Avalon Pasta Bistro: Chef John Brandt-Lee’s Second Act

Rustic Italian tapas? This Downingtown restaurant is redefining family style.



Avalon Pasta Bistro

Location: 78 W. Lancaster Ave., Downingtown.
Contact: (610) 873-4200, pastabistro.com.
Cuisine: Rustic Italian, served tapas style. 
Cost: $35 for a four-course tasting flight; cheese and salumi $15-$30 for three to seven choices. (Cash or check only.)
Attire: Smart casual. 
Atmosphere: Homey yet sophisticated. 
Hours: Lunch: Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Extras: Outdoor patio seating. BYO with complimentary Victory beer and homemade sangria.
 



Roasted pepper and preserved tuna wraps with lemon-caper rémoulade. See more photos below. (Photo by Steve Legato)Before John Brandt-Lee took over West Chester’s Avalon in 2002, his only professional connection to the place was the fact that he’d recently designed the restaurant’s website. But after Avalon’s then-owner jumped ship, Brandt-Lee stepped in. “How hard can it be?” he thought at the time.

He would soon find out. At first, he left Avalon to the mercy of other chefs, one of whom left him in a real mess. Then, Gemelli’s Clark Gilbert came on the scene, agreeing to stay on briefly to teach Brandt-Lee how to cook so he could eventually run his own kitchen. Things started to turn around, and after almost three years under the tutelage of Gilbert and other chefs, Brandt-Lee felt confident enough to take Avalon in a different direction—his direction.

Ever since, the rustic Italian eatery has thrived. And that success has led to the recent opening of a second restaurant, Avalon Pasta Bistro.
 

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The setting is old home meets upscale Italian bistro, with warm pumpkin-colored walls, large French doors that open directly to the 700-square-foot patio, and original portraits of Brandt-Lee and wife Michelle’s Italian ancestors hanging above the fireplace mantel.

Brandt-Lee spent six months renovating the 1920s-era Victorian structure (former home of the short-lived Jasper), retaining the charm while opening up the interior. The second floor offers space for weekend dining and private parties. An induction cooktop allows Brandt-Lee to cook for the chef’s table, a popular draw at the West Chester location.

Beyond the cozy dining room, Brandt-Lee is executing a menu that’s very much to his own tastes and preferences. “When I go out to eat, I rarely get a full portion,” he says. “I’ll order a bunch of appetizers or flatbreads instead. That’s just my style of dining.”

The Pasta Bistro’s four-course tasting flight is $35. Diners pick from six categories—minus cheese and salumi, which is $15-$30 for three to seven choices. Everything is prepared with great care.
 

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“It takes the guesswork away from the customer,” says Brandt-Lee, who says the response to the family-style tasting flights has been favorable. “They’re seeing a completely different side of dining.”

Whether it’s ordered at the beginning or end of the meal, the cheese and charcuterie selection shouldn’t be missed. We tried the tangy goat’s-milk Brunet from Italy and Testun al Barolo, a sheep’s-milk cheese from Italy that gets its subtle fruit flavor from a coating of the pressed grapes used to make Barolo wine.

Also great was the delicate scallop crudo with shaved asparagus and a light dressing of parsley, shallot, lemon and olive oil. A creamy, mild buffalo-milk Burrata packed a real punch when accompanied by white anchovies and sun-dried-tomato-and-black-olive vinaigrette. The baby meatballs with San Marzano tomatoes are made with familiar homestyle ingredients—one customer swore that her grandmother was in the back, cooking away.

The selection of stone-baked flatbreads offers unique variations, ranging from taleggio, red wine bacon and tomato jam, to pistachio, ricotta and truffle honey.
 

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The pasta dishes are where Brandt-Lee’s finesse as a chef is evident. All of the pasta is homemade, from the light-as-air ricotta gnocchi to the crab ravioli. The veal-cheek mezza luna is refined and homey, a combination of braised cheek and raw tenderloin mousse stuffed into thin pasta dough and finished with a rich demi-glace you’ll want to mop up with a piece of bread.

The weekly rotation of desserts are all made in-house—something Brandt-Lee is extremely proud of. The tiramisu, Nutella-filled crêpes or shortbread with balsamic strawberries and crème anglaise are fitting ways to end a memorable meal.

THE SKINNY: Downingtown may not be a hop, skip and a jump from what most consider the true Main Line, but John Brandt-Lee makes it worth the drive. The multicourse tasting flights encourage sharing and culinary risk-taking, while the beautifully renovated Victorian environs give wonderfully authentic context to the rustic Italian cuisine.

When you get right down to it, Avalon Pasta Bistro has all the refinement of the West Chester restaurant with a homier presence all its own.

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