I was running late (yet again) and barely slipping my shoes on as I headed out the door after a full day of meetings and deadlines that left no time to form expectations about my dinner at Simon Pearce. I had been there before and driven past it a million times, but usually wrote it off as a tourist trap. I applied eye liner in the passenger seat, doing my best not to smudge while my date drove down the twisting, turning Route 52. I was about to do mascara when we drove over the stone bridge leading to the restaurant and the jewel-colored bottles of house-infused liquor shone through the windows and out like a beacon of serenity across the Brandywine River. I immediately closed the car mirror and focused on the soft lighting bouncing off the river’s surface. It was a sign that I was headed to one of the most exciting dining experiences of my year.
Glassblowing craftsmen worked just inside the front door. The glassblowers were actually making something. They smiled and looked happy to be there, even after dark on a Friday night. A couple was watching them work and we scaled the steps toward the dining room. I was tempted to head into the glass shop to take a look at all the glittery creations but was far more exited to see the dazzling liquors up close.
Sparking glass jars and pitchers held concoctions that reminded me of an old-time apothecary with berries, roots and fruits nestled in refined alcohol. General Manager and CIA graduate, Corey Fair, explained that this is the “farm-to-the-glass” approach they now embrace at the restaurant, using local, seasonal products to infuse their liquors for specialty cocktails. The largest containers were still infusing and took their place on the upper shelves, while the smaller bottles right below were used for current seasonal drinks. A shelf below those was the standard “top-shelf” stuff found at any bar. Simone Pearce had outdone standard top-shelf liquors times two.
We were seated at a table along a window overlooking the river, but my focus was on the menu. As I said before, I hadn’t had time to really prep myself for the menu so asked our server to leave it up to the chef. How was I supposed to choose between starters like Kennett mushroom soup with sunchokes and foie gras shavings and the grilled baby octopus with chorizo vinaigrette with sweet potatoes and savory spinach?
Even more difficult was my drink choice. The wine list is strictly from The States and, if you’re like me and have trouble committing, go for the wine flights for a taste of the offerings. I had to dive into the cocktails and chose an apricot and ginger spritzer with sparkling wine and fruit-infused vodka. The presentation on the glass resembled a mainline woman on race day with a flirty hat that was not considered too big but,rather, “fabulous.” A huge, fresh orange slice topped off the house-made cocktail glass which, served with a quick stir, allowed the bubbles to wake up and burst. My date chose the fig and walnut martini, which tasted like a creamy dessert course that popped with sweet and savory tones.
The bread basket made its way to our table and it took me mere seconds to decide on a slice of raisin and walnut bread and a slice of olive bread (two of my favorites in one basket, oh my!). My date chose the whole wheat French bread which, paired with the creamy butter, was perfect.
My first course was grilled baby octopus, which came out vibrant and fresh. Each bite was seasonal but still hinted at summer with sweet peppers and spinach covered in a chorizo vinaigrette (amazing!) that I could not get enough of. I was laughing and giggling with each bite of this course and even wiped the plate with my bread to savor the drippings.
Next up was marinated beets with local Keswick creamery feta, pickled grapes and shallots and prosciutto cracklings. A mustard seed vinaigrette brought the dish together and each bite made my taste buds crazy with sweet and seasonal bursts of flavor and, again, I was giggling. When my server came back to my table I asked, “Who is this chef and where did she come from?”
She is Chef Karen Nicolas and before she landed in Chester County she worked in restaurants across the United States and in Australia, including an Executive Sous Chef position at famed Gramercy Tavern in New York City. She has mostly recently been the Executive Chef at Soul in Chicago where she established the restaurant as one of the best in the city, earning it three- and four-stars in key dining reviews, including the Chicago Tribune. Her talents have taken her all over since earning her degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson and Wales The New School where she studied restaurant marketing and finance.
As I jotted down the details of this amazing woman more food arrived. Each course was more exciting than the first. The Chef was able to to capture seasonal tastes of fall while sending me rushing back to the summer-time again and again. The next course was a vegetarian option with the sonara cheese and green chard cannellonis filled with butternut squash and topped with pumpkin seeds. The savory bites of cheese melted with the sweet butternut squash and and the crunch of the pumpkin seeds made each bite as comforting and simple as mom’s macaroni and cheese yet with the sophistication of the Chef’s vision.
