Monday, September 1, 2008

More Thrill Needed on Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill has one of the best ambiences I’ve experience in Lancaster with its captivating barrel door and artful décor. An extremely inviting bistro, I had great expectations. Unfortunately, the charm could not compensate for the unevenness we experienced in the food that evening. Some items were spot-on delicious. Others were decidedly disappointing.

You can’t talk about Strawberry Hill without mentioning their award-winning wine list, which is incredible. It’s a wine list for true connoisseurs…and the wealthy. Most of the wine list has a triple digit cost; a cost I find rather egregious for a spontaneous evening dinner in the middle of the week. Thankfully, there were great wines open for purchase by the glass. I went with the Grayson Cabernet ($10). Big, robust and delicious.

We started with the Crispy Brie Springroll ($9). Brie was encased in a springroll wrapper and lightly fried until the outside was beautifully browned and crisp, and housing a deliciously melted brie. It was perfectly accompanied with berry preserves and sliced strawberries. A great start to the meal.

Next, the soup course. We had the Three Onion Soup ($6) and the Soup du Jour – a Mint Cantaloupe Gazpacho ($8). The onion soup had a rich taste, but had too much of a sweet note. And call me a purist, but one of the great attractions I have to onion soup is the bubbling cheese that covers it all like a blanket. This wasn’t presented that way, nor did it have to be, but while sampling the soup, I pined for the bubbling cheese.

The Mint Cantaloupe Gazpacho was another matter entirely. There was no complexity, no character. It didn’t even have the natural sweetness that a cantaloupe should have. After a few spoonfuls, I didn’t bother eating the rest of it. It was just completely devoid of any panache. The worst part is that they charged me for it anyway. I’m sure if I had said something, they would have taken it off the bill, but at a fine establishment, did I really need to say something? $8 down the drain. Literally.

Salads come with the meal, but the server asked if we wanted one of the specialty salads instead. So we chose the specialty salads, thinking they might charge a substitution price. Instead, we were billed the full cost. Consider yourselves warned.

The Caesar salad ($7) was solid. Nothing uniquely special, it was good. The Tomato Salad ($7) was beautifully presented. The plate was drizzled with basil oil and a balsamic reduction. Four hearty slices of tomatoes then rested on a mound of mixed greens and topped with Maytag blue cheese and toasted pinenuts. A great combination of ingredients. Disappointment came when I started cutting into the tomatoes. Mushiness. Overripe or having been left in the refrigerator, they fell apart the moment the tines of my fork touched them. I mean really, it’s August in Lancaster.

Entrees were the Southern Fried Double Cut Pork Chop ($27) and the Barbequed Kobe Beef Short Rib ($37). The main attraction of each of these dishes was truly spectacular. The pork chop was thick, tender and juicy with a great depth of flavor. The short rib just fell off the bone. Paired with the savory barbeque sauce, it was scrumptious. The side vegetables were great - sautéed greens had a delectable salty bitterness, and the green beans were perfectly cooked - still crisp to the bite. The starches, though, fall short. The housemade baked mac & cheese was incredibly bland, and the asiago polenta had decent flavor, but was dry.

I’m hopeful they were having an off-night because there were sparks of greatness. But those sparks fizzled under poorly executed details. And while the service was good and attentive, they could take it a step further and really ensure their patrons feel they’re taken care of.

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