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Black Lab Bistro
248 Bridge Street
Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
(610) 935-5988
http:// www.blacklabbistro.net

When I first visited the Black Lab Bistro, over a year ago, I made a vow never, never to return. The décor was reprehensibly retro -- bare Formica tables, white paper napkins, bottles of Heinz Ketchup, and circa 1950s sugar canisters -- and I couldn't quite shake the feeling that the joint needed a good scrubbing top to bottom. An impression clearly brought home to roost by the significant smudges on the plastic-encased menus.

The bill of fare proffered all the usual suspects, from mom's meatloaf to hot turkey sandwiches to beef and chicken and burgers to the various and sundry inhabitants of Davy Jones locker to a list of all-too-ambitious daily specials. The food was barely passable and, in some cases, beneath contempt. My wife's broiled herb- and breadcrumb-encrusted grouper wasn't bad, but the accompanying basmati rice wasn't just gloppy, it was positively mush; and the sautéed spinach was so well done it was actually crispy.

My club sandwich was monstrous -- huge slabs of obviously processed turkey breast interspersed with slices of Swiss cheese and tomato -- and disgustingly dry. The fries were completely unremarkable, and the dressing on the side of coleslaw exhibited the taste and texture of Elmer's Glue-All.

Except for the homemade rolls and dessert, dinner was an unmitigated disaster.

When I learned through the culinary grapevine that major changes had taken place -- but the same owners/chef remained -- I must confess that I was still somewhat skeptical. But several recent visits have convinced me that, both decoratively and gastronomically, these metamorphoses have yielded remarkable improvements. The décor -- now boasting dark woods, French café posters, and crisp white cloth napkins -- has gone decidedly upscale& as has the cuisine. The kitchen, as they say, has apparently found itself and now delivers the goods.

Among the starters, salads acquit themselves very well. The traditional Caesar ($7.00), for example, features pristinely fresh bite-size segments of romaine lettuce tossed with a zesty Worcestershire-tinctured dressing and embellishment of crispy garlic croutons and topping of Parmesan curls. The frisée salad ($9.00), on the other hand, boasts feathery fronds and a mouth-watering amalgam of poached pear, toasted pecans, earthy crumbles of blue cheese, and crispy (and exceedingly salty) prosciutto chips. The consummating touch is an invigorating but not overpowering cider-Dijon vinaigrette.

Other preludes include a top-notch crostini decked out with roasted tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and artistic drizzle of basil oil ($8.00), good (but not exceptional) jumbo lump crab cake with a first-rate chipotle-roasted pepper aîoli $10.00), tuna tartar timbale with seaweed salad ($11.00), and artichoke fritters with marinara sauce ($7.00).

Entrée-wise, pastas have a great deal to recommend them. Particularly noteworthy is the chicken and artichokes aglio e olio ($16.00). The chicken strips are moist and tender, not at all dry, and tossed with strands of perfectly cooked angel hair pasta. A tincture of lemon, sprinkling of Italian parsley, and freshly grated Parmesan offer very nice finishing touches. The fettuccini Alfredo ($15.00) is infinitely richer in character but still quite good. Tender chicken strips abound here as well, as do chunks of grilled spicy andouille sausage. Morsels of torn spinach and caramelized onions add immeasurably to the mix.

Seafood selections include a marvelous porcini-dusted halibut filet resting on a pillow of mashed potatoes accompanied by artichoke hummus and parsley oil ($25.00). The "Fisherman's Platter" ($21.00) is another superb selection. Salmon and tilapia are of the highest quality and done to a turn; the shrimp are at the peak of good health and appropriately crunchy; and the crab imperial is succulently sweet. A winner on all counts.

Carnivores, on the other hand, should feel right at home with the 10-ounce filet mignon ($27.00). On the regular printed menu, it is topped with crispy artichokes, chèvre cheese, and a balsamic reduction drizzle. It does, however, make frequently guest appearances among the daily specials. On one occasion, it arrives replete with a decadent foie gras demi-glace; on another, the supporting cast includes a buttermilk-blue cheese filled portobello mushroom and heady cabernet reduction sauce.

Since the Black Lab Bistro is also a bakery, desserts are worth saving room for. Recently sampled, for example, were a fabulous cinnamon bun ice cream sandwich ($6.00) and a down-home warm apple crisp served up with vanilla ice cream ($6.00). Confirmed chocoholics, of course, will also want to check out the flourless triple chocolate torte with chocolate mousse and Frangelica crème. Other possibilities include a chèvre cheesecake with Grand Marnier strawberries, banana rum crepes with toasted praline pecans, and warm chocolate ravioli with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. Be prepared to kiss your diet good-bye!

I'm not quite sure what beneficent forces are at work at the Black Lab Bistro, but I am of the opinion that it is never a good idea to look a gift horse in the mouth.  Suffice it to say that the establishment's transformation from a lowly neighborhood "joint" dishing out eminently forgettable fodder to an attractive upscale eatery serving up cuisine that is both carefully prepared and artfully presented has been nothing short of spectacular.

I now highly recommend this charming BYOB on all counts.

The Artful Diner
July 2006

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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