Unlike many wine bars that focus on bistrolike nibbles, here the cooking is worthy of a good wine.

Posted: August 19, 2007

As youngsters working behind the scenes at the Dilworthtown Inn, Anthony Mastroianni and Stephen Delaney often talked of the dream restaurant they might someday open together. A wine bar, perhaps, with a dedication to good food. Something on their home turf of the far-western suburbs.

It took more than a decade to come to fruition, not to mention a few jobs in between and a cross-country move for the chef, but their planned collaboration has finally become a reality at Cosimo in Malvern.

Owner Mastroianni (whose parents are also partners) named this sprawling, modern restaurant on Lancaster Avenue after Cosimo de' Medici, the Tuscan "Duke of Wine." And while that reference is a bit misleading as regards Cosimo's cuisine - a wide-ranging New American offering rather than Italian - the wine reference is certainly apt.

Cosimo's large horseshoe bar in the front room sports a 40-bottle wine preservation system that allows the restaurant to open high-quality (and often pricey) bottles without worrying about them souring before they're sold.

I don't know how many people are going for a 3-ounce pour of Penfolds Grange or 2004 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild for $42 to go with their strip steak, but for the oenologically curious, that pour may be tempting for a sneak-peek sip of a bottle that retails in Pennsylvania for $210.

Cosimo's cellar is quality through and through, but isn't exclusively high-end. There are numerous selections under $10 a glass, as wine director Jason Whiteside has done a great job putting together a smart international collection of wines at all ranges and varieties, available in 3- or 5-ounce pours as well as smaller three-glass tastings. An exotic Vinoptima gewurtztraminer from New Zealand, a bracing La Roche Chablis, and the lush and earthy Oregon pinot noir from Domaine Serene were among the many interesting selections.

But what distinguishes Cosimo from many other wine bars, whose kitchens tend to focus more on simple, bistrolike nibbles to accompany the drink, is that Delaney's cooking is worthy of a good wine.

A Johnson & Wales grad who has spent much of his career in Florida since leaving West Chester (where he also opened Cafe Chicane), Delaney delivers modern plates built on good ingredients and careful preparations.

A stylish seafood cocktail of cool, diced lobster and shrimp teases the palate with a refreshing truffle-grapefruit vinaigrette that mingles with sweet crustacean and a tangy, charred-tomato gazpacho. An exotically spiced apricot dip elevates notably tender fried calamari from the mundane.

Delaney's Muenster cheese and beer stew sounds like an odd pairing for steamed cherrystones, but it's an addictively savory and delicate froth (not gooey) which takes on almost a shade of briny chowder when swabbed with those delicate clams.

The Hawaiian-inspired tuna "poke" brings a tartare mince of beautiful raw fish glistening in a lively ginger-soy vinaigrette alongside a spicy, creamy green smear of wasabi-avocado puree.

Mastroianni smartly paired that dish with a Zonin prosecco, and the Italian sparkler - like all the wine-food matchings from Mastroianni and Whiteside - was spot-on.

I wish the rest of the service had been up to that level. The staff was certainly friendly and enthusiastic enough. But numerous little mistakes throughout our meals evidenced a lack of polish in the front of the house. Most notable was a consistently rushed pace, with food often delivered several minutes before the chosen wines arrived, dishes then being removed while some diners were still eating. Even with the speedy delivery, some dishes weren't as hot as they could have been.

What was the rush, I wondered, for a restaurant that was rarely busy during my three visits? The location, previously a Japanese hibachi house, and before that a tavern, has an awkward layout, with a main entrance facing a rear parking lot that doesn't exactly invite walk-in traffic.

The space has been completely redone with a modern look of molded wood chairs, stonework walls, chic banquettes, earth tones, and a water sculpture. For my taste, the designer went overboard with the multicolored floor tiles and gaudy metallic accents, but it's a minor quibble considering all the good things Cosimo offers.

And Delaney's frequently changing menu is chief among them - with just a couple of exceptions. You can skip the brothy, uncreamed crab chowder, and the ancho-spiced crabcake, deliciously moist and exotic one day, was dry and overcooked another.

But almost all of the other entrees were winners. The well-brined pork tenderloin was amazingly tender, served with a New Southern garnish of sweet potato-andouille hash, spinach and barbeque sauce jazzed with five-spice and lemongrass. The only thing better than the homemade tamarind steak sauce that glazed the Angus strip steak was the glass of Einaudi Barolo ($15) that washed it down with licorice and raspberry-scented fruit.

The beautifully meaty wild striped bass could have used a bit more lime-butter sauce to keep it moist. But the nicely browned scallops had plenty of creamy polenta and warm tomato vinaigrette to lend luscious substance. The moist salmon with bacony lentils and pureed leeks was pure bistro comfort. I even found a chicken and shrimp pasta, which I feared would be a bore, to be completely addictive, the notably tender slow-roasted bird glazed in a cream sauce infused with prosciutto and earthy mushrooms.

Cosimo is also one of the few new restaurants I've seen that takes its desserts seriously, too, with a talented pastry chef in Venezuelan-born Andrea Schwob. She ambitiously presents several themed sampler plates of mini tastes, from "shooters" filled with deconstructed tiramisu, peanut-butter mousse, chocolate and strawberries, to a "tropical" plate anchored by passion-fruit panna cotta and tart key lime pie.

Of course, you could also build a platter from some of the 20 or so excellent cheeses and charcuterie offered in the bar. Or, you could just pretend you are the "Wine Duke" of Malvern, summon a glass of 1980 Graham's Port or late-harvest Chilean sauvignon blanc, sip, and savor this welcome new addition to your domain.

On September 2, Craig LaBan reviews Modo Mio in East Kensington.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or

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