Located on Lancaster Ave. in Ardmore, the charmingly styled A la Maison Bistro offers authentic French food and a pleasant dining experience—for a significant chunk of change. Overall, the restaurant atmosphere is enjoyable and the food agreeable, but there were aspects of the dining experience that left me wondering if A la Maison is worth the price for most diners.
Literally translated, "a la maison" means "at home," and true to its name, A la Maison's dishes call to mind what good French home cooking must taste like. A la Maison's menu is limited but varied, featuring a selection of traditional French foods. Starters range from escargot ($10) to vegetable napoleon ($9) to an award-winning onion soup gratinee ($8), along with several other warm and cold starters and cheeses.
The bistro features eight main dishes, plus the plat du jour, a list of six menu items served on a rotating weekly basis. The main dishes ($22-28) include popular staples such as coqua vin and boeuf bourguignon, as well as duck breast, several seafood options and a vegetable risotto.
As per the suggestion on the bistro's website, I made a reservation before showing up, but aside from myself and my dining companion, only one other party was seated when we arrived shortly after 5 p.m. on a Friday. By 6:15, though, the restaurant was nearly filled with diners, many of whom had brought their own wine, as A la Maison is a BYOB restaurant. Dress is casual and the atmosphere is friendly, down to the French music, sunny walls adorned with copper pots and other rustic French touches that welcome diners.
After being shown to our seats, a server promptly filled our water glasses and brought us menus and a basket of sliced baguette, which was disappointingly tough and slightly burnt. Our waitress was helpful and attentive, giving us a few minutes to look over the menu and happily answering several questions.
We decided to share a starter of frog legs while waiting for our main dishes. The frog legs ($12) arrived about fifteen minutes after ordering, and featured three frog legs over a bed of mixed greens, ripe cherry tomatoes and a delicate garlic and butter sauce. The legs had a very mild, chicken-meets-fish flavor that the sauce complemented well. We quickly finished the three legs between the two of us.
About twenty minutes after receiving our appetizer—enough time to finish the dish, and begin anticipating the next—we received our artfully arranged main dishes. Our waitress remembered, somewhat impressively, that my friend and I had talked about sharing the two dishes, and quickly brought us two extra plates to divvy up the meals.
The portion sizes were decidedly—well—French. The coqua vin featured two braised chicken legs, crimini mushrooms, pearl onions and a few root vegetables in wine sauce. The chicken was flavorful and tender, sliding effortlessly off the bone, complemented well by the mushrooms and onions.
The boeuf bourguignon was the highlight of the meal: two medium-sized pieces of braised short rib beef in a red wine sauce, paired with buttery, smooth mashed potatoes, pearl onions, carrots and turnips. The beef was incredibly tender, moist and flavorful; the mashed potatoes were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The only part of both main dishes that required a knife were the root vegetables, which were so difficult to cut that I eventually abandoned the notion of eating them altogether.
Given the time in between courses and the very attentive server ensuring our water glasses were never more than a third empty, my friend and I were both pleasantly full at the end of our meal—a happy alternative to the typical American dining out experience. However, our smugness with our self-restraint was short-lived, as we were quickly presented with a dessert menu. Because, after all, what is French cuisine without dessert?
A la Maison's dessert menu features six traditional desserts, each around $8, including crème brulee, pots de crème and fruit crepes. Our waitress highly recommended the pots de crème, but we eventually decided to save our stomachs from future dismay and choose the lightest dessert option on the menu: a mixed berry crepe.
A few minutes later, our server returned with a single crepe, filled with mixed berries and topped with two small scoops of vanilla ice cream and a sweet berry compote—all dusted with powdered sugar. The crepe itself was a bit dense and the berries were slightly sour, but the sweetness of the compote and ice cream helped to balance the tartness. Altogether, it made for a good end to a good meal.
Aside from a few low points—the stale baguettes, the very crisp vegetables and the occasional disruption from loudly conversing wait staff