(Note: This is a series of reviews of art forms about which I know next to nothing as I step out of my professional comfort zone, theater. If you haven’t yet met D.A.L., take a look at other pieces in this series.)
All this dilettanting around town can make a critic hungry, so when Walnut Hill College, the West Philadelphia culinary and hospitality school, invited me to try their new spring menu, I jumped at the chance.
The place itself is charming: the main dining room, called the International Room, creates the illusion of being in a European outdoors with its high skylight ceilings and lots of space between tables (an excellent and rare thing). There is also a small room called Heartland featuring American standards, an Italian Bistro, and a Great Chefs Room featuring a Michelin menu, usually used for small group events with two-or three days’ notice. There is an atmospheric bar and a separate bakery selling breads and pastries.
The menu is student designed; the food and drinks are prepared by and served by students. Walnut Hill is a degree-granting college (Associate and Bachelors) with four majors: culinary arts (the chefs-to-be under the tutelage of Chef Todd D. Braley, himself a graduate of Walnut Hill), pastry arts (under the tutelage of Gary Trevisani), restaurant management (under the tutelage of Kenneth Zask) as well as hotel management; as he shows us around, Mr. Zask instinctively adjusts a chair a quarter-inch to the left.
Some of the students live on campus and there are international students as well as Americans. All told, there are 440 students enrolled.
On the night we arrived, the sophomore students in hotel management were the people working the restaurant; Jason, our waiter, had already mastered the server’s art of carrying a tray on fingertips, with one arm behind his back.
The evening’s menu offered a variety of dishes, some vegetarian, some vegan, some gluten free. There was a choice of five appetizers from salmon croquettes (good but the salmon/breadcrumb balance needs adjustment) with a tasty sriracha hollandaise on the side. My companion ordered the chicken spring rolls, also good with a flavorful sauce. The asparagus salad sounded very springlike, although I, personally, avoid anything with a poached egg on top.
There were five entrees to choose from: an exotic-sounding Tom Yum broth with shrimp, a skirt steak, pasta with pesto, peri-peri chicken (nice but uninteresting), and my choice, the lemon garlic trout (which I would have preferred without the breading), accompanied by some wonderful sauteed whole carrots on the side (I could have made a meal on those alone).
The rolls were warm, the butter was just the right consistency and was presented as an elaborate flower.
The desserts, from truffles to churros to lemon meringue pie, were beautifully presented if undistinguished, but the crème brulee was divine—creamy cold with a hot carmelized sugar crust on top. The coffee was excellent.
The cost of a meal averages between $25 and $40. There is a handsome wine selection, a knowledgeable student bartender and student-devised cocktails, like the cucumber and vodka drink featured that evening.