photo credit: whitedog.com
It’s no exaggeration to call White Dog Cafe the most anticipated restaurant since Main Line Dine began covering the local scene in 2003, so it was with a mixture of anticipation, curiosity and cautious optimism that we braved the early crowds to get a peek at the new local hot spot.
Even from the street, the space White Dog occupies is stunning. Large windows overlook Rt. 30, and what looks like it will become a popular terrace sits bare, patiently waiting for Spring. Inside, the decor is more elegant than TWD’s downtown cousin, while maintaining a healthy dose of the famously funky kitsch. Four different dining rooms offer varied atmospheres, which almost makes it possible to have a completely different experience from visit to visit.
The front room, which contains the expansive bar, is decorated wall to wall with painted dog portraits, creating the feeling of a cozy, fun and slightly strange hunting lodge. The two side rooms are closer to a living room, or perhaps a country cottage, and the back room, with its bright lighting and butcher block tables, feels more like a bouchon. Though it is hard to declare which atmosphere is best without having dined in each room, we did encounter the major drawback to the front room: sitting anywhere near the bar risks being hassled and annoyed by the throng of people waiting for a table as they jockey for a drink. This may be fine for those looking for a quick bite from the bar menu, but for larger parties, who took the time to make a reservation, and are paying dining-room prices for the complete culinary experience, this is simply unacceptable. Otherwise, service is friendly and casual, yet incorporates some slight formal touches.
The menu, of course, is all about fresh, local, sustainable, fair trade ingredients, and though Judy Wicks no longer runs the day-to-day operation of either restaurant, her ideals remain at the forefront of each. We started with the Wild Mushroom Stuffed Raviolis — appropriate for Fall — which were tossed with trumpet mushrooms, scallions, tasso ham and light porcini cream ($9). These airy pillows of pasta were deliciously earthy, and tempered by a touch of cream and the occasional bite of smoky ham, although the chewy, tough trumpet stems could have been omitted. We also tried a dish not on the website menu — Spiced Lamb Sliders, which were made from ground meat and topped with a lovely tzatziki sauce. Seared only to rare, they were melt-in-the-mouth succulent and one of the highlights of our meal.
Our waitress informed us that the Spicy Lamb Bolognese, which contained Meadow Run Farms lamb, Severino rigatoni, basil ricotta and baby spinach ($20) is a “signature dish” of the downtown White Dog, and one can surely see why. Chunks of lamb and perfectly balanced spices (though the dish isn’t really “hot” spicy) create a marvelous depth of flavor, and the dollop of ricotta that’s whipped with fresh basil adds a pungent flourish to the already silky, creamy sauce. This is easily the menu’s must-try dish!
A more casual option is the Green Meadow Cheddar Burger, which comes adorned with Smoked Bacon Mayo, Grilled Red Onion & House Cut Fries ($15). We’ve all had a burger with bacon, cheese & onion, and though this one isn’t going to change the world, it is nicely executed. The meat was cooked properly, and the combination of the rich cheese, smoky bacon and juicy beef creates a powerfully flavorful sandwich. The fries were particularly good as well — crispy enough, but also tender and well-seasoned.
Sadly, we did endure one major disappointment: The Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs, served atop root vegetables, garlic-Parmesan potato puree and crispy shallots ($28). The beef itself was woefully undercooked — no, it wasn’t rare, but it was quite tough, not fork-tender as properly braised meat ought to be. There were huge chunks of fat throughout — another indication that it needed more time in the oven, or to be cooked at a lower temperature (or both). If that wasn’t enough, the root veggies, which were, boringly, all white (no orange?) were also undercooked to the point of being crunchy. Crisp veggies are fine in a stir-fry, but not in a slow-cooker dish like this one. Lastly, though it is hard to argue against crispy shallots, this dish was on the verge of being overwhelmingly oniony. Based on everything else we ate, the lack of technique and focus here was shocking, especially for a dish that seemed so irresistible in menu form.
Not wanting to leave on such a bad note, we had to sample a few of the dessert offerings. The Sugar & Spice Doughnuts, stuffed with both Kallari chocolate cream and local fig jam ($8), are a clear shot across the bow to Berwyn’s Nectar (who has built a bit of a reputation for their beignets). They were served warm, and were simultaneously bold and delicate, amazingly tender, and delectable. We didn’t appear to get the promised vanilla Anglaise dipping sauces, but nobody seemed to care.
We also tried the Caramel Apple Pudding ($8): warm cinnamon apple brioche pudding, sauteed Kaufmann heirloom apples, butter rum sauce, vanilla ice cream and a spiced crisp apple tuille, which certainly won marks for great presentation — it was served in an opened hermetic jar, with the tuille protruding from the top. This was tasty, and offered intriguing layers of warm and cold, but still failed to reach the heights of the doughnuts.
The bar offers a small but sensible wine selection (if $44 for a $12 bottle can be considered sensible; in our case the Sterling Zinfandel), as well as some local beers and a variety of signature cocktails. On a cold evening, it was quite tempting to sample from the variety of Hot Toddies, but the packed house warmed us quickly enough.