The frilly-edged ribbons of snappy mafalde pasta that wrapped around my fork cradled a ragù of braised duck that was, if not especially pretty, thoroughly irresistible. Its tender crumbles of meat, moistened with duck stock, minced vegetables, and threads of shredded kale hit a soulfully rustic note that drew my fork back for more – even though the dish was sitting across the table in front of someone else.
Of course, my guest eagerly returned the favor at Hearth Kitchen in Kennett Square, foraging across the table to spear a chunk of lamb loin with panzanella salad ("So tender!"), a crispy hunk of pork belly over creamy polenta ("Oh, my gosh!"), and then the perfect rounds of ravioli stuffed with ground pork cheeks glossed in a buttery braising liquid, tiny green fronds of chervil, and the woodsy snap of chanterelle mushrooms.
"I knew Bryan was always a very good cook," my guest said, "but he's so much better than I remember!"
Oh, how quickly diners forget. The Bryan in question is Bryan Sikora. And my guest should probably know better, considering we've shared some memorable meals at Talula's Table, the gourmet market and coveted four-bell tasting table in Kennett Square that he cofounded with his ex-wife, Aimee Olexy. Of course, that was before the marriage ended, the partnership dissolved, and Sikora left town seven years ago to begin a new family and what has also seemed like something of an exile chapter of his career. The Delaware beaches. A Center City phase to open a.Kitchen. Briefly in Bethlehem. And, most recently, a sustained investment in Wilmington, where the chef and his current wife, Andrea Sikora, now operate two popular restaurants (La Fia, Cocina Lolo) and a gastropub (Merchant Bar).
Sikora's return to Kennett Square with this new wood-fired Italian concept surely raised an eyebrow or two in a small town ripe with personal allegiances. But Bryan and Andrea, who also considered expanding to spaces in Downingtown, Center City, and even downtown Kennett Square, insist they've settled into this stylishly revamped strip-mall space just outside downtown near Longwood Gardens because it made business sense, located halfway between their home and their other restaurants, closer to family, and nestled at the heart of a vibrant Chester County dining scene that feels downright cosmopolitan compared to Wilmington, which can charitably be described as quiet.
"It's not awkward for me," Bryan says of his return. "I have friends and customers in Kennett Square who've stuck with me all along, and it's great to see them again."
I'm thrilled to taste Sikora's food again, too. But my first meal at Hearth was also a comical reminder of how difficult it can be to orchestrate competent service in the suburbs. My "Summer Smash" cocktail was so sour it was undrinkable because our waiter had slipped behind the overwhelmed bar and tried to make it himself. Terribly. The food arrived completely out of order, with the pizzas arriving so late in the meal, the staff offered to box them to go. No thanks, we'll eat it here, I said. And then, as though on cue, a server knocked an entire glass of wine over onto the pies – a flub that launched a series of apology discounts on our bill.
And then there was the unfortunate hand-off that came with a waiter's warning – "Careful, it's really hot!" – at the very moment he reached over to insert the searing plate into my palm (Ouch!).
"This is the best meal we've had so far. It's really improved," said my guest, a local and repeat Hearth customer, happily munching away at a creamy pink slice of foie gras terrine marbled with truffles over sweet honeycomb.
The service was considerably more coherent on a follow-up visit, though the entire mood for that midweek dinner was altogether less frantic (and less deafeningly noisy) than my earlier weekend meal. I still was not overly impressed with the one-dimensional craftsmanship of the cocktails, and one of the wines by the glass tasted as though it had been open too long. But the eclectic wine list is otherwise interesting and affordable, with unusual choices — dry Pedro Ximénez white, crispy assyrtiko, a touriga nacional rosé — that made for fun drinking. Even an albariño and rosé from Hearth Kitchen co-owner Brock Vinton's White Horse Winery in Hammonton, which were far better than I expected.
But one consistent — and perhaps most-crucial asset — has been the food, which rises on fresh, seasonal ingredients in rustic Mediterranean moods. A juicy hunk of grilled swordfish was all that, perched over a wave of saffron aioli beneath a lemony tumble of tomatoes, capers, and Castelvetrano olives. Stuffed zucchini blossoms crisped in a cornmeal crust came filled with lobster meat. Plump fans of butterflied shrimp tangled with a chilled white bean salad turned emerald green with pesto.
A cool mince of clams, scented with rendered bacon, are mounded over toast lathered with garlic-scented mayo. A hearty white bean soup studded with chunks of Italian sausage and peppery bits of broccoli rabe became another cross-table spoon magnet. Sikora's lighter riff on grilled cheese, the crispy ciabatta sandwich squares oozing with Taleggio over an heirloom tomato water that was clarified but vivid, was a dish I attempted to hoard for myself. No luck.
A wood-fired pizza oven is the primary difference between what's on the menu at 100-seat Hearth (not counting its 30 alfresco spots overlooking the mall parking lot) and the smaller 35-seater that is La Fia. And though they might not yet quite rank as elite in the wider regional picture of Neapolitan-style pizza craft, I enjoyed many of the pies with less conventional toppings. The combination of crispy prosciutto layered with peaches was a sweet and salty sensation. (Now it's made with pears for autumn.) The mushroom pie was full of chanterelles and mustard-tinged béchamel. The corn pie with spicy long hots and chewy nubs of piquant capicola would have been fantastic had the toppings not been so heavy.
Hearth's best plates, though, were the handmade pastas and entrees. I'd return just for the mafalde and ravioli (although accompaniments naturally change with the seasons). A bowl of light ricotta gnocchi channeled SIW farm (in Chadds Ford) bounty with a sweet corn sauce sparked by slow-roasted cherry tomatoes.
Sikora strutted a savvy chef's technique by deboning a rib rack of veal and stuffing the loin with the garlicky trimmings of meat, a dice of prosciutto, and fontina cheese. A few points off for the undercooked and out-of-season Brussels sprouts. (Can Brussels sprouts get their seasonality back, please?) It was nonetheless a rustic homage to retro Euro cooking I loved. Likewise, a pork tenderloin with melty squares of tender belly set over creamy polenta, with a side of corn and lima succotash glazed in a deep gravy tanged with a hint of peaches, had me wishing summer would never end.
By the end of my meals, though, it became clear that Hearth Kitchen's other big flaw beyond service — desserts — was going to need some help. The blueberry buckle was dry. Our tiramisu was an ugly white pile of sauceless fluff. The lemon semifreddo was hardly freddo ("frozen" in Italian) as it barely stood up to the spoon on the plate. A pistachio ice cream was icy.
Details, details. A great pastry chef is a luxury few restaurants have in the big city, let alone deep in Chester County. Although, come to think of it, I can name at least two in downtown Kennett Square: Molly Johnston at Nomadic Pies and Claire Twesten at Talula's Table.
Time to pastry-up, Hearth Kitchen dessert crew. You're not in Wilmington anymore.