Diner: Repeat Success

Sturkey's signature is evident in new West Chester eatery

When Paul Sturkey joined the first-rate team at The Phoenix ten years ago, I was dazzled by his beautiful presentations and striking flavor contrasts. I've followed him since then, as he's made his indelible impression on other bistros in town, most notably, his Wyoming namesake restaurant with his wife, Pam.

Their new enterprise, Encore Café, seemed to be unusually located, tucked into the backside of a strip shopping center in West Chester. But after driving past the familiar fast food signs (urban sprawl takes on an entirely different meaning) on the main drag, it seemed obvious that the Sturkeys' new neighbors must have coaxed them to repeat their Wyoming success in their own backyard.

The muted plums and burgundy of the walls and wood contrasts nicely with the teal and copper tones of the artwork in the spacious dining area of what was the Ironwood Inn. The adjoining bar, strategically separated from the dining area, keeps noise, smoke and television sounds secluded. The up-to-the-minute décor is well planned to provide an open and spacious feel. Encore Café offers a quiet, comfortable setting that allows for leisurely meals or a quick bite. And it's nice to have a view of the open kitchen minus the smoke and clatter.

The menu is an enticingly good read to start the evening, accompanied by a diverse wine list.

The evening's special appetizer, Shrimp Crabcakes ($7.95), was nicely browned and crisp, revealing moist and meaty cakes. Blended with chunky bits of red onion and red pepper, the mildly spiced kick satisfied my East Coast craving for crab, while nicely twisting the flavor expectation with the addition of shrimp. The tangy slaw that accompanied the cakes provided cool undertones to the zesty seafood.

One of the many interesting items on the menu is the Bleu Cheese and Wild Mushrooms Bruschetta ($7.25). Toasted, angled baguettes are topped with smoky prosciutto matchsticks tumbled with bleu cheese and sautéed mushrooms for a great winter version of the Italian classic.

I've been intrigued by a recent trend boasting iceberg wedges at chic restaurants, but the Sturkeys have done it one better with the Romaine Wedge ($6.95). Whole leaves are layered with bleu cheese and warm pecans and drizzled with a bright vinaigrette. With slices of port-soaked poached pears fanned on either side, this is a phenomenal example of the creative flavor and texture contrasts that Sturkey does so well. The Café Salad (included with entrées or separately for $5.95) is a mix of greens and romaine with dried cherries, toasted almond slivers, crumbled feta and the house herb balsamic vinaigrette. The subtle nuts and cheese amplify the unexpected sweetness of the cherries, with a grounding of fresh herbs and greens teased in a refreshing dressing.

The food at the Encore Café is decidedly glamorous, but the casual setting includes jeans and suits, strollers and walkers. Upscale food in an unexpected location seemed to be the draw for a full restaurant on the Tuesday night we visited.

The fresh pasta of the Encore Pasta ($11.95) was reminiscent of a trip to the back roads of Italy. The tender, al dente bow-ties were covered with a sweet and zesty basil marinara with sun-dried tomatoes, succulent artichoke heart wedges, feta and barely steamed fresh spinach leaves with grilled smoked chicken. The combined effect is a rich, full sauce with stand-alone flavors over noticeably good pasta.

My partner chose the Cashew Crusted Atlantic Salmon ($18.95), another fine example of taste bud tantalization. The nut-dusted, moist and flaky, grilled fish was drizzled with a sweet and spicy hoisin sauce and the plate was dotted with wasabi cream. The fish, perched atop spires of vivid green beans placed over a very crispy risotto cake and stir fried vegetables, proved to be the most interesting and multi-dimensional combination of flavor and texture: sweet, spice, moistness and the sharp crunch of the hoisin-tinged risotto cake. The salmon was an alluring and memorable entrée among many creative offerings.

In spite of our pleased palates, we couldn't pass up an opportunity to enjoy one of Pam Sturkey's desserts. While the Double Chocolate and Peanut Butter Truffle Brownie ($5.95, the price for all desserts) beckoned to me, we ordered the Pizzelle Caramel and Apple Napoleon. Two almond shortbread wafers sandwiched caramel custard and moist, chunky apple cake, all drizzled with warm caramel sauce. A paper-thin, dried apple slice was delicately balanced atop this pretty and delicate dessert. With a good cup of coffee, this was a delightful way to end the meal.

The Sturkeys present food like three-dimensional artists ­ it always stands out. The visual and textural contrasts in their presentations combine for a surprising and enticing experience. They have elevated the neighborhood restaurant from home cooking to a culinary experience. ©

Go: 7305 Tylersville Road, West Chester

Call: 513-759-0200

Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner: Monday-Sunday 5-10 p.m.

Prices: Moderate

Payment: All major credit cards

Vegetarian Friendliness: Pasta and fish options

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