Dettera in Ambler featured in Chestnut Hill Local

Posted on Thursday, November 12, 2009

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Spectacular décor is see-worthy
Dettera a ‘center city palace of gastronomy’ in Ambler

by LEN LEAR

Writing articles has always been harder for me than, say, tying my shoelaces, so I am always delighted to receive any unsolicited assistance, especially when the “assistant” does not submit an invoice. Therefore, I am truly grateful for the following letter, which was emailed to me on Sept. 21 by the Local’s erudite book columnist, Hugh Gilmore:

“I don’t know if you’ve been to a place in Ambler across from the Ambler Movie Theater called Dettera, but if not, you must try it. The place opened in mid-June. It is still new and consumer-friendly and anxious to please. Everyone knocks himself/herself out to make sure you’re happy. The food is very good, with an ‘A’ for presentation. Visually so pleasing it must have added 10 points to my personal satisfaction. The bar is well stocked with gourmet liquors (including my personal signature, Tanqueray Ten gin). Over 20 excellent wines by the glass, with the manager telling me he’s aiming to get up to 40 in a few weeks.

“Very tasteful and pleasant décor. Cool-looking people. Babish babes. Huge but cozy upstairs dining. A great place to catch now while they’re aiming and anxious to please…I think Chestnut Hill people would really love combining a visit to the movies (we just saw ‘Seraphine’ tonight) with a visit to this place, rather than the overrated Shanachie, which has all the atmosphere of a seashore tourist trap…”

A letter like this means fewer words for me to write, so if Hugh (or any other perspicacious scribe) would send me one like this every so often, I could take an occasional day off — and I would gladly compensate you by sending some of my stash of 50-cents-off coupons for Lean Cuisine. (And since local supermarkets double the coupons, they’re really worth a dollar apiece.)

In any event, we visited Dettera at 129 E. Butler Pike on Oct. 21 and concluded that this Hugh Gilmore gentleman knows about a lot more than just plots, run-on sentences and climaxes (bookishly speaking, that is). He will rate at the top of my esteem meter as long as he doesn’t start demanding a joint byline.

Dettera looks more like a center city palace of gastronomy than an eatery you’d find in Ambler, a town with about 6,500 permanent residents and no corporate complexes to draw from. Owner Frank Lutter, a commercial contractor/developer, has obviously spent millions to renovate this century-old building. Prior to his purchase in 2008, the building was used as a maternity clothing store, which you might say gave birth to Dettera.

The restaurant features dining on an outside deck, weather permitting, with a brick fireplace; or on the first floor dining level, which opens to a dramatic curving black granite bar and oversized round banquettes; or on the more intimate second floor, a spacious lounge area filled with pillows, low seating  (for young knees) and a corner fireplace. This upper level also features soaring windows overlooking Amber’s Main Street and many dining tables spaciously placed alongside the open view of the gorgeous bar area below.

There are also some eye-OK architectural features like exposed trestle ceilings, shadowbox light fixtures, red silk umbrella chandeliers and a custom-made wine cellar. (The night we were there, every seat at the bar was filled with Phillies fans watching their favorites knock off the L.A. Dodgers in the final game of that league championship series. And there was one young lady cheering whose cleavage could rival many famous geological sites.)

We can echo Gilmore’s paean to the young, attractive, anxious-to-please staffers at Dettera. Jason Brooke, e.g., the bar manager/sommelier whom we previously met at the defunct but spectacular Maia in Villanova (he also worked at Coyote Crossing in Conshohocken), is a great guy who once played college baseball in Florida, but he would never throw a curve to a customer. And our server, Maggie Dobbs, is an ebullient and knowledgeable bundle of energy as well as a culinary student at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. This restaurant has more hooks to draw you in than a fishing boat.

According to Steve Waxman, owner of Trax, the 10-year-old BYOB in the nearby Ambler Train Station, “They have really been busy at Dettera. It’s great to see it. A lot of people doubted that Ambler could go this upscale, but it is working, and It will continue to build.

Dettera is a huge plus for this town. I think it will continue to grow, and everyone benefits.”

Executive chef Thomas Groff, the former executive chef of the venerable Jefferson House in the Norristown area, has created an eclectic menu offering modern takes on traditional dishes, which he calls “progressive American…For example, the risotto in our seared day boat scallops is made with wild mushrooms and farro [the original grain from which all others derive], not Arborio rice. And our scallops, which are the best money can buy, are served in indented plates. Did you know it takes eight years for these scallops to grow? The shell at that point is as big as a plate!”

The prices at Dettera are as serious as the food, but some of the dishes completely blew us away. For example, an appetizer of edamame truffle dumplings ($12) with sauteed mushrooms and parmesan truffle cream was light as a feather and bursting with flavor. We’ve had similar dishes many times, but the only one in the same league was at Buddakan.

Cheese buffs will be in paradise with the elegant cheese platter, a selection of four artisan cheeses with condiments, fruit and cracker bread. From the Jasper Hill Farms quartet ($18), the Cabot cheddar, aged for 10 months, which was almost like ice cream, and Bayley Hazen blue, aged for about six months, were both spectacularly flavorful. With a glass of good Zinfandel or Pinot Noir, this will make up for all the bad news on page one the day you’re there. And I would not leave without ordering a side dish of crispy risotto cake ($6), a blissful, compelling marriage of texture and flavor, parmesan and chives.

An entree of black cod, one of the sweetest fish on earth, which had been dusted with porcini mushrooms and bathed in a miso broth ($25), was as impellent to reverie as the flicker of firelight in a darkened room. Each ethereal, glistening bite popped on the tongue like a little ball of heaven. On the other hand, a grilled bluefin tuna filet was just so-so and was overpriced at $33, although it was accompanied by some savory white beans, tomato and olives.

Desserts of a luxurious double chocolate walnut brownie with chantilly cream ($9) and gelato — hazelnut, pistachio and vanilla ($8) — were a revelation, reverberating in waves of sweetness and intensity in the mouth.

Dettera also has numerous daily specials as well as a popular Happy Hour Monday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m. (They should really call it a Happy Two Hours) with select wines and gourmet pizzas at half-price. There is lots of free metered parking after 6 p.m. on nearby streets as well as a huge parking lot less than a block away.

The origin of the name Dettera, by the way, is a story in itself. During the recent renovation of the building, the construction crew uncovered the original granite nameplate in the building’s exterior. This nameplate, which had been hidden for decades in the front facade, identified the building’s original owner as Mathias Dettera, a grain and seed wholesaler in the early 1900s. He purchased the property on February 20, 1907, and left it to his wife and children upon his death in 1918. The property remained in the Dettera family until 1978, and the signature stone which became the inspiration for the restaurant’s name now rests within the mahogany paneling above the main bar.

One could easily wonder why a businessman like Frank Lutter would walk on the high wire by investing millions in this truncated economy in the kind of place Ambler has never seen before. But like Orpheus leading his beloved out of the Underworld, we look back to reassure ourselves that brighter days are surely ahead. For more information or reservations, call 215-643-0111 or visit http://www.dettera.com

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