A la Maison

The French bistro's comeback has reached the Main Line. This spot's not especially exciting, but does well by some classics.

Posted: April 12, 2009

This comeback was a long time coming for the French bistro, which had been knocked off its frites around here for years by that bout of post-9/11 anti-France silliness.

But there is obviously a timeless appeal to a crock of caramelized onion soup sealed beneath a molten beret of Gruyère cheese. Folks can stay away from their escargots in garlic butter only so long. Since the moratorium on liking France began to lift recently, like the end of a gloomy existentialist funk, all of Philly, it seems, has been living La Vie en Rose.

Since the bistro was back big in the city last year, from Rittenhouse to Queen Village, it was only a matter of time before the Main Line got its own taste of l'action. All those suburbanites fueling Stephen Starr's blockbuster Parc and Peter Woolsey's genial Bistrot La Minette should be able to get their cassoulet fix closer to home.

Cassoulet, Wednesday night's plat du jour at the bustling new A la Maison in Ardmore, is certainly one of the best things to eat here, its terra-cotta crock heartily brimming with white beans enriched with duck confit and garlic sausage. It's also hard to go wrong with the big bowl of bacon-laced, brothy mussels, or the retro platter of tender snails tucked deep in ceramic divots beneath vibrant green pools of garlicky parsley butter. Pass the crusty baguettes, please, and don't dare take my plates away until the last drop of juice is gone!

On closer consideration, not all of the classic dishes here are quite yet up to the level of those downtown stars (not to mention Georges Perrier's Le Bar Lyonnais). I also wouldn't mind if the entrees were just a few dollars less expensive. But they're generally good enough to merit solid consideration for a meal in the neighborhood, even if I can't help describing my meals here with a peculiar Parisian expression that begins with a shrug and raise of the eyebrows, puffs the cheeks with air, then bursts through the lips as half-wind, half-words: "Bof! Pas mal. . . . "

There's really nothing so wrong with A la Maison. But it's not especially exciting, either. And there is perhaps no praise more faint or more damning than this French expression for "not bad." But it certainly speaks to the cooking at A la Maison. There's little here a true Francophile hasn't tasted elsewhere, where it probably was more inspired. But true bistros are more about satisfying local regulars than showing off for destination diners. And this food is consistently cooked well enough (a solid B) to hold a hungry crowd's attention. Considering they've flocked to what was once an Indian eatery so quiet you could fling a dosa through the room without hitting a soul, Ardmore has responded warmly in kind.

Owner Darlene Boline-Moseng, a caterer-turned-restaurateur, has done fine job decking the long storefront space with a genuine French country feel. The bentwood chairs, wood floors, and woven breadbaskets are vintage cafe. The butter-colored walls are hung with copper cookware, long-handled chestnut roasting pans, a Champagne rack, a blackboard menu, and other knickknacks that lend a convincing Gallic feel.

But the service, A la Maison's weakest link, is still a bit slapdash suburban. And it's not just the excruciating mispronunciations of the dishes, or the lack of attention to basics such as filling water glasses. Our seemingly veteran server kept whisking away half-finished plates while others at the table were still eating. Even more irritating was the bad habit of glugging an entire bottle of wine into four glasses at once. At a BYOB, where wine sales aren't a motive, it simply felt like we were being rushed.

And some of these dishes certainly are worth lingering over. A la Maison has a way with goat cheese. It lends a layer of creaminess to a flaky, warm tart filled with sweet caramelized onions. Another starter brings roasted beets and other veggies mounded napoleon-style over a cloud of goat cheese lightened with mascarpone and ringed with emerald chive oil.

Like the escargots, the onion soup is standard but extremely well done, with a full-flavored broth (not too sweet, not too pale, perfectly thickened with bread and onions) and a tangy Gruyère crust. One soulful crock is a reminder of why the soup is iconic to begin with. Even a simple slice of the pâté du jour, an Armagnac-prune country pâté purchased from d'Artagnan, was hard to resist.

On the whole, restaurant chef Maurice deRamus doesn't mess too much with what works. I could have used a bit less of the mustard butter sauce slathered on the sirloin steak, but there was no denying the quality of the meat. Likewise, a trout special was all about the pristine fillets, perfectly crisped skin-on over fingerling potatoes and a light white wine sauce. I'm rarely excited by the obligatory salmon dish, but A la Maison's was perfectly done, the well-seared fish posed over velvety mashed potatoes and spinach in a tangy Champagne butter.

The duck breast was a little rare for medium rare (try it medium instead), but it was otherwise a smart composition, with silky celery-root puree and a cherry-port gravy that avoided the pitfall of being too sweet.

Where this kitchen occasionally fell short of its potential, however, was in the slow-cooked bistro dishes that require a deft hand to build and focus flavors. The stewing canon of Burgundy - coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon (this version with hefty short rib) - appeared here with all the proper essential flavors (wine, bacon, caramelized onions), but were too thin, lacking the intensity, thickness, and tenderness of a fully marinated and expertly braised dish. The Friday night bouillabaisse special, too, brought a satisfying medley of well-cooked seafood in broth perfumed with saffron and Pernod, but the actual flavor was pale.

Similarly, the duck confit had all the right textures, crispy outside and tender from its slow-steep in molten duck fat. But a timid hand on the preliminary herb- and salt-curing left the leg meat overly bland next to the tangy frisee salad.

Finesse is not quite yet a hallmark of the desserts, either. A la Maison proved with its squishy profiteroles that choux pastry doesn't fare well if made too far in advance. Also, why trouble with making crêpes only to bury them beneath a pile of out-of-season berries? And don't even get me started on how such a beautiful espresso machine, a vintage-style copper Elektra, could produce overdrawn, sour coffee. (I'm singing the "Bad Barista Blues". . . .)

For those disappointments, though, the kitchen replied with some solid bets. There was a delightful lemon tart with tangy, meringue-topped curd in a perfect pastry crust. And the crock of pot de crème filled with rich Callebaut chocolate custard was a truly irresistible pudding for grown-ups. And at last, on my final visit, I even savored a decent short espresso.

Of course, such simple pleasures have become commonplace downtown during Philly's current bistro Belle Époque. But for those craving a taste of France en banlieue (the 'burbs, that is), knowing A la Maison is frying the frites close to home is certainly far better than "bof!"

Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Han Dynasty in Royersford.

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

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