Brandywine Prime

Posted: June 17, 2007

Every old inn should get a second chance. And help couldn't have come soon enough for the Chadds Ford Inn, as this three-century-old stone grandaddy used to be called before its recent makeover as Brandywine Prime.

It was getting a bit long in the tooth when a sweaty Dan Butler first saw it three years ago on a pause from his bike ride out of nearby Wilmington, where he owns Deep Blue and Toscana Kitchen. He was being "harassed by this scraggly guy" for nipping a drink from the hose at the Wawa across the street, Butler said, when the man informed him, "I'm thinking of buying that inn."

"I told him: 'Good luck!' " said Butler, who promptly rode away.

The "scraggly guy" turned out to be developer Joe Grace, who Butler realized was one of his customers. And a few years later, as luck would have it, Grace would actually persuade Butler to run that inn and give it a chance at new life.

But there was plenty of work to be done first. The big building was completely rehabbed in a mega-bucks revamp, gutted down to the stone walls and wood planks before Butler added the halogen lights, the chic banquettes, the cool raw-bar lounge, the glassed-in wine cellar, and the contemporary steel staircase leading to the second floor.

There are 100-plus seats now at Brandywine Prime, plus enough banquet space for 100 more, ready to transform this doddering old Route 1 standby into Chadds Ford's hippest new power-dining destination. And it looks the part, with a cool mix of rustic charm and contemporary style.

Unfortunately, Butler's crew - normally rock-steady in Wilmington - isn't quite ready for Brandywine Prime time.

The restaurant's focus is simple and appealing enough: updating a classic chophouse concept with good ingredients and contemporary ideas at high-end prices, with entrees between $24 and $36.

But from the service to the food, our meals were a disappointment. The waitstaff, dressed in silly uniforms of white chef coats and baggy jeans, is friendly enough. But our young servers were so inexperienced, they looked terrified and uncertain as they brought food to our table, tongues pinched between their lips in concentration as the china rattled in their hands. I saw more fumbled wine glasses shatter in a single night at Brandywine Prime than in six months of prior meals combined.

When the food did make it to the table, it was terribly rushed - in one case while we were still in the midst of our appetizers. Either way, the servers rarely could remember who had ordered what.

No matter. There was a handful of dishes among them I'd want to keep. The classic shrimp cocktail was huge and luscious. The house-cured duck confit gets a nice ride in a rustic tomatoey saute with linguine and kalamata olives. The tartares of beef and tuna - also classically prepared - highlighted the pure quality of the kitchen's best ingredients.

So many other ingredients, though, seemed to be wasted on the pretense of fussy fixings. If a chophouse goes to the trouble to serve an excellent cut of beef - and Brandywine's dry-aged cuts were good, but shy of exquisite - why drown its flavors with heavy-handed sauces and garnish? Brandywine Prime lays all of its steaks over a pool of fruited demiglace as thick as motor oil, then tops them off with a slice of oozing herbed butter the size of a credit card. And they're all so strong, you could hardly taste the meat. It didn't help that the rich gravy had already acquired a skin and gone tepid, as had the cookie-cutter vegetable garnishes.

Meanwhile, everything I ordered from the raw bar, both clams on the half-shell and oysters for the Bloody Mary shooter, was not as firm and cold as it should have been.

The execution of the cooked food here was also less than sharp. The duck confit spring rolls were greasy. The fried calamari, though fresh, were on the chewy side. The scallop seviche, served in a tart "strawberry gazpacho" that reminded me of Juicy Juice, brought bay scallops that were overcured to the texture of little rubber balls.

I would have liked the entree of larger, seared scallops had they not been served with a strange pedestal of cool, thick hummus. I much preferred the superb variations on mashed potatoes that accompanied the other dishes - the goat-cheese mash that sided the tender, coriander-crusted duck breast and the indulgent truffle-flecked mash that came with all the beefsteaks (yet another distraction from the taste of the beef, but at least a good one).

Even Brandywine Prime's most successful entree - a succulent rack of tender New Zealand lamb - came with an off-twist, an inelegant pile of tasty, but sloppily presented, spring vegetables.

Such rough dining doesn't jibe with what you should expect at these prices. And it doesn't correspond to any of the satisfying meals I've eaten over the years at Deep Blue and Toscana.

Perhaps Butler's team is simply spread too thin. Only one manager in the building seemed to know a thing about the wine list - which offers a worthwhile selection of international bottles and good values, as well as a smart selection of craft beers, high-end whiskies and ports.

The manager directed us to a relatively unknown California wine from Stolpman, a delicious claret-style cabernet that, at $39, was refreshingly less expensive than some of the others I'd been considering.

As we settled into our plush banquette and savored that bottle, I could easily imagine what a nice destination Brandywine Prime might be if the rest of the service had been so able and the other flavors so satisfying.

But this old inn is going to need a lot more work before its second chance pays off.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Tinto near Rittenhouse Square.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.

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