902 Village At Eland, Route 113
Tucked away in the Village of Eland, an interesting conglomeration of shops, restaurants, galleries, and salons on the outskirts of Phoenixville proper, Fenice Creolo inhabits the space formerly occupied by the long-running, though decidedly lackluster, Epicurean Restaurant.
The Epicurean was always something of an anomaly: a restaurant that teased and tantalized with gastronomic foreplay… and then, inevitably, let diners down at the moment of truth. Fenice Creolo, presided over by Chris Lamarra and Tom Mastronardo, on the other hand, delivers the goods. Messrs. Lamarra and Mastronardo, finely tuned their culinary/managerial skills at Ron’s Original Bar & Grille (reviewed in November 2012) in nearby Lionville, PA, and this wealth of experience is immediately evident in their new venture.
For starters, the interior has been completely renovated. The restaurant is awash with Rolling Stone covers, contemporary art, and large flat-screen TVs; a variety of vibrant piped-in music fills the air. The bar area has been stylishly revamped, eliminating the wall that separated it from the dining room. Negotiations are currently underway with Pennsylvania’s twitchy LCB with regard to the liquor license. Until that is secured, the restaurant remains BYOB; and a great majority of the patrons I’ve observed are more than happy to tote along their favorite vintage.
The food here, though, is the real story. The power behind the stove is Chef John “Macjon” DeLuca, who was trained by Paul Prudhomme, the king of New Orleans cuisine. Chef “Macjon” has won just about every award the Delaware Valley has to offer, including the “Best of Philly” for his West Chester staple, Macjon’s Kitchen. But a new wrinkle has been added, as the boys have prevailed upon the good chef to infuse his classical NOLA creations with a touch of Italian flavor… and the results are impressive.
If you like a bit of heat, for example, be sure to start things off with the red beans and rice soup. An island dollop of rice is surrounded by a sea of rich, thick broth rife with hearty beans and crumbled sausage. This is a marvelously addictive dish that generates just enough heat to keep the taste buds standing at attention without causing a major meltdown.
The mussels fra Diavolo, “brother devil” in Italian, also whips up some heat of its own. Plump, succulent bivalves swim to table in a spicy tomato-based sauce juiced up with chili peppers and touch of cayenne. Once again, there’s just enough heat to invigorate rather than incinerate.
Greenery also makes a first-rate prelude, and two of the salads are noted on the menu as suitable for sharing. There is, of course, the traditional Caesar… but I’d cast my vote with the Sicilian. Romaine lettuce is teamed up with roasted red peppers, prosciutto, sharp provolone cheese, onion, cured olives, and marvelously crunchy house-made croutons. Add oil and vinegar from individual cruets to your heart’s content, and you have a simple but extremely satisfying – and healthy – curtain raiser for any meal.
Whether you’re feeling Italian & lyrical or downhome New Orleans, entrées offer a host of viable possibilities. In the former category, the shrimp & fettuccini is quite excellent. The pasta is right-on-the-money al dente, the shrimp invitingly crunchy, and the garlic herb butter applied judiciously. Green onions add a touch of color, while a slice of irresistible garlic bread contributes a nice textural contrast.
Also highly recommendable is the “Eggplant Uptown.” Delicate slices of sautéed eggplant are wrapped around dollops of rich ricotta cheese, placed on a pillow of rigatoni, and sprinkled with a light marinara sauce. Other vegetable variations served over pasta include a fresh vegetable stir fry and stuffed portabella mushroom embellished with roasted peppers, ricotta, and fresh mozzarella.
Creole specialties include the “Cajun Canoe,” a carved zucchini filled with seafood served over étouffée rice; mirliton (chayote) filled with seafood swimming in étouffée gravy; and “Eggplant Ponchantrain,” eggplant stuffed with seafood over étouffée rice. The jambalaya, though, is a favorite, and a hallmark of creole cookery. Tender chunks of chicken breast are combined with smoked sausage in a generously seasoned tomato-based creole sauce served over spicy rice. Very, very NOLA.
But if you’d really like to get down to basics, I would head straight for the fried catfish platter, a frequently offered special. Strips of catfish are breaded and fried to a golden brown. The fish is incredibly moist and the breading circumspectly applied… which means, unlike lesser establishments, there is infinitely more catfish here than breading. And the light golden brown contrasts nicely with the darker seasoned roasted potato wedges. The presentation comes with tartar sauce and also a side of dynamite house-made coleslaw.
In point of fact, everything is made in house; and that includes an excellent potato salad and chips & racy mango salsa that accompany the sandwiches. Among these latter, my faves include the smoked Cajun sausage and “Ragin’ Chicken Salad,” diced white meat chicken blended with a spice-infused mayo served up on a Kaiser roll with lettuce and tomato.
Fenice Creolo is already quite popular with the area’s foodies. Once the restaurant receives its liquor license, however, the place should really take off. Couple what will undoubtedly become an active bar scene with good food & reasonable prices and you have a surefire recipe for success.
The Artful Diner
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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