Not too long ago, as I was working on a post about the Top FIVE Restaurants I had been to in the first year of my blog, I ran into a problem. Two of my favorites did not live up to expectations on a second visit. That’s what prompted me to change the title of the post to the top FIVE Restaurant Experiences of the past year. It’s difficult to be consistently great and lots of really good restaurants struggle with this challenge. There are a few who manage to meet and exceed expectations time after time. These restaurants are usually mentioned by many in any list of BEST restaurants. I have not been to all of them, or even most of them. From my own experience, a few notables come immediately to mind; Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, Gilmore’s in West Chester, and Shanahan’s on the Green in Dublin, Ireland (pre-blog days). All three of these places stood out from the culinary crowd by creating an ambiance that radiated confidence. It wasn’t just the presence of a great chef, it was a pride reflected in the entire staff. From the busboys to the Maitre’d, everyone involved was intent on making sure your dining experience was first class. On Sunday evening, following a wonderful afternoon of art at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, our friends Gerry and JoAnn B. joined my wife, Kathy, and I at Blackfish in Conshohocken. I knew it was a highly regarded dining spot but I went without expecting to be overly impressed. They surpassed my expectations.
The exterior of the Fayette Street restaurant is totally inauspicious and belies the elegant black and white motif on the inside. We were the first patrons at 5:30 P.M. and our server, Emily, seated us in the back room and opened our wines. Naturally, the stemware at Blackfish is excellent and extra glasses were readily provided to accommodate our three different wines.
Good wines are a given when Gerry and I meet for dinner and this evening was no exception. Gerry delivered with two interesting reds from the current Chairman’s Selection list at the PA State Store. The first was the 2004 Erba Mountainside Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. A great example of a Napa Cab at a great price. Gerry was so impressed with it from an earlier tasting that he tried to get in touch with the winery to see if we could visit in October. I could tell from my research that the distinct possibility exists that this winery is no longer in business because the 2004 vintage seems to be the only one I can find available on the web. Also, after a week he has had no reply to his e-mail. Nevertheless, the wine was excellent with smoky berry flavors mingling with tobacco and chocolate. Wine Enthusiast Magazine bestowed a 94 rating on this once $40.00 cab and they weren’t far off. He also brought with him the 2007 Quinta Do Vallado, Touriga Nacional, Douro. This spicy red fruit-filled bottle from Portugal was a perfect blend for the food we were enjoying. Another 94 pointer, this varietal is used in the famous Port wines and was a welcome addition to the meal. I chipped in with a 2004 Chalk Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma, CA. This one also deserved its 92 rating and delivered lots of blackberry flavors with plum and lavender. Three very nice wines to go with a bevy of lovely dishes.
Emily informed us that there were no specials this evening and that was probably just as well as the menu made it difficult in itself to make final selections. Amazingly, all four of us chose different appetizers and four different entrees. In retrospect, it’s hard to say who made the best choices and the nice part is that we may each feel that our meal was the best.
I started off with the sexy concoction on the right, Carnaroli Risotto with this morning’s sweet corn. Carnaroli is the very best of the Italian rices, very white in color and it blended so well with the sweet corn. I lingered over this dish savoring each salty, sweet kernel of its melt in your mouth goodness. Others were raving about their own choices and they were as adamant as I was but, nothing could have been better than this.
Kathy had what would have been my second choice from the menu, Agnolotti, ricotta salata, brown butter and sage. Agnoloti is a distant pasta relative of ravioli and the cheese filling, I believe, also had a hint of pancetta. Whatever it was, Kathy was delighted with it and she truly felt that she had made the best choice of all of the starters
Silly me, in my rush to get to the appetizers and mains, I neglected to mention that our meal started off with an Amuse Bouche, tonight’s offering was a Curried Squash Soup with some Smoked Salmon with scallions. It was a tasty beginning to our feast.
All of our appetizers were chosen from the second course offerings. Our only selection from the first course, which we passed around amongst the four of us, was the Montgomery County Tomatoes, burrata alla panna, basil, xeres. Fresh tomatoes topped with a close cousin of mozzarella and finished off with xeres, an 80 year old vinegar. Mmmmmmm.
You could have bet the farm that Gerry saw nothing else on the second course portion of the menu outside of the Foie Gras. In this case, a Liquid Center Foie Gras Terrine, sour cherries and pistachios, brioche. It was an interesting concoction and he found it absolutely delicious. My sample that he offered me seemed to confirm his evaluation.
Nobody can make more satisfied noises when she is pleased with something than JoAnn and she was making plenty of those noises while enjoying her Buffalo Ricotta Cavatelli, zucchini, summer truffles. It looked and tasted equal to her enthusiastic exaltations. All four of us were impressed and we still hadn’t seen our entrees.
The attentive service continued unabated throughout the meal as hands appeared out of nowhere at the appropriate time to refill water glasses, remove empty wine glasses and assure that our meal was proceeding at the right pace.
Once again, I have to correct a statement that I made earlier. I had stated that all four of us chose separate entrees. That was incorrect. Kathy and I both selected the Scottish Salmon, young beets, charred romaine, sorrel and creme fraiche. Kathy had hers done medium while I opted for a less pink medium-well. Half-way thru I noticed that the plates had been reversed but it wasn’t a big deal and we made the switch at that point. The dish was beautifully presented and was very good. In my estimation, though, it took a back seat to the sweet corn risotto. Kathy enjoyed hers but I did not hear “the best salmon I have ever eaten” which she stated during a previous meal.
Gerry decided he would have the Magret Duck Breast, compressed endive, bing cherries and chantrelle mushrooms. This is a special “cut” of duck with “magret” meaning literally, “breast of a fat duck”. It is referred to by many as “duck steak” as it is the most savory and flavorful portion of duck. It’s no wonder Gerry felt it tasted not unlike beef. Another creative presentation and we could safely add Gerry to the “happy diner” category.
JoAnn was equally pleased with her Lancaster County Poulard, ratatouille, fairy tale eggplant and thai basil. It may have been a “young chicken” but it didn’t die in vain as the intense flavors had JoAnn raving about her entree. Her thumbs up made it four for four and our expectations had been exceeded.
Because Blackfish had performed so well on the appetizers and entrees, we couldn’t leave without trying one or two of their desserts. We chose the Cinnamon-Sugar Beignets, spiced anglaise. These tasty pastries were every bit as good as you’d find at Brennan’s in New Orleans. The nice part was that with four of them we were each able to enjoy our own. Our other delectable post-dinner treat was the Warm Chocolate Cake, Coffee Gelato and Malt Powder. Four quick-moving forks made speedy work of this yummy concoction and our meal was complete. Kathy had asked me in the car on the way to Blackfish if we would still be hungry when the meal was over. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure. Suffice to say, our hunger was abated and we left totally impressed with the ambiance, the food, the presentation and the service. It’s easy to see why Blackfish is one of those places that makes a lot of people’s “Best of Philly” lists. Congratulations to Chef Chip Roman and his entire staff.