Verdad Featured in Main Line Ticket…

Posted on Thursday, January 21, 2010

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Blush-ing chef opens Verdad in Bryn Mawr

// Verdad is located at 818 Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr. Reservations strongly recommended. Phone: 610-520-9100 Website: http://www.verdadrestaurant.com

By Len Lear

As we walked from the Bryn Mawr Film Institute parking lot along Lancaster Avenue on a recent perfect Thursday evening, we passed two restaurants which both had only two customers in them. For a restaurant with a staff and a kitchen full of food, this has to be Dante’s vision of hell, I thought. This is not a recession; it’s an execution.

Then we came to Verdad (“truth” in Spanish), which opened Aug. 7 at 818 Lancaster Ave. It has three lovely dining areas — wrought iron sconces and chandelier, banquettes, flowing curtains, etc. — and a bar, all of which were basically full by 8 p.m., not to mention a private party on the second floor with more than 20 people.

“It’s been this way since day one,” said our super-personable server, Joe DeFelice, who was previously a bartender at California Café in the King of Prussia Mall.

Some of that can be attributed to the desire by diners to try out the new kid on the block. Some credit also has to be given to the fact that the beautifully appointed Euro “small-plate” concept restaurant is turning out a pretty impressive product, although there were a few glitches as one would expect from a brand new operation with a highly ambitious menu.

The small-plate concept has proven to be a trend with legs, particularly for the Jose Garces empire (Amada, Tinto, Chifa, Distrito and Village Whiskey), and when any concept goes stratospheric in any industry, there are going to be imitators. In fact, during our dinner a restaurant reviewer for a Philly paper — who happens to live on the Main Line — came over to our table and said, “Well, this is not Amada, but it’s still pretty good.”)

Verdad replaced Carmine’s Creole Café, which had replaced Citron, a Spanish/Portuguese restaurant, which had replaced Marbles, a gastropub which for years was one of the area’s most popular hangouts.

The divorce that led to the closing of Carmine’s was anything but amicable. As was widely reported at the time, owner Howard Taylor and chef/partner John Mims, who also were partners in Le Bons Temps in center city, broke up over a number of disagreements, ultimately resulting in the demise of both restaurants.

Mims, a charismatic native of New Orleans, had previously owned and operated two highly successful BYOBs, also named Carmine’s, first in Havertown and then in Narberth. When Mims and Taylor went their separate ways, Mims attempted to open a restaurant in Wayne, but shortly afterwards Taylor initiated legal action against him, claiming that their previous partnership contract included a non-compete clause within a certain number of miles in the event of a dissolution of their partnership. Taylor prevailed in the legal arena, and Mims was forced to abandon his embryonic Wayne operation. He has since opened a BYOB and pizzeria in Phoenixville, which is far enough from Bryn Mawr that it is exempt from the non-compete clause. The hard feelings that remain are similar to those between France and England in the 16th century.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s new chef/partner at Verdad is Nick Farina, 34, who was previously the chef/owner of Blush at 24 N. Merion Ave. in Bryn Mawr from April, 2006 until Aug. 14 of this year. Blush had replaced Bianca, a short-lived operation (two years) which had replaced Toscana, a decade-long fixture run by Evan Lambert, who also owns the ultra-sophisticated Savona in Gulph Mills. The few times we had been to Blush, it was crowded, but Farina insists that its demise was due not only to the economic collapse a year ago but also to another event beyond his control.

“There was major construction on Merion Avenue,” he stated, “and the surface of the road was raised about 16 inches. People driving by could not even see us any more, and since we were not located on a major road (like Lancaster Avenue) to begin with, this, along with the terrible economy, just proved to be too much. It killed us.”

Chef Farina, by the way, grew up in Flourtown where he admits that while his friends were outside playing sports, he was at home watching TV’s first star chef, Julia Child, prepare dishes that inspired him.

After graduation from Springfield High School in 1993, he began studying horticulture at Temple University with the goal of entering his family’s landscape business. But after concluding that he simply loved cooking too much, he switched to the Restaurant School of Philadelphia and then the Culinary Institute of America, considered the “Harvard of culinary schools.”

After graduation, Farina worked at the Metropolitan Opera House’s Grand Tier restaurant in New York City, followed by Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center. He returned to Philadelphia to become chef de cuisine at Solaris Grille in Chestnut Hill from 2001 to 2005. He even spent some time as a personal chef for then-Phillies catcher, Mike Lieberthal, and as a consultant for Sysco Food Systems before opening Blush Restaurant in Bryn Mawr in 2006. (He now lives in Swarthmore with his wife, Elizabeth, a pharmacist, and two small children.)

At Verdad, the “small plates” are really not as small as we’ve found at some tapas restaurants in center city. I would actually call some of them “medium” and they vary widely in price — from $4 to $21. In general, I’d say that three of them would provide enough food for the average American diner. There are also a half-dozen pricey “large plates” that are the size of most restaurant entrées — from $28 for pork tenderloin to $42 for lobster and Serrano ham.

You have to be prepared for the fact — and the server did tell us this up front — that the small plates, which embody Spanish, Cuban, Brazilian and Mexican influences, will not all come out to your table at the same time. In other words, one dish may come to you, and the next dish may come out for a dinner partner five, 10 or 15 minutes later. You may even get two dishes before your companion receives his/her first. One member of our party of three did wait a long time — much longer than the rest of us — before getting two of her four small plates. Based on the comments on some blogs, this is definitely bugging some customers. Of course, this concept encourages all diners at the table to share their dishes with others, so you wind up with a pretty good sampling of what Verdad has to offer.

Our favorite dishes were the chips with strawberry and guacamole, both of which were superb ($5); the sublime short ribs which are marinated overnight and served with a port wine reduction and fingerling mashed potatoes ($11) and wild salmon with a mustard seed crust and flavorful, moist rice, pricey at $14 but delicious. We all agreed that the filet from the Painted Hills Farm in New York state, wrapped with applewood bacon and served with red onion confit and cabrales cheese, was overpriced at $19 (large plate, $38). There are five ceviches (seafood marinated in citrus juices) priced at $7 or $8 which have been getting their knocks from bloggers, but we neglected to try any.

Two desserts from pastry chef, Josh Jastrzembski — passion fruit sorbet and espresso molten chocolate cake with crème anglaise and hazelnut ice cream — were both home runs and reasonably priced at $5 each.

Verdad’s bar features Latin-inspired cocktails, a selection of wines from Spain, Chile and Argentina (only four whites and four reds by the bottle and five each by the glass), Latin beers and about 25 different tequilas, including 10 flights of three tequila choices each. Needless to say, if some in your party decide to experiment extensively in this tequila laboratory, appoint a designated driver. We enjoyed a strawberry peach margarita ($9) and a red sangria ($8) and loved a “Not Guilty” cocktail ($8), but a white sangria ($8) was so sour that it was undrinkable.

Some bloggers have complained about servers at Verdad supposedly not being knowledgeable about the menu, but we did not find that to be the case. In fact, when we raised the issue with Farina, he replied, “The ironic thing is that when the economy is bad, you can get better help. We have teachers, experienced servers and other mature adults who have lost their jobs in other fields now working here.”

For more information or reservations (strongly suggested on weekends), call 610-520-9100 or visit www.verdadrestaurant.com.

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