Philadelphia Inquirer Rick Nichols: From Meritage chef Ann Coll, ‘Nana’s Lancaster kitchen favorites’

Posted on Friday, November 26, 2010


Rick Nichols: From Meritage chef Ann Coll, ‘Nana’s Lancaster kitchen favorites’

By Rick Nichols

Inquirer Food Columnist

An unfunny thing happens when the hearty home-cookery of Lancaster County goes on the road. It seizes up, morphs into a cartoon of itself. The chicken gravy on the chicken and waffles develops a scary Las Vegas tan.

Pull off Route 30 near Strasburg and you see it at the tourist smorgasbords. Lunch counters botch chicken pot pie (botboi, in local dialect), the noodles glumly heavy, dense, and sluggish.

Even more-ambitious takes don’t seem to fly: At Normandy Farm in Blue Bell several years ago, the ballyhooed Dutch country menu – which somehow boiled the flavor out of the scrapple, even – lasted a matter of months.

And the promising launch of Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired specialties (crab scrapple!) at MidAtlantic, the Daniel Stern eatery at 38th and Market, foundered as kitchen staff turned over, and the food lost its consistency.

All of which is to say I approached chef Ann Coll’s new weekly ($39 on Thursdays) special menu – “Nana’s Lancaster kitchen favorites” – with a degree of hope tempered by a lot of really bad experience.

Coll has gained notice at Meritage, the restaurant and wine bar at 20th and Lombard, for her Asian-fusion stylings, picked up during her tenure as the sous chef for the French-Asian pioneer Susanna Foo.

That her own roots were in Lancaster County, in the gentle farm country near Millersville, hasn’t been particularly evident, though recent menus have been offering crispy braised pig trotter and Eberly Farm chicken liver pate with fig chutney, signals that Meritage is about more than (totally awesome!) Korean tacos.

Why the Lancaster County cooking? I asked her. Why now?

She didn’t want to be pigeonholed, she said, as an Asian-fusion chef, No. 1. She wanted to showcase the stellar produce and pastured meats she gets from Green Meadow Farm, the tidy six-acre spread in Gap, Lancaster County.

But mostly, Coll said, this is the sort of food she grew up on at her Nana’s knee – “Nana” being her grandmother, June Bortzfield, who is still living in Willow Street, a town of about 7,000 souls south of Lancaster: “She’s the reason I love food so much. She tells me I was always the first one to set the table.”

I blanched when I saw the amuse-bouche on the menu – pinwheel of sweet bologna, with chive crème fraîche. In the vernacular this is typically a salty, tangy strip of crude bologna wrapped around nondescript cream cheese, and not in a good way.

But in this tiny rendition, the sweet bologna was from Green Meadow’s butcher, and it had a looser, sweeter texture that paired well with the crème fraîche (also kinder and gentler than cream cheese).

The red beet salad was similarly defanged, the beets less vinegary than the ones I remember from home. But it was the pickled quail’s eggs – halved and posed on a toast spread with goat-cheese mousse – that were the visual focal point, their miniature-ness (who really wants an entire hen’s egg on their salad?) adding to their preciousness, the magenta ring around the egg white a country-style jewel.

The Lancaster pot pie was elegant, though it was a bit soupy. The cubed vegetables and chicken were abidingly tender, as was the noodle dough, but I wanted some heartier texture.

A third course of braised beef short rib (from pastured beef braised for five hours) was reminiscent of the toothsome Sunday pot roasts of my youth. And the sweet and sour cabbage was transcendent – if that descriptor can be used for cabbage – notes of mustard seed, apple, and onion in the seasoning, a finish of free-pressed apple cider vinegar and honey. This came with sauteed baby spinach and a cloudlike souffle (Nana called it a “fondue”) flavored with horseradish cheddar.

Next, warm apple cider, and a lighthearted pumpkin whoopie pie.

It was, finally, Lancaster home-cookery liberated; the rough edges filed off; home-cookery in the hands of a skilled chef, lighter, fresher, more balanced, in the end, than the original.

Am I looking forward to the next weekly go-rounds – Ann Coll’s take on roast pork and sauerkraut, on fried chicken (or maybe baby poisson) the way they made it at the Willow Valley Inn, house-made pepper hash and chowchow, and her own rendering of shoofly pie?

Are you kidding?