Next was the laughing bird shrimp that came out with beautiful little shrimp caught in the South Caribbean on a bed of fluffy bomba saffron rice with bits of green olives and covered in a creamy foam with pea tendrils as garnish. Here was a perfect example of every current trendy culinary technique – sustainable shrimp, globally-influenced flavors, locally grown garnish and fancy foam to finish it off – but the funny part was there was nothing trendy about it once I ate it… it was just GOOD. It worked…it was perfect.
Next up was the Bourbon-glazed pork belly and, as any of my fellow diners would know, I am a huge pork belly fan and will try it anywhere. This dish did not disappoint and was served with maple-roasted pears over a walnut-farro salad, perfectly balancing the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly with the savory, firm-but-chewy texture of the farro. Not only do they get bonus points for having this delicacy on the dinner menu, they get triple points for having it on the lunch menu (featured as a pork belly blt melt with lesher cheese a fried egg and horseradish dressing) and Sunday Brunch (braised pork belly with baked farm egg on parmesan polenta with tomato jam).
It was time for another drink, so the head bartender, Charles, and his wingman, Mike, sent over the cocktail of the day: currant-infused vodka martini. My date had a Manhattan in the Fall consisting of orange, clove and cherry-infused bourbon, brown sugar, sweet tea and orange bitters. I learned that the infused liquors take 1 to 2 weeks of soaking before being mixed with the freshest of local ingredients to complete the journey to the glass…a hand-blown glass, mind you, made on-site. What MORE do you want?
We finished with the salted butterscotch pot de creme that was the perfect ending to a most amazing meal. A Simon Pearce-made crock was filled with silky, salty-sweet butterscotch cream and served alongside sweetened mascarpone and blackberry gelee. A few spoonfuls with all three flavors was nothing short of bliss.
After dessert we were honored with a visit from Chef Karen Nicolas. The poor woman didn’t even know what hit her; as she tried to extend her hand for a handshake I went right for the hug. What else could I do after having a meal that surpassed all others I had this year. She chatted about her recent visit to Spain and her plans to bring her experiences to a travel-inspired menu featuring Spanish-style tapas. She soon left us to tend to a table of eight (or maybe I scared her away?).
We finished the meal with a persimmon ‘caipirinha’ for me, consisting of velvet falernum, leblon cachaca, fresh lime, persimmon syrup and lemon seltzer, which tasted like a vacation in a glass, and my date had the Pumpkin Cocktail which, luckily for you, I scored the recipe for so you can recreate this dessert in a glass at home.
What else can you ask for in a meal served on artisian-made plates, with artisian-products by artists themselves; bartender and chef alike? All in an atmosphere that gives each table a beautiful view of the Brandywine. Now THIS is why Chester County is amazing.
House-infused vanilla bean vodka (your favorite will do, we suggest Prairie Organic or Hangar One) 1 3/4 fl. oz.
Pumpkin syrup (recipe follows) 3 oz.
Splash of chilled cream liqueur (Bailey’s) 1 fl. oz.
Pulp of a roasted local pumpkin 1 lb.
Cinnamon stick 1 each
Nutmeg, ground 1/8 tspn.
Simple syrup 1 cup
Bring the simple syrup (1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water) to a boil in a saucepan with the whole cinnamon stick and nutmeg. Remove from the heat and add the pumpkin puree, stirring until completely blended. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 20 minutes (stirring every five minutes). Remove the cinnamon stick and chill completely.
In a Boston shaker, add ice, pumpkin syrup, cream liqueur and vanilla vodka. Shake vigorously and pour into your favorite cocktail glass. Top with a fresh dollop of unsweetened whipped cream and sprinkle with cinnamon. You can serve this cocktail with freshly shaved dark chocolate or stewed cranberries, whichever you like.
*If you do not have the time to roast pumpkin, you can substitute pumpkin pie puree and leave out the cinnamon and nutmeg
Lunch: 11 A.M. – 3 P.M. daily
Dinner: 5 P.M. – 9 P.M. Wed-Sun
Sunday Brunch: 11 A.M. – 3 P.M.