REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
Elena Thomas grew up in Villanova and after graduating from Harriton High School, she went to the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (the second college chartered — in 1693 — in the American colonies, after Harvard). While there, she met and eventually married fellow student, Ben Thomas, who was majoring in psychology. After college Ben got a job with the federal government in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a part of the Department of Homeland Security.
For a creative type, this had to be stifling. In fact, for mental stimulation Ben decided to take a cooking course at a French culinary school, L’Academie de Cuisine, near the nation’s capital, and after just one day he decided that cooking fine food, not pushing pencils, was the correct career path for him. It just so happened that his mentor at the culinary school, Gerard Pangaud, saw great potential in Ben and encouraged him to pursue a career in fine dining.
Meanwhile, Elena obtained an MBA, moved back to the Philadelphia area in 2007 and accepted a job with a global consulting company. Ben, who spent his childhood in southern Germany, took a job with Callahan Catering, a Philadelphia firm, but spent quite a bit of his time on catering events for high-end clients in New York. He then moved on to Lacroix in the Rittenhouse Hotel, one of the area’s most expensive and impeccable exponents of haute cuisine.
In 2009, however, both Ben and Elena grabbed job opportunities that enabled them to move to Paris. Ben’s mentor at L’Academie de Cuisine helped him get a job at the esteemed Bistro d’Hubert in Paris. After one year in France, the couple moved to Mexico City, where Elena’s job took her, and they spent another year there before returning to the Philadelphia area in 2011.
“We traveled to Peru, Nicaragua and other places in Latin America,” said Elena. “It was exciting but exhausting. Not sustainable.”
After returning to the Delaware Valley, Ben worked at Sycamore in Landsdowne, which was receiving rave reviews from both critics and the public. But the experience whetted Ben’s taste for his own restaurant, and in August of 2013 the couple opened Restaurant Cerise (“cherry” in French), The 44-seat BYOB is located at 1011 W. Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr, which was previously home to The BRGR Joint and before that, Main Line Grill.
Elena has a day job in Ardmore for a financial services firm, but at night you may see her charming customers at the restaurant. “I never would have guessed I would wind up on the Main Line, so close to where I grew up,” she said.
Restaurant Cerise is one of several upscale BYOBs that have opened in the lower Main Line in the past two years such as Fraschetta and Sola, both in Bryn Mawr, and Pescatore in Bala Cynwyd. Cerise is a two-tiered dining room with an open kitchen. Ben has referred to the décor as “not full of salvage chic and not quite farmhouse. I’d call it new bistro, sophisticated but not formal.” There is jazzy music in the background kept at a judicious sound level.
Dinner at Cerise is a four-course affair with a fixed price of $49 per person. On Wednesday and Sunday only, there is a three-course option for $39. There are four or five choices for each course. Our experience was an epic poem to indulgence in high-quality ingredients. The first course’s kale salad and pan-fried octopus represented a primal love of great products and of sealing in every drop of flavor.
A second course of campanelle (pasta shaped like a cone with a ruffled edge), made with Ben’s Italian pasta maker, was a paragon of buttery sweetness that revealed itself in waves of flavor. It was ennobled by Brussels sprouts, among other ingredients. When I was a child, my mother used to serve Brussels sprouts with the hardness of golf balls, so I resolved never to eat them again when I became an adult. I was pleased to break that promise, however.
A New York strip pepper steak was a very healthy portion of grass-fed beef with a cognac demi-glace. It was tasty but was ordered medium rare and was delivered a bit more rare than that. Instead of sending it back for reheating, we took most of it home and heated it up the next night.
One of the desserts, oddly called “spaghetti eis,” contained vanilla ice cream, white chocolate and a strawberry sauce that reminded me of a remark by Grimod de la Rayniere, a famed French gourmand who once wrote, “I would eat my own father with such a sauce.” (I personally would not go that far, but I would definitely not allow the plate to return to the kitchen with a drop of the sauce on it.)
Our server, Craig Cathcart a restaurant management grad of the Restaurant School of Philadelphia, was very personable and professional. We did feel badly that there were only one or two other tables occupied during our recent Wednesday visit. Our bill came to $130, which is definitely pricey for a BYOB. Although there is the prix fixe menu, there was an extra charge of $15 for the steak entree.
IF YOU GO: Restaurant Cerise is open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner only. Parking can be an issue. We had to drive around and around all the nearby streets before finally finding a space a couple of blocks away. For more information, call (610) 527-4400 or visit www.restaurantcerise.com.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct information. 5.8.2015