[ review ]
Thirty-two miles outside the city, the quaint town of Yardley creeps out of the Delaware like wild mint. Here, land and river entwine like a strand of DNA — the water literally put Yardley on the map, as the Buxco town sprung up around the ferry that served as an important part of the link between Jersey and Philly in the 18th century. Today, that symbiosis continues, the scenic waterscape attracting tourists, artists and urban refugees who have preserved this hamlet's charm, and on a recent cusp-of-spring evening, couples gathered at mulched picnic tables along Delaware Avenue, the river beyond a harmless ripple of Yoo-Hoo.
But as 26- and 29-year-old brothers Eric and Mark Plescha know, what the water giveth, the water taketh away. The siblings run Charcoal, an ambitious 70-seat BYOB so close to the Delaware you can read the names of passing pleasure crafts from the stately dining room's second-story windows. Major flooding from 2004 to 2006 destroyed the restaurant, a Yardley fixture since 1974, owned and operated by their father, Anton, since 1995. It took two years to rebuild, and in 2008, Charcoal reopened on stilts, upheld like an eagle's nest high above the water.
Mark and Eric grew up around the restaurant, joining the family business as soon as they were old enough to wash a dish. "[After Charcoal reopened] our dad was slowly beginning to retire," says Mark, "and Eric and I began taking over."
Family and rebirth are the themes of Charcoal's story, and from the open, come-say-hi kitchen to the down-to-earth service, that sense of togetherness colors the dining experience. You'd feel good about eating here even if the Plescha boys were feeding you cut-rate omelettes and turkey clubs. That's their game during breakfast and lunch, but come night, the ambitious brothers have other ideas. Among them, a compressed watermelon cube furnished with inky, intense black tahini, micro-cilantro and a fruity pouf of Kool-Aid air. It's an amuse bouche with something to say: Don't judge me by my ZIP code.
Back in Philly, Kool-Aid air might evoke a smirk at best and a sneer at worst, but in Yardley, it doesn't feel like gimmickry. Ditto for the nitro custards, sous-vide mains, powders, foams and a single variety of cardamom-scented "dirt" — an almond-flour streusel recipe simply colored with cocoa — scattered about a golden heirloom tomato salad.
Entirely self-taught in the arena of scientific cooking, the Pleschas pore over cookbooks, eat in progressive restaurants — the cube of fried hollandaise with their hanger steak and "eggs" is a tribute to Wylie Dufresne's New York restaurant WD-50 — and experiment endlessly. It's not uncommon for the pair to stay after closing, until 1:30 or 2 in the morning, "playing around with flavors and techniques."
Some of them need a bit more practice. Cracked open, the hollandaise didn't flow out as smoothly as I'm sure it does as WD-50, and the liquid-nitro caramel ice cream tasted bitter and medicinal — though I was charmed by the "chewy banana" crumbles beneath. Aromatic housemade five-spice and clever, quick-pickled kimchi were naturals for duck breast, but more salt would have sharpened those flavors.
The chefs know their way around an immersion circulator, though, their preferred cooking vehicle for everything from octopus and eggs to that hanger steak. A marinade in roasted vegetables, mustard and vinegar tenderizes the beef for two days; two hours at 55 degrees Celsius and a quick trip to the grill finishes the job. Rubbed down with root beer spices (sassafras, juniper and star anise, to name a few), the short ribs go four days — four days! — in a super-low sous vide that maintains a medium-rare interior. Scented with more star anise, roasted fennel purée reinforced the beef's licorice backdrop, a white raisin-studded, grilled pistachio-dusted ode to a burger and a root beer from the nearby A&W stand, a favorite of Eric's girlfriend.
Equal parts playful and thoughtful, the brothers have a knack for creative pairings: octopus (sous vide) and lychee (puréed); beets (roasted) and coffee (oil); hamachi (raw), honeydew (compressed) and white chocolate (powder). Beautifully seared scallops got two different preps: sticky caramelized fennel, velvety acorn-squash purée, juicy pear and bitter cocoa nibs bid arrivaderci to winter; while blanched and buttered peas, floral champagne mango and cracked coffee beans said hiya to spring. Ramps, those wild envoys of April, flavored a brilliant ice cream set on the heirloom tomato salad's cardamom dirt. Semisweet and faintly garlicky, I'd gladly eat it with a waffle cone and rainbow jimmies, and secretly, I hoped for a bowl for dessert.
Cast-iron pots of bread pudding weren't a bad consolation. Bejeweled with blueberries and elderberries, topped with silky maple ice cream, the dessert evoked a stack of French toast drizzled with syrup. Except for the ice cream being made to order with liquid nitrogen, it's an uncharacteristically straightforward preparation, but Eric concedes, "I feel like I can make a pretty badass bread pudding."
He and Mark make a lot of badass things, strong evidence for Charcoal's advance-notice-only tasting menus. Each is custom-made, an orchestra of on- and off-menu items, nightly specials and on-the-fly creations. My server explained, "This is what they love to do," which resulted in extra amuses, pre-desserts and bonus courses that ballooned my $55 five courses to eight at no extra charge.
The Plescha brothers' passion and enthusiasm flows like an electrical current through Charcoal. They get excited. The staff gets excited. The diners get excited. As each course was served, the brothers peered through the pass, studying the dining room and, just maybe, the Delaware River below.
Charcoal | 11 S. Delaware Ave., Yardley, 215-493-6394, charcoalbyob.com, twitter.com/charcoalBYOB. Breakfast and lunch served Tue.-Sun., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner served Tue.-Sun., 5-9 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$18; entrées, $16-$26; sides, $4; five- to 10-course tastings, $55-$120. BYOB.