The parking lot is full and so is the side street adjacent to the restaurant, so hubby says, I’ll park; you go in and see if you can grab some seats at the counter. Squeezing by a dozen or more hungry people waiting for tables, I eye two empty stools. Yes! Breakfast – and more importantly coffee – is only minutes away.
Actually it’s more than just okay. I love sitting at the counter, especially at a place like Charcoal. It’s the nerve center of the restaurant. From my perch, I can see through the order window into the kitchen, where the line cooks are putting up dishes every few seconds. I can view the coffee station – certainly the nerve center during breakfast – and listen to the wait staff chat as they pass each other, moving quickly off in different directions into the dining room with a cup, or plate, or glass of milk for a crying child.
And quietly, at the center of all this, is (Anton) Tony Plescha, owner of Charcoal BYOB. He constantly scans the dining room, clearing dishes here, filling up a coffee cup there. He sees a potential problem and with a quiet word to one of the staff, it’s taken care of. He’s the one oiling this well-oiled machine.
This is Charcoal “AM.” Right on River Road, one story up (we’ll talk floods later), this neighborhood restaurant is well-known and loved in Yardley for its great food and beautiful views of the river. During the day, Charcoal serves up delicious breakfasts and lunches. But at night, the restaurant shows its other personality, serving fresh and seasonal dishes, prepared in innovative, and even surprising, ways. Like freshly-made radiatori served with pepperoni Bolognese, egg yolk, Parmigiano-Reggiano and arugula. This is Charcoal “PM.”
Charcoal is actually two restaurants in the same building. Like siblings from the same family – different personalities but the same underlying values: take good, quality food and make it the tastiest it can be.
The day begins at 6 am for Tony, getting the Hollandaise sauce for the eggs benedict going, cooking the potatoes for the home fries and doing salad prep for lunch. Two more line cooks join him and the restaurant opens for breakfast at 8 am. At first glance, it’s a typical breakfast menu: eggs, omelets, pancakes, side meats. But look a little closer. There’s brioche French toast and blueberry pistachio pancakes. The Orange, Arugula & Blue Omelet with Black River blue cheese may also catch your eye. And if it’s available, get the house made bacon.
Cinnamon Raisin French Toast with Glaze, and House-Made Bacon
At lunch, it’s the kind of place where you can still get an egg salad sandwich. Next to the old favorites like chicken salad, BLTs, and burgers, you’ll see interesting little twists that don’t show up in your average diner. The chicken salad comes with a raisin relish and a walnut vinaigrette. The spinach salad has pumpkin seeds, craisins, blue cheese and a white balsamic vinegar dressing.
Shaved Kale Caesar Salad
“People aren’t afraid to try new things,” explains Tony. That’s why you’ll see weekend specials like an Irish omelet, made with smoked trout and horseradish sauce. Or an Italian eggs benedict using Italian bread and prosciutto instead of the old Canadian bacon on an English muffin.
It’s all good, fresh comfort food, but it’s a chance to showcase different ways of cooking, says Tony. Charcoal AM is the welcoming, corner place where you can hang out, have a breakfast meeting, or bring the whole family.
Tony’s sons, Mark, 32, and Eric, 29, grew up in the business, cooking, serving, and running through the kitchen. They developed a passion for food and wanted to do more. “Despite my advice, they wanted to go into cooking,” says Tony. So he insisted they first get some culinary education to get a good foundation (Tony is a Culinary Institute of America graduate and 15 year Marriott veteran).
Rewind back to the 2006 flood. The restaurant—then on street level—was washed out. Tony rebuilt the restaurant, raising it a story (plus a foot above the highest flood mark just to be safe). When he reopened in 2008, he decided it was time for a change and he “gave” Mark and Eric the restaurant for dinner.
Now they have hit the big time. Customers come from as far away as New York, as well as Philadelphia and its suburbs. Craig LaBan, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic, gave them a very nice review (although it was back in 2010; I think he needs to visit again.) Yet there are still so many people here in Bucks County who have never heard of Charcoal.
If you have been to Charcoal for dinner, but it has been awhile, it’s time for you to go back. The restaurant got a lot of good press early on but much of it focused on the techniques they were using – “gastro-science” – and they got labeled as good but kind of weird.
“We’ve calmed down,” admits Mark. “We learned the techniques and now we apply them to just making the food as good as it can be.”
