In a world of cookie cutter chain restaurants that do more to numb your senses and dull your palates than to invigorate your quest for culinary and atmospheric excellence, Amani’s BYOB in Downingtown stands out amongst the pack.
When Amani’s opened their doors, owners Jonathan and Jeanine Amann had a vision; to bring local, farm fresh, seasonal meals to the tables of their guests.
Last week, ChesterCounty-PA.com invited one lucky local, Jennifer Ficco (pictured left) with her friend, Jennifer Greene, (pictured right), myself and my wife to enjoy a Chef’s tasting of this seasons creations. ChesterCounty-PA.com’s newest wine blogger, Doug Smith, provided us with three very well chosen selections to pair with the meals.
Let’s just say that the night went absolutely splendidly… get ready for some serious foodie photos! By Dave Meyer
Upon arrival, we were welcomed into an empty restaurant at 6pm sharp. Honestly wondering whether or not this was going to be a private event, our server, Rick, informed us that dinner rush usually happens a little later for them. Sound advice if you are looking for an early dinner. For us, the benefit of being the only ones there was that we had plenty of uninterrupted time with Chef Jonathan (pictured right) and his staff.
The chef took a moment to tell us about how Amani’s grew out of years in the restaurant industry, working in a variety of notable establishments with many different cuisines. Jonathan and Jeanine even tested the waters in the Caribbean before returning to Chester County with a vision to bring fresh, locally sourced, seasonally based food to their guests.
On the inside, Amani’s looks like you would expect a quaint, polished, farm-fresh BYOB to look. Modestly size, well spaced seating, mostly “two tops” as they would say in the restaurant industry. The open kitchen allows all to watch the chef creating his delicacies, while at the same time not being intrusive to the guest’s experience, as I have experienced in other open kitchen environments. The décor is clean and simple, but not modern; Amani’s knows perfectly well their niche in Downingtown, fresh, local, inspired. There is a white picket fence along the wall; the wall decorations include wheat and grass in vases. The exposed ductwork in the kitchen is copper and the stainless, shining meticulously, of course.
With no one in the restaurant yet, we were allowed to choose our own seat, which we did towards the back of the store, next to the kitchen. Soon thereafter, our community guests arrived. Jennifer Ficco and her friend Jennifer Greene both hail from Honey Brook, PA and together, often times with a group of others from their neighborhood, they enjoy searching for new and interesting restaurants in Chester and Lancaster Counties. So as you might expect we hit it off real well right from the get go. (Check out Dave’s Blog, “A week off in Lancaster“)
To get us going for the evening, Doug chose for us a sparkling brut from Raymond Winery called N°69. According to Doug, “the idea of starting the evening with champagne is intended to cleanse the palate and prepare the quest for the meal ahead with a blank canvas”. We of course were not opposed to starting the evening with champagne because, well, you’re starting the evening with champagne.
With the icebreakers all underway, Rick asked us if we were ready for the first course. Another thing about Amani’s that raises it a notch above the rest is this, in a world where the general consensus is that the establishment controls the pace for the guest; they allow the guest to dictate the flow of the evening. Shortly after giving Rick the go-ahead, we were presented with two salads and two appetizers.
The Baby Spinach salad with a Mango Dijon dressing came with spicy, candied bacon (made in-house by the way), roasted peppers, pickled onion slices and hard-boiled egg. Our other salad was equally as exceptional, the Baby Arugula was dressed with Pomegranate Vinaigrette and came with mushrooms marinated in soy, scallions, bell peppers, pea shoots, and, wait for it…toasted cashews.
Now when it comes to appetizers, there are several options at your typical establishments. Buffalo wings always hit the spot, it may not be the spot you want, but they’ll hit it. There are, well, anything else that comes deep-fried and designed to ruin bikini season.
Chef Amann presents us with five-spice rubbed, Braised Pork Belly served with Forbidden Rice (black or purple, depending on how you see it), Kim Chi and Pork Dashi. So tender and succulent that I needed to remind myself that I was in a public situation and that I needed to resist turning into a veritable cave man at the dinner table.
