After more than 125 years as a dry borough, Swarthmore finally has a new wine bar and bistro that makes the long-fought battle to allow alcohol sales in this college town worthwhile. And if the hungry crowds basking in the fiery glow of heat lamps in the landscaped parklet with 20 seats in front of its downtown storefront are any indication, the locals are grateful.
“I grew up here and I’ve been waiting 49 years for this,” said my friend and dinner companion, David Haase, 50. The lifelong Swarthmorean proved his enthusiasm by devouring his raclette-gratinéed fingerling potatoes, crispy-skinned ocean trout in lobster nage, and a slow-braised pork cheek with glasses of Txakoli, Turkish rosé, and Lebanese Merwah.
The intriguing collection of wines, with smart international selections ranging from Austrian Blaufrankisch (Hopler Pannonica) to Portuguese Alentejo (Azamor) and Seneca Lake dry Riesling (Empire Estate), is a reflection of the second-career passion of the co-owners. Jill Bennett Gaieski, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lori Knauer, a retired attorney with DuPont, decided to make the most of their studies at the Wine School of Philadelphia and snap up the downtown district’s first liquor license. (The Swarthmore Inn’s Broad Table Tavern landed the first license on campus.)
And they lucked-out in landing another Swarthmorean, chef Chris Galbraith, 36, an alum of Bar Hygge who’s made a fine comeback in the kitchen after replacing two hips. His largely Euro-style plates are wine-friendly, from the Village board with cheeses, house charcuterie, and a fresh-baked loaf of olive oil bread to the irresistible phyllo-wrapped comfort of mushroom strudel and a creamy celery root soup sparked with tart apple and crab salad.
I especially loved the slow-stewed tenderness of those pork cheeks, which nestled over spaetzle sautéed in duck fat with smoky nuggets of bacon. But it was the nightly special that most reassured me Galbraith was having fun: a pair of juicy lamb meatballs over farro in duck stock ringed by a labne sauce paled green with cucumber and avocado was … the kitchen’s haute-riff on Halal cart lamb over rice? If you know that $5 lunch cart special, you’ll see it if you squint. But I was eating it heartily on its virtues too fast to realize. So let me zip back in time for a moment to that dinner in pay proper respects: I tip my glass of raisiny Venetian Ripasso (Ca' del Laito) in a toast — to the good taste of clever specials, and the welcome arrival of Village Vine.
— Craig LaBan
Village Vine, 6 Park Ave., Swarthmore, 484-471-3997; villagevineswarthmore.com