’d have no control over my destiny if I didn’t have control over the business end,” she says. “If you can control the financial [part], you have the freedom to do anything.”

Barshak took quite a risk leaving Striped Bass’ five-star fold in 1996, but history has proven that decision to be the perfect move. Where most people seek fame and fortune, Barshak’s drive was—and still is—about finding freedom.

When Alison two opened last Octo-ber, some male customers saw it as a woman’s restaurant— surprising when you consider that the new space is darker, with wine lockers, spacious banquettes, and plenty of wood and wrought iron. There’s also a cozy-swank living room with a fireplace, leather sofas and a large flat-screen television. Maybe it’s the vibrant palette of yellow, periwinkle and purplish cobalt that throws the guys off. Or the sunny, narrow glassed-in vestibule and rich velvet draping that hangs throughout. Even so, there’s a far edgier feel here than in Alison at Blue Bell—kind of the difference between a garden party and cigar night.
 

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The sleek bar is equally showy, with cool lighting, luminescent glass tiles and the kind of barstools that make it hard to give up your seat. Barshak isn’t a big drinker (margaritas aside), but she understands the value of providing guests with innovative, upscale libations. And now that a few months have passed, she’s well aware of the difference a bar tab makes in a restaurant’s earnings. “You don’t notice it when you run a BYO,” she admits. “I was oblivious to how much people drink.”

The bar at Alison twoAlison two’s well-thought-out polish provides a nice contrast to Alison at Blue Bell’s quieter, homier chic—and it shows off Barshak’s ability to simultaneously pull off a new concept while retaining all the coveted aspects of the original source of her success. It’s a feat akin to a novelist producing two bestsellers in a row. The well-orchestrated show at Alison two includes full-on color coordination, right down to the staff’s shirts, custom made from 100-percent preshrunk Pima broadcloth cotton.

Fans were privy to the ups and downs of the construction process, thanks to a detailed blog penned by Barshak. Those who followed along should already know that the sleek, curvy, periwinkle ultra-suede chairs in the dining room were her biggest (unintentional) splurge. “Just the fabric alone was going to be $25,000,” she says. “We couldn’t live with that number, so we hunted for someone who could do it for less. I wasn’t as picky about the color as I was about comfort. They are a great color, though—made in Japan.”

And she had to be flexible. “Like the kitchen,” she says. “I’ve always worked in an open kitchen; it’s great from a chef/owner point of view, but it wasn’t possible with this layout. We still went ahead and tried, but it really didn’t turn out to be such a great idea aesthetically, which some of our customers pointed out as well.”

Chef de cuisine Bill LewisInitial efforts were made to soften the kitchen’s industrial views—darker floors, coordinating paint on the walls of the bakery and less-glaring light. But in the end, its entrance was partially cloaked in the same velvet hanging in the dining rooms. “It turned out to be this entire production, but it’s OK,” says Barshak. “I learn a lot from my customers, so the constructive criticism didn’t throw me. Wherever I am that’s not here, I’m a customer; it gives me a lot of perspective. A lot of chefs have one-way vision. They don’t try to see it from diners’ points of view. My experience is that the customer always makes the decision.”

“Taking care of people” and keeping the dining room running smoothly is a high priority for Barshak. She’s no longer working in the kitchen—chef Bill Lewis has that job. But don’t be surprised to see her busing tables or washing dishes. It teaches her about what’s being done right—and wrong. “I hope I hired the right people, but I can’t watch every single thing,” she says. “At some point, someone will do something the wrong way. It only takes one person to ruin [a customer’s experience]. Just because you can play first base doesn’t mean you’re also a great pitcher.”

Barshak tries to be aware of both the good and bad things she hears from patrons. And she admits her flaws: “I’m totally meat-challenged. Fish, I do well.”
 

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Barshak also does “global” really well—in her food and in her travel. Opening a new restaurant curbed the jet-setting a bit, but her diary is full of fantastic culinary excursions to places like Vietnam, Madrid, Seville, Barcelona, Sweden, Denmark, Fin-land and the Mediterranean—experiences her customers live vicariously through when dining chez Alison.

Barshak and Lewis’ evolving menu is full of eclectic combinations made from scratch, including bar mixers. Yet, for all their exoticism and panache, her dishes capture the essence of good, old-fashioned home cooking—twice as good as Mom’s, but prepared with the same affection.

A dish of roasted veggies featured bold, smoky nubs of bacon, salty shavings of Parmesan, caramelized bits of carrot, nibbles of potato, and hearty Brussel-sprout halves (their cut sides deliciously golden brown and earthy), all laced with a cranberry balsamic dressing. The house-smoked salmon, on black bread with crispy coleslaw and Russian dressing, proved an interesting combination. The fish’s peppery cure added just the right zing to the sweetness of the bread and dressing, and the cabbage’s crunch was a great contrast to the supple salmon.

The vibrant pumpkin cheesecake made for a sublime dessert, delivering bold hits of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The beautiful circle of fluffy, amped-up pumpkin puree was melded to a sweet curry crust that was wonderfully chewy and crispy, and reminded me of pecan pie.

Sea scallops, house-made gnocchi, mushrooms and truffled mushroom sauceAnd that was just lunch. A recent dinner menu featured the following enticing and hearty combinations: cauliflower soup with “Croque” smoked bacon, Gruyère cheese and a grain mustard aioli; roasted wild mushrooms with heirloom grits, aged Sonoma Jack cheese and a sherry reduction; wild fluke with leeks, wild mushrooms, petite greens and a black truffle potato sauce; and sea scallops with house-made gnocchi and shiitakes in a truffled mushroom sauce.

“The restaurant is going to grow and change,” says Barshak. “Right now, it’s one-tenth of where I want it to be. Just because I want to put something on the menu doesn’t mean it will end up that way. In any business, you’ve got to keep asking yourself if there is a better or different way of doing something. But, we’re not saving lives. I don’t expect my life to change when I go out for a great meal.”

Barshak might not admit it, but she’s probably hoping to change yours—at least a little bit.
 


DETAILS
Alison at Blue Bell, 721 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell; (215) 641-2660, alisonatbluebell.com
Alison two, 424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington; (215) 591-0200, alisontwo.com
 

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