2960 Skippack Pike
Gracie’s Café is domiciled in the building that was formerly home to FuziOn, a contemporary Asian restaurant owned by Buu Ly. Mr. Ly subsequently sold the establishment; and, after it closed, he repurchased the property, renovated the interior, and opened Gracie’s Café. The restaurant now serves both Asian and Mediterranean cuisines.
According to Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Michael Klein, writing on August 31, 2012, two cuisines meant two chefs. Thus, Mr. Ly brought in a couple of heavy culinary hitters: Simon Vong, a Susanna Foo alumnus, on the wok; and Dmitri’s chef Umesh Chhetri, a native of Nepal, to take charge of the Mediterranean side of the menu.
However, whether these two gentlemen are still in attendance is questionable, as the cuisine during several recent visits has hardly been memorable. Yes, you guessed it… yet another of those frustrating “good news/bad news” restaurant scenarios. In point of fact, I reviewed Mr. Ly’s former enterprise, FuziOn, in November 2006. And, sad to say, many of its shortcomings have come back to haunt Gracie’s.
But let’s begin with the good news… The restaurant’s interior is light, airy, and attractively appointed; prices are quite reasonable; you may BYOB, which also significantly reduces the bottom line. And, while the former FuziOn’s service ranged from perfunctory to distant to brusque to semi-rude to all of the above; Gracie’s servers are downright hospitable. You feel comfortable and welcomed here.
But on to the food – and there are a number of bright spots. Topping the list is the presentation of Prince Edward Island mussels. These bivalves are marvelously plump and pristinely fresh; and they swim to table in a positively addictive sake-garlic vegetable broth. Finishing second is the Thai basil stir-fry; with the Tokyo chopped salad in the show position. It doesn’t look like much, just lettuce segments, sliced mushrooms, shredded carrots, and a few chunks of tomato… but a superb ginger dressing propels it into orbit. Several of the homemade desserts are also quite good. The individual lemon pie is excellent… ditto the decadent chocolate truffles.
And then things take a turn for the worse. The steamed pork pot stickers weren’t too bad… although the taste was rather odd… The Pad Thai was as unappetizing to the eye as it was to the palate… and the sour cream cheesecake had spent too much time languishing in the nether regions of the fridge and was obviously suffering the debilitating effects of old age.
In my aforementioned review of FuziOn, I noted that seafood was not the kitchen’s strong suit; and at Gracie’s, matters piscatorial, unfortunately, fair no better. The St. Peter’s fish (tilapia) was the pick of the litter, and it was merely passable. The grilled salmon served over garlic spinach, on the other hand, was something of a horror. The pool of garlic broth was completely overpowering… but the strange smell enveloping the dish was downright offensive. Coincidently, the very same off-putting aroma emanated from my wife’s chicken teriyaki, which tasted neither like chicken nor teriyaki and sported a decidedly odd consistency.
The funky odor was undoubtedly liquid smoke, a liquid seasoning that is available commercially from various companies and imparts a smoky aroma and flavor to meats and fish; a few drops are sufficient to do the trick. Judging by the smell and taste of our two entrées, however, the kitchen was more than just a little heavy handed with their embellishments. But as a food critic I know all too well that sauces and other seasonings are often utilized to cover a multitude of gastronomic sins… So I couldn’t help wondering what the chef was hoping to sequester beneath that odoriferous smoke screen.
Maybe there was nothing to hide; perhaps it was just a case of foodie paranoia. Perhaps. But each time we’ve dined mid-week at Gracie’s the place has been all but deserted. True, January and August are the slowest restaurant months of the year… and maybe the place is packed on weekends. Maybe. Somehow I doubt it.
And there’s a potentially vicious circle here of which every diner should be aware. A lack of customers means that comestibles don’t turn over as quickly as they should; they spend entirely too much time languishing in refrigerated and non-refrigerated corners of the kitchen, suffering from various shades of decay, losing their freshness and vitality (the proprietor of a now defunct New Jersey eatery, for example, once confided to me that the swordfish listed as a nightly special had already spent seven days and nights in his kitchen!). Not willing to take a bath on expensive unsold, unprepared ingredients, a restaurant becomes ever more ingenious at the resuscitation of rations, eventually owing infinitely more to insidiously seasoned sauces and crafty cryogenics than creative cookery.
Is that what is transpiring at Gracie’s Café? I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that dining experiences here have been, for the most part, extremely disappointing, the quality of the cuisine questionable… and other patrons conspicuous by their absence.
The Bottom Line: Should you dine here? Once again, it’s your call… But the words of columnist Jim Quinn always come back to haunt me: “Never eat in an empty restaurant… everyone who isn’t there must know something you don’t.”
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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