May 10–17, 2001
There’s lots happening on the plate at this pleasant place in Conshohocken.
Fayette Street Grille
308 Fayette Street, Conshohocken,610-567-0366
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5- 9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Wheelchair access. Reservations suggested. BYOB. American Express.
Once the industrial town "across the river," Conshohocken looks less like Winesburg, OH, and more like a burgeoning corporate center (Marriott Complex of hotel and office buildings). Still, the front of the Fayette Street Grille (have you noticed that everything seems to be a "grille" lately?) welcomes with its small-town charm. For two and a half years, Doug Runyen has been carefully plying his trade, and judging from the crowd — a mix of Main Liners, country clubbers on their way to the links and a sprinkling of locals — he is doing fine. A 1982 grad of the Culinary Institute of America, he worked many places before opening his dream restaurant. It’s a small place, with sponged ocher and aqua walls, a few Art Deco sconces and blonde wood furniture. The diverse patterned plates that are used for every course are a nice touch.
There are two other nice things besides the food: a prix fixe menu of three courses for $26 per person, and a BYOB policy that may not just be waiting for a liquor license. "I’m a cook, not a barman," says Doug, "and I really like it when people come in practically carrying suitcases full of wine." We have brought quite a few bottles, not a suitcase, so we start right in with quivering, pan-seared scallops on a bed of wilted spinach, drizzled with fried leeks and dabbed with pear chutney. The tone is set — there’s a whole lot of stuff going on here — some of it good, as in the scallop dish, and some of it contrived, as with a filo Napoleon layered with tomato caper cream cheese, red onion and squiggles of citrus aioli. It looks very attractive, but still tastes like lox with a shmear to me.
However, the wild mushroom medley in a puff pastry shell has a luscious brandy cream reduction, and the mushrooms are varied, and really wild. As salads go, baby field greens tossed in a balsamic Dijon vinaigrette and dotted with dried cherries, sunflower seeds and blue cheese tastes fine, and is healthy besides. The crab bisque is an unappetizing grayish hue, with slicks of oil on its surface infused with cilantro and yellow pepper, but it’s subtly delicious, with a briny crab flavor — maybe the most sophisticated of the bunch. Shrimp and artichoke risotto with tomato onion chutney is way too mushy — more like porridge.
Now, there’s a long wait for entrees. The little room is bursting at the seams, and there are only two harried waitresses to feed the mob. When it comes, the food is hot and basically tasty, but suffering from the same ingredient overkill. A big perfectly cooked chunk of Chilean sea bass on a bed of maple sweet potato mousse has butter pecan sauce melting seductively over it. A grilled chicken breast is delicious beneath a mushroom bacon demi glace, but does it need horseradish in the potato mousse as well? Once you wade through the dried cherries and green peppercorns, and shove aside the caramelized endive (delicious, by the way), there’s a perfectly lovely seared duck breast, but oh, more maple sweet potatoes. Each ingredient is good on its own, but when there are so many put together, it only leads to confusion and a loss of individual tastes. Simply breaded veal picante fares better, because it only gets a sprinkling of chopped tomatoes, and grilled salmon is fine with a creamy amalgam of roasted yellow peppers and an unassuming pile of steamed rice. The entrees were not enhanced by the medley of sliced peppers, carrots and onions that accompanied them. Has anyone heard of peas or broccoli for a change?
Desserts, though highly caloric, generous of portion and attractive to look at, have "commercial" written all over them. A very tall lemon mousse set in lady fingers is tart enough, and a three-layer Reese’s cake with peanut butter cups throughout is certainly rich enough. There’s another chocolate mousse cake that’s fairly sinful, and a raspberry cheesecake that doesn’t stick to the roof of my mouth quite enough. The one thing done in house, an ice cream with pieces of Snickers bars, is the best of all.
If I seem to be unduly hard on Runyen, it’s because I think he’s got talent. Strip away the greens, and vegetable strips, and make it one sauce to a customer, and his food will shine. And three well-made desserts that you can call your own are more appetizing than mountainous chunks of bakery sweets. There, I’ve been critical, but on the flip side, Fayette Street Grille is a very pleasant place — cheery and reasonably priced, with a chef and a staff that are most eager to please. If there’s any trouble here in River City, it starts with "e" and it ends in "s" — that’s excess, but it rhymes with success.