Case in point. Charcoal bought an Arcobaleno pasta machine and pasta cooker this past year. The pasta machine has 25 different dies, so Eric and Mark are making four fresh pastas for dinner each night. Borrowing from the Japanese, they add baking soda to the pasta dough to add “snap.” This means that the noodle doesn’t continue to cook after coming out of the water; instead it stays a consistent firmness throughout the meal. They also add wheat gluten to give it “chew,” an Italian technique.
Do you know how most pasta is prepared in restaurants? A boiling pot of water sits on the stove, and when the order comes up, parboiled pasta is dropped into the water to cook for a few minutes. The Arcobaleno pasta cooker that Charcoal uses actually removes the starches from the water so the pasta is always cooked in fresh water. “The difference in flavor is amazing,” says Mark.
Let’s talk about fried chicken. A staple on the Charcoal PM menu is the Fried Griggstown Chicken served with kale and buttermilk potatoes. I ordered this on a recent visit. I started out using a fork and knife on the breast, but then there was the drumstick. Couldn’t use utensils for that. So I started using my fingers, which is really so much more rewarding when eating fried chicken any way. The outside was crisp and crunchy with just enough greasiness to satisfy. The inside was incredibly moist. The kale was tossed in a ranch dressing that complimented the chicken with a nice tartness. In fact, by the end of the meal I was using the chicken to sop up the extra dressing. The buttermilk potatoes were smooth and sweet, a perfect balance in texture next to the crunchy chicken and the crisp kale.
Now let me tell you how it’s made. Day one: “First we brine the chicken in buttermilk for 12 hours,” explains Mark. “Then we debone the thigh and breast, but leave the skin on the breast. The next step involves ‘gluing’ the two pieces using an enzyme that binds protein.” That’s day two. On day three, the chicken is put in a sous vide for 1 hour and 45 minutes, with duck fat and herbs. Then it is battered and fried, and delivered to grateful customers.
For the buttermilk potatoes they boil down the potatoes until they are falling apart and run them through a ricer to break down the starches. Then they add butter and buttermilk, whip it up and add a little salt. We’re not done yet. Using a nitro canister (think whipped cream), they spray it out and serve it in its own little pot. The result is a much more concentrated flavor. Now this is better living through science!
“People have become more sophisticated in their tastes,” says Mark. “Because of the Food Network, people know what the back of the house looks like, and they are interested in trying new things.”
When I look through the dinner menu, here’s what goes through my head. First ingredient of the dish is usually pretty familiar (and “safe”): St. Louis Ribs, Shrimp Scampi, Chilled English Peas. The second ingredient is a little different, even interesting, but still okay: pepperoni Bolognese, smoked sesame tofu, radish kimchee. Then there’s the surprise. Andouille sausage with pan roasted halibut? Egg yolk sauce on a flap steak? Or bacon with Bucatini & Soft Shell Crab?
“We call it the 1-2-3 punch,” Mark says with a smile.
Shrimp Scampi with Blackened Rigatoni
The menu is seasonally driven and can change twice a week, or not for a month. On Saturdays, the chefs receive a list from the Ringoes, NJ distributor, Zone 7, of what is coming in from the local farms that week. That’s when the menu is first put together, but it can change at any time. “This past Tuesday we looked at the menu and said we don’t have enough pork. So we brought it in,” says Mark. In fact, the menus are printed every night.
You’ll also see a real global influence on the menu, be it Asian, Italian or American. “We don’t rule anything out,” says Mark.
At the heart of the dinner menu—and the day time menu—is a focus on the food. “We want to showcase what is good about the food,” says Mark. “It’s about sourcing really quality ingredients, locally, and not messing it up.” That includes getting flour from Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, fresh chicken from Griggstown Farm in Princeton, greens from Blue Moon Acres in Buckingham, and vegetables from local farms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
And the passion is evident everywhere. Sous chef Jared Remer comes in two hours early to bake bread for dinner. Prepping starts at 10 am and at 4 pm, the three chefs sit down for an espresso before the 5 pm opening. It’s a long day but a rewarding one.
Mark lived in downtown Philly for five years, enjoying the great restaurant scene. “I want to bring that same passion up here,” he says. “People don’t need to go into Philly for great food. They can have it here in the suburbs too.”
11 S. Delaware Ave.
PH: 215. 493-6394
Breakfast and Lunch – Tuesday through Sunday, 8 am – 2 pm.
Dinner – Tuesday through Saturday, 5 pm – 9 pm. Dinner reservations recommended.
Handicap accessible via ground floor elevator.
Charcoal is BYOB, in case it’s not obvious. Feel free to bring your own bottle, or flask.
Photos courtesy of Charcoal BYOB.
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