October 15, 2002
Bella: An American Bistro
posted by Nadia

I liked Bella from the moment I walked in. The entry and bar/lounge areas are warm and welcoming, with comfortable soft seating, spiced cashews on the bar, and smiling staff. We arrived for an early dinner when the restaurant was still quite empty, and the owner, bartender, and waitstaff were relaxing in the lounge area, awaiting customers. We were greeted by the owner, and taken to our table as soon as we arrived. This initial prompt interaction, as well as all that followed, was done in a casual, friendly way -- a refreshing change from the typical hyperactive buzz of new Restauranteurs-with-a-capital-R milling about overeagerly. In fact, while our waiter initially forgot to mention the evening's specials (and we fear we may have unintentionally gotten him in trouble for it -- please forgive us!), I found the oversight somewhat charming -- ease and comfort go a long way with me when dining. I'd rather have a waiter sheepishly admit that he doesn't know where the wine is from but that he's tasted it and likes its sweetness, than be dictated paragraph-long explanations of ingredients by someone with an ingratiating smile and a photographic memory. "Our special appetizer this evening, ma'am, is sockeye salmon tartare caught with hand-woven nets in Alaska's Red River, served with a key lime horseradish aspic and a bonito-infused caramel sauce. The key limes and horseradish are organic, grown on a community farm and picked by debt-ridden college students with drug habits and Marxist ideals."

We ordered a 2000 Rancho Zabaco pino gris to start out our meal, which I was incredibly pleased with. It's hard to find a sturdy white that can stand up to an autumnal menu, but this wine managed to do just that. It was crisp and appley to start, but rounded off with a full, almost meaty finish, and ended up pairing quite well with the dishes we ordered. I'd definitely have it again, although I suspect on my next visit I'll be tempted to check out the rest of the wine list, which features an "Unconventional" category alongside the typical varietals.

We tried three appetizers to start:

First was a nice red leaf and frisee salad, served with sliced pears, goat cheese, red onions and toasted walnuts. The raspberry walnut vinaigrette was barely imperceptible, so the salad didn't get too far beyond the basic fruit-nut-cheese model, but was yummy nonetheless.

We then enjoyed a "nibble" (larger than the typical appetizer, meant to be shared) of meats with assorted pickles, which was picture-perfect, and really an ideal example of an often-underwhelming bistro dish. I was very happy with this lovely arrangement, which included crostini with an earthy and deep chicken liver pate, a hearty and flavorful sausage, pieces of smoked meaty bacon, and slices of double-smoked cured ham. The plate also included a few sweet-tart hand-pickled onions, slivers of beet, a tiny (though slightly underripe) pear, an enormous caperberry, a small sweet fig, and some incredibly sharp mustard. I appreciated the variety of flavors, and thought the combination of ingredients resulted in a perfectly lovely balance.

Finally, Carl had a dish featuring pieces of smoked trout served atop a base of finely diced cucumber and red onion concasse. This was surrounded by slices of white beets and a relatively mild creamy horseradish sauce. The dish was crisp and fresh, and seemed a lovely reflection on the end of summer.

Next, main courses:

The evening's special entrée featured scallops wrapped in prosciutto and seared to a perfect brown that I'm convinced can only be achieved in a restaurant. They were sweet and tender, offset beautifully by the crisp edges of prosciutto and a layer of seared goodness attributable to Maillard. The scallops were served over a mascarpone risotto which was among the best examples of risotto I've tasted in a while. The grains of rice were still firm at the center, and perfectly bathed in the creamy mascarpone and broth. Despite the seeming simplicity of the technique, making a risotto as texturally good as this is difficult task, and I suspect I should credit Bella, the owner's grandmother and restaurant namesake, for this success. The dish was topped with sweet-and-sour Savoy cabbage, whose spice and tang seemed a bit too far removed from the rest of the flavors. The dish certainly needed something acidic to offset the salt of the prosciutto, the sweet scallops, and the creaminess of the risotto ... but perhaps this would have been better accomplished with something simple and lemony.

Chris had a hamburger stuffed with mushrooms and Maytag blue cheese, served with thick cut French fries. It seems that every restaurant these days feels compelled to include a burger on the menu in an effort to transform a bistro classic into something more classy. Bella's burger was good, cooked slightly past medium, yet still juicy because of the moistness of the tart cheese and mushrooms inside. The bun was a deliciously crispy grilled affair, but the fries were only okay. All told, I would have kept the burger off the menu and replaced it with something else just as comforting and meaty -- perhaps some braised short ribs over pasta?

Carl's molasses-brined pork chop was deemed a success by everyone but Carl. It was very thick, and appropriately juicy -- in part because of the brine, and probably in part because of the sheer size of the thing. Carl's complaint was that it didn't seem flavorful enough, but nobody else had a problem with this. Chris commented upon a fact I've noticed even when we brine pork at home -- that brined pork chops often taste too much of the brine itself and seem almost processed. Here, all we tasted was the pork flavor, with a hint of sweetness and char at the edges; the delicate flavor of the pork itself wasn't overwhelmed by salt or molasses or spice. In fact, if it hadn't been so juicy, I wouldn't have realized it was brined. The chop was served with a surprisingly un-cheesy mac and cheese that made up for this in spades by being loaded with wonderful brown crispies and toasty bread crumbs.

I couldn't resist ordering the pretzel-crusted halibut, which was served with a creamy mustard grain sauce and tiny baby mustard greens. I feel bad wasting many words on this dish, which was great and doesn't need the help of too many highfallutin' descriptors. The halibut was tender, the pretzel crust appropriately pretzel-y, the sauce a miraculous balance of mildness and mustard flavor, and the baby greens worked perfectly. Raves all around.

These main courses were served with sides of sautéed arugula, which was a first for all of us raw arugula eaters, and made me want to try this at home. Yum.

Finally, bellies full, we settled on two desserts. One, a homemade version of Hostess-style creamy-filled chocolate cupcakes, was a bit too dry and really nothing to write home about. The bread pudding "cake," on the other hand, was delicious and eagerly devoured by everyone. The menu described it as a baked combination of scones, muffins, and vanilla cream, served with cinnamon ice cream. We've certainly been successful in ordering spice-based ice creams these days (see our dessert at Morimoto), and this was no exception. The cinnamon flavor served as a perfect foil to the dense, moist, and cakey bread pudding dish. Carl explains that while he couldn't quite put his finger on it at first, the cake tasted almost like a fabulously dense undercooked muffin, swirled throughout with cinnamon, bits of chocolate, maybe some fruit ... and a layer of crispy cinnamon sugar crunch on the bottom. I can imagine baking this at home with a variety of leftover baked goods (but really now, who has baked goods left over?) moistened with a custardy cream, and served to unsuspecting guests who could never imagine leftovers tasting so good.

As soon as I abandon my starving-law-student lifestyle, I want to become a regular at Bella. I'd like to follow the constantly-changing menu, and see how (if at all) the restaurant changes once it starts getting publicized and visited by upscale Rittenhouse Square types. Hopefully, the menu and wine list will grow along the creative path that's been set out for them, and the atmosphere will retain its comfort and warmth, providing a small-town refuge for those with big-city expectations.