March 16-22, 2006
Eats : FoodFollow Your Nose
A former Center City chef is lured to the suburbs --with pleasing results.
: Michael T. Regan
Sovana (not to be confused with Northern Liberties' Sovalo or Gulph Mills' Savona; this place is named for a town in Tuscany) is located in the Willowdale Town Center, which for all intents and purposes is a strip mall. But it's one of those newfangled, classy strip malls that actually has character. Farrell completed renovation on the space last year, and inside there is a marketplace serving prepared foods and a coffee bar that brews up La Colombe. There's also a private dining room and a chef's table, which you can reserve for $75. "Bar" space is provided for single diners but there are no draft pulls and, on a recent night, the only sport shown on the overhead TVs was the Iron Chef competition. The formal dining space, painted in charcoal grays and yellows and lit by flickering votives, is usually packed to its capacity of 100 people. (Sikora and Olexy were among its regulars until last December when Sikora came in with his resumé.)
If, by the time you are seated, you are not already re-evaluating your prejudices about suburban dining, just wait until your self-assured server passes out wedges of herbed and smoky focaccia and pours a dippable puddle of fragrant olive oil on your bread plate.
From appetizer to dessert, there's a consistent grace and confidence about Sovana Bistro that's lacking in most suburban restaurants, and even in some of the city's better ones. Farrell's vision isn't earthy peasant cooking, but it's not prissy, either. What's familiar is tweaked with understated savvy, like ruby chunks of raw tuna molded into a cylinder, layered over smashed avocado laced with a fresh lime cilantro vinaigrette. The gamier pleasures of tender, fire-roasted quail are punctuated with a spicy chorizo and corn bread stuffing and an underlying ragout of tiny zucchini and yellow squash cubes.
Woodstone pizzas are mostly simple, relying on high-quality ingredients rather than exotic combinations. An exception is the Kennett Square pizza, which has both going for it: a cracker-crisp crust; woody, local, roasted mushrooms; twirls of caramelized onion; melted fontina cheese; juicy-sweet bursts of sun-dried cherries; and a luxuriant drizzle of truffle oil.
The goods keep coming. Handmade orecchiette, or ear-shaped pasta, are chewy and supple, tossed with shrimp and impossibly tender slices of octopus in a bouillabaisse broth with tomato fondue, which together become a hearty roasted tomato sauce. A sprinkling of salty Parmesan crisps across the pasta is a rich counterpoint.
Farrell's plates are composed attractively but they are not architectural or pretentious. Caramelized day boat scallops encircle a mound of leeks, tiny slices of fingerling potatoes and a creamy New England-style clam chowder, accented with smoky pancetta. The fish of the day, a striped bass when we visited, was gently roasted, and stacked with complementary trimmings. Its mild flavors were brought into relief by black trumpet mushrooms, a haystack of angel hair-skinny shoestring potatoes, wilted spinach and a parsnip emulsion. (There was also a whole fish served in an olive citronette.) Even plain old hanger steak is dignified, Franco-style, with a pungent bordelaise sauce, velvety pommes purees and perfectly crisp haricots verts.
For dessert, there are homemade ice creams and sorbets in flavors like roasted banana and peanut butter, a traditional cheese plate and a list of sweet concoctions that are as inspired as the courses that precede. There's a square slice of hazelnut cake, layered with caramelized pear slices and pearly white chocolate mousse and crowned with a toffee tuile cookie.
The essence of simplicity, Meyer lemon pudding cake is souffle-light, creamy and tart, topped with a scoop of sour cream gelato, and framed by fresh raspberries and raspberry sauce around the plate.
The "crisp-of-the-moment" was apple, raisin and dried cherry on our visit, and it was served in a white porcelain gratin dish, hot and bubbling beneath a streusel topping of oats and brown sugar, the fruit and crust absorbing the drippings from melting homemade vanilla ice cream.
So far, Farrell and Sikora seem to be working together beautifully. It's a tribute to both their talentsand perhaps a general lack of egotismthat an existing restaurant can absorb a star chef into its kitchen and continue to make stunning food on its own terms.
696 Unionville Road, Kennett Square, 610-444-5600
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 4:30-9 p.m.
Appetizers, $7.50-$15; entrees, $15-$30
Wheelchair accessible. Smoking is not permitted. Reservations not accepted. BYO. Wine service, $5 per bottle. All major credit cards.