As if the pork belly wasn’t enough already, we were served Lump Crab Crepes that came with a roasted pepper puree, ricotta cheese, herbed boursin and a saffron crème sauce. All the while we are enjoying these amazing salads and appetizers, the experience is being augmented by Doug’s wine pairing for the first course. He chose a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand (for my money, the only appellation that you should purchase this varietal from), by Villa Maria. His idea here was again simple; utilize the grasses and crisp citrus fruits to compliment the greens as well as the sweetness with the candied bacon. Also for balance, allow the spices in the pork belly and the creamy sauce for the crepes to cut through the crisp acids of the wine.
By this time, Amani’s had begun filling up and we got to see Jonathan and his team start to really work. Having been in the restaurant industry for some years I have developed a keen eye for noticing strengths and weaknesses. What I like about watching an experienced chef is how well they are able to make sense out of chaos. By the look of things, Amani’s goes from zero to full in a matter of minutes, and with only two people on the line there is a lot to do. Jonathan looks up occasionally to comment on what we are enjoying almost if to remind us that this is truly his passion, and it shows. Looking around Amani’s, as other tables begin to receive their first courses, I see the faces of people being inspired by creation; their eyes open wider and shine, smiles and nods of approval to each other. The atmosphere remains comfortable and pleasant. As the din of conversations wash over the crowd it is nice to still remain present at our table and not become distracted by any variety of annoyances.
With the arrival of the main course, things get real serious. Amani’s chose to deliver us two selections from both their seafood and land food portions of their menu. Jonathan himself took the time to go over each entrée with us.
The first of the two seafood selections were Seared Monkfish Medallions dressed with a red beet shiitake nage and served with fresh herb salad, lightly fried crispy spinach and black truffle barley risotto. Monkfish has a flavor and texture very similar to lobster, which allows for the pairing with the nage to be extraordinary. The “Jennifers” were also particularly taken with the crispy spinach, which I will also admit was a well-played addition to the dish.
Also from the ocean, came a Seared Grouper with cidre Gastrique. With this plate came a side of sautéed butternut squash, cranberries and wilted spinach as well as mix of a few varieties of quinoa. It came as no surprise to me that I soon found myself needing to elbow my way in just to get a taste of these well-balanced, insightful dishes.
From the land we received a grilled Berkshire Pork Chop topped with a black garlic mole and served with julienned Brussels sprouts. When Jonathan described the pork chop to us couldn’t have been more pleased to hear that he took care not to destroy the meat. In most places that serve a pork chop, the status quo is to kill it and then kill it again. Fortunately, Amani’s is not one of these places, presenting a pork chop that is moist, tender and flavorful. Kudos.
Finally, we got the opportunity to sample Amani’s braised Pineland Short Ribs with a cherry balsamic reduction. This came with mind-blowing parmesan infused barley risotto. The short ribs were so tender that all I had to do was look at them and they fell apart.
“More wine?” Rick asks us as we begin digging into our entrees. With both pesce e carne present on the table, Doug had to go a little deeper into the catalog for his pairing. He decided on a 100% Barbera from the Piedmont region of Italy (see how I did that with the Italian). The general rule is to pair white wine with fish and red with meat; fortunately for us I was pleased to find that, much like myself, Doug is a rule breaker. This lighter red with spices, berry and plum has soft tannins that perfectly complimented our meals.
By the time dessert arrived we were pretty well stuffed, and for good reason. Everything had been exceptional. Then we witnessed a dark chocolate tart, pumpkin cheesecake, bread pudding with warm apples and a chocolate crème brulee materialize in front of us and an exceptional experience got even better. The crème brulee was smooth and creamy, the cheesecake had just the right potency of pumpkin and the dark chocolate tart was to die for. The perfect way to end our evening at Amani’s BYOB.
In the end we made some new friends, tasted some fine wine and stuffed ourselves silly with phenomenal cuisine. We also got to discover a new favorite restaurant right in the heart of Downingtown in Chester County. We wish Jonathan and Jeanine the best of luck in the future, knowing full well that they will not need it. Thanks to our community guests Jennifer Ficco and her friend Jennifer Greene for joining us. We look forward to all the new seasonal specialties to come from Amani’s BYOB and can’t wait to come back.
Not that you need a reason to dine at Amani’s, but Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. Book your reservation now for their Pre-Fixe Four Course Menu which includes a glass of Champagne and Homemade Limoncello! To see the full menu, Click Here.