Back home, with a bistro

Clark Gilbert in his new bistro, Gemelli.
Clark Gilbert in his new bistro, Gemelli.

At his Gemelli, Clark Gilbert is serving road-tested classics to a walk-in crowd of Narberth locals.

Posted: October 25, 2009

Clark Gilbert isn't promising the moon at Gemelli, his new bistro at the edge of Narberth, on rowhouse blocks once called - when the town was Irish-er - "the Italian section."

He is a seasoned chef, under his belt stints at the Four Seasons, Tony Clark's short-lived Square Bar on Rittenhouse Square, Avalon in West Chester, and the elegant, now-departed Taquet in Wayne.

But he is the first to point out that the menu here, his first truly solo venture, is not the wheel reinvented: He offers a proper Caesar salad (add $2 for white anchovies), and the braised-veal-cheek-and-tuna-tartare classic called vitello tonnato. The salmon rests on ratatouille and puttanesca sauce.

Even the immensely satisfying signature "Gemelli" comes from his list of golden oldies - a bowl of gemelli, the twisted twin pasta (he has 11-year-old twins of his own), with a robustly earthy lamb bolognese, mildly spiced merguez sausage from D'Artagnan, a vivid, al dente crown of broccoli rabe on top. "Italian," he calls the cuisine, "with a nod to French."

He is no longer hand-making his own silky pastas. At Gemelli they come from Severino, the well-regarded Jersey pasta house - a supplier, also, of Whole Foods.

But what he does offer is a dialed-up level of cookery that is extraordinarily rare to find in a 42-seat bistro in a leafy, half-mile-square borough in the near-western suburbs that unfold to become the dining-challenged Main Line.

Because Gilbert has worked in Wayne, and at La Terrasse in West Philly, at the star-crossed Mio Pomodoro in Jenkintown, and elsewhere - in fact, in more kitchens than are a plus on a resumé - he is not an unknown quantity. So in the mere weeks he has been open here (replacing a Creole cafe and, most recently, a modest dining room called Margot's), he has attracted customers from Bala Cynwyd and Merion, Penn Valley and, well, some call and ask how far the walk is from the Narberth train station. Five or six minutes.

So on his first few weekends, he (and his Laotian prep crew and waitstaff from his days at Taquet) has seen the room turn over twice - 85 covers on Friday and Saturday nights. Old fans have been offered occasional tasting-menu flourishes - bites of slivered duck breast over a crunchy fingerling-potato-and-hazelnut salad, a creamy, dime-sized quail egg on warm pumpernickel toasts. (A seven-fishes tasting menu, $50, is on tap for December.)

They have saluted the right hint of tarragon in the snail fricassee. They've remarked on the tenderness of the shrimp-mousse-and-crab-stuffed cannelloni. They've savored the heartiness of the braised rabbit pappardelle; and muttered over the overcooked halibut special.

Gilbert is 43 now, and says his rambling days are over. He still toys with adding a side of food writing, TV, or video to his bio; "I've got a big mouth." But he sees it springing from - not replacing - the Narberth venture. (It is being underwritten by the Wakim family, which owns the bricks, as well as Murray's Deli and Al Dar Cafe in Bala Cynwyd.)

He is a product of Lower Merion High School. He has lived in Narberth for 15 years. He hopes to have more time to spend with his twins (his former wife also lives in town).

So he wants Gemelli to be sustainable. And he wants to impress his mentors, former Four Seasons chef Tony Clark and Francis Trzeciak, whose Birchrunville Store Cafe in Chester County is booked up for months in advance.

But Gilbert is aiming to roll with the small-town vibe. (Most dishes are under $18.) A grim monument to culinary tone deafness is just yards away - the barn-sized bones of a glitzy, pricey dining hall called Husch that in 1997 took over a beloved, old spaghetti house called Giuliani's and, within months, closed its doors.

In that regard, Gilbert has made note that it is locals, especially those who can walk to the restaurant, "who are most ecstatic." It gives them, he allows, a certain sense of ownership.

We had walked ourselves last week, strolling with neighbors down the untrafficked streets, preceded by long-fellow shadows - just like we did years ago to the old spaghetti house.

And yes, it did give us a proprietary sense. And a hope that Clark Gilbert will, for once, stay put, enjoy his twins, and hone his stellar cookery; we don't require that it be the moon.


Gemelli

322 Woodbine Ave.

Narberth

610-660-0160



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

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