Chef Augusto Jalon's attention to detail shines through at every level.
You abscond away when you walk through the doors, the scant impression from the outside clueing you into the ensuing experience. Of course, tucked away on a quiet street in a quiet suburb, there's the always-brimming parking lot to draw your eyes inside Augusto's.
A bunker like window allows a glimpse of the kitchen at the head of a space expertly divided to help along the feel of a cozy, yet elegant bed and breakfast. Napkins stand in salute atop fine linen as you approach your table. The carpet's soft tones complement the subdued deep maroon of the walls; the edges remain soothing, with the adornments ringing a proper hue rather than anything obtrusive. Seatbacks run in simple, yet ornate curves, the woodwork going round the tables of gleaming white that hold glassware winking at you in the quaint light.
The notion of elegance by committee reaches even loftier heights with the food. The sum parts come through brilliantly while expert handling and simplicity is adhered to sagaciously. The plating is exquisite at times, but thankfully, much more is conveyed to other senses as chef Augusto Jalon displays a firm handling of not only French cuisine- Philly standout, Bibou, is not far off- but Italian as well to conjure a crossroads he peppers at times with hints of his Ecuadorian roots.
The appetizers drop before us, each artfully arranged. The onion brûlée bears a sparse lean-to of fresh thyme sprigs while perched atop a small crouton amidst a swim of chardonnay cream that, upon running in liaison with the sweetness of crab/shallot/caramelized onion, reduces all my concerns to nothing. The crouton serves as punctuation for the interplay of soft and firm in the perfectly cooked onion that carries on through to its contents.
In another dish, pear poached in chardonnay and saffron suffuses my being with a gentle sweetness, its lager of intertwined asiago-mascarpone decked with crisp flakes of pancetta accessible by removing the pear's cap by the stem. A sweet stream of balsamic trails across the plate to a cubist cylinder of duck brunois, which my fork soon puts to post-modernist play as I bring the smoked, flavorful duck and the tomatoes together with the pear et al to produce a beautiful synergy; the sweetness of the pear and cheese give beautiful contrast to the duck, while the slight hint of acidity from the wine accentuates the smoked flavor, any salinity, and the tomatoes add a lush flavor balance. The variety of textures, in a dish appropriately served slightly chilled, again produces a pleasing effect.
The Caesar salad is no less stunning. A ring of wrap-around crustini holds perfectly daubed hearts of romaine, the dressing a chorus of anchovie, egg, and parmiggiano reggiano. So, it's fitting that a well-placed breadstick holds aloft a sail of the self-same cheese, while rich, lightly salted anchovies bask atop the romaine.
For the main course we go with two hefty meat selections: the veal chop and rib eye. Though the menu is meat and fish heavy, the dishes themselves are a far cry from tedium. The beautiful center cut chop bears a slight burnish, its searing time in the pan as perfectly timed as its stay in the grill-oven that leaves a pink center aptly met by the Malbec we brought (Augusto's is byob). The veal rests atop a creamy dais of risotto Milanese. The perfectly cooked risotto- al dente, not mushy- is infused with just the right amount of cream, while a mushroom demi-glace does the same, with velvety notes that truly accentuate the dish (the freshly made house lobster ravioli and sacchetti- each anointed with a brandy cream sauce redolent of plum tomatoes- both exemplify Jalon's aptitude for fresh pasta that he now puts on display at his recently opened Tavolo in Huntingdon Valley).
The steak comes "cacciatore," with pearl onions, red pepper, and tomato, these delicately sautéed accoutrements paired well with gnocchi in a white cream sauce. As with the veal, the effusive moistness of the steak puts before you not only a revelation of quality, but also the simple magic of proper prep: you see the cuts sitting out, getting to room temperature prior to meeting heat and flame.
Lunch offers up more stunning fare, the slightly reduced portions coming at a lighter price (dinner for two runs roughly $120-$140 with tax and tip, while lunch for two sits around $56). With glee, I select the goat cheese empanada, which harkens back to the chorizo, date and raisin filled pastries everyone should petition for to return to the menu. Fresh ripe tomatoes from an adorning pico de gallo dances with the lush cheese upon each break of the crisp crust. As with the poached pear salad, the sweet richness of a balsamic drizzle adds to the savory blend.
The staff, I do well to note, is friendly, attentive and keen to share insights on each dish, let alone their own findings; on overhearing his professed love of grappa, our Italian waiter points me in the direction of a choice bottle of this select spirit that the laughable PLCB actually does sell. So, it wasn't a surprise that they took kindly to my request for bouillabaisse, which is usually left to dinner hours only.
Given the kitchen's masterful handling of the hallmarks of French cuisine- the aforementioned demi-glaces and reduction sauces that simply transform many a dish when done properly- it's no surprise that this soup boasts a refreshing lightness of being via tomato broth enlivened by garlic, onion, choice olive oil, and an array of delectable seafood: tuna, buttery shrimp and robust rock shrimp, mussels, and sweet clams shellbound with broth that could make a perfect amuse bouche.
Those same clams are paired with shrimp in a risotto Milanese rendered as perfectly as that which Augusto pairs with his veal chop. The crab cake- this dish also offering an alternative to what's seen on the dinner menu- sits atop a pumpkin cream sauce surrounded by a wasabi froth. And here is the only major hiccup. The froth, even if it carried its intended taste, seemed superfluous either way- I couldn't see the pumpkin allowing it to ring through. While these latter flavors were spot on, the cream was too heavy, recalling the slight overuse seen in the gnocchi on my previous visit.
While I have some objections in regard to richness of cuisine, most remain based on accumulation. In the present those velvety smooth sauces sing resplendent light across my brain. My many visits have left me witness primarily to revelations of nuance, of artistry springing from a creativity melded with a mastery of culinary basics.
So of course I went for dessert. The only house made selection- the basket of delicate, perfectly whipped mousse resting atop a worthy crunch and banded in rich chocolate, is hardly a step down- the crème brûlée bears a burnished coat I shatter like plate glass windows to a church I will dutifully return to, the light, egg-rich cream (raspberry and strawberry topped) appropriately disappearing as Josh Groban sang Ave Maria overhead.