Located near Union Centre in West Chester, somewhere between the Marriott and Ikea, my husband and I found a surprise in a strip mall.
Billed by a friend as a tapas restaurant and wine bar, the hubs and I arrived at The Wise Owl around 8 p.m. on a Saturday night prepared to fill our tummies with delectable morsels and some quality vino. While we were more than impressed with the expanse of the wine menu, which included a dozen or so compelling choices of reds and whites by the glass, we were somewhat let down by the limited selection of only half a dozen small plates. The Owl’s Facebook page also promised pastry, but there was none on the menu the night we dropped in.
The space itself is small and seating is a mixture of nicely developed conversation areas, alternating between leather sofas paired with upholstered chairs and raised tables with high-back seats. Combined with low lighting, earth tones and a glass of red, the room began to take on a cozy, womb-like feel after about an hour.
To the right, the wall was lined (nearly ceiling to floor) with wines the owners have hand-selected for sharing with their patrons. It was an impressive display of about 200 wines, and counting.
We chose a seat in the middle of the restaurant. It was close enough to the bar so that we could eavesdrop on the conversation a bit and far enough way from the door to avoid blasts of frigid 20-degree temps as new arrivals entered. Patrons were scant that night, but I expect it is an extremely popular after-work hot spot in the neighborhood.
A youthful, thin man dressed in a three-piece suit approached us to take our drink order. I asked for his recommendation on the reds and after a short yet thorough interview about my wine preferences, he suggested that I might enjoy the complexity of the 3 Doves 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). Interested in sampling their decidedly different selection of cocktails, my husband opted to try the signature drink: The Owl. A sinful concoction of bourbon, sweet and dry vermouth and Miss Scarlett’s Drunken Cherry, the combination was utterly delicious, as was the smoky cab with its satisfying, velvety finish. We reflected quietly in complete relaxation as we waited for our first small plates to appear.
To pair with our drinks, we ordered Grilled Flank Steak Carpaccio ($9) and Roasted Olives with Rosemary ($4). A hearty portion by tapas standards, the Carpaccio was a delight. Dressed with a horseradish aioli and roasted red peppers, the beef was tender and succulent and the aioli was out of this world. Creamy and seasoned to perfection, we found ourselves savoring every last drop by attempting to transfer the remaining sauce from the plate to slices of the razor-thin toasted baguette served alongside the olives. The warmed olives were enjoyable, although I struggled to detect even the slightest suggestion of rosemary and did bite into one or two that were a bit mealy.
Moving on to round two, I searched the menu of reds. Having already proven himself a capable assistant, I was intrigued by what our server’s next recommendation might be. “Well, where do you go from there?” he mused aloud, mostly to himself as his eyes scoured the bottles on the wall.
After considering the by-the-glass menu options, he quickly determined that none were truly suitable, but a bottle of 2007 Titus Cab Franc would be just the right fit. He quickly rationalized opening the bottle to pour me a glass, indicating it would give him a good excuse to take it to the Christmas party he planned to attend after work. Gorgeous and deep red in color, the wine opened itself quickly, had an alluring bouquet filled with berries and spice and a pleasant mouth feel.
For my husband’s next cocktail, he suggested another signature drink, The Corpse Reviver ($8). A magical combination of gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc and lemon, the blend brought a smile to both our faces. It was fresh, citrusy, memorable and, quite possibly, the best mixed drink I have ever enjoyed.
Taking note of the “Be Nice or Go Away” notice posted above the bar, Fromages et Charcuterie ($13) and a creamy Mushroom Bruschetta Crostini ($7) were summoned to our table. As we devoured the selection of imported cheeses, which included silky, mouthwatering Brie and cured imported meats, we began chatting with our host, who was now enjoying a glass of the cab franc with us as he manned the bar. It was then we learned how he (Bryant Phillips, manager) and his partner (Dave Taylor, chef, who was absent that night) opened in September after years in the tutelage of famed restaurateur, Jean-Robert de Cavel. As he offered my husband another of his custom cocktails (The Esquire, $8), he also shared more of his knowledge of wines and the tale of his journey to becoming a sommelier.
I like The Wise Owl. While I do question the choice of location, the atmosphere is inviting and the owners are young yet experienced and eager to please. Expect the wine recommendations to be thoughtful and consistently excellent, but call ahead for the tapas menu if you are planning to make a meal of it. We were forced to end our night with a trip through the White Castle drive-thru.
Go: 6206 Muhlhauser Road, West Chester
Hours: Noon-1 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Small plates: $4-$13; cocktails and drinks by the glass, $8-$15
Red Meat Alternatives: Bread and assorted cheeses
Accessibility: First floor fully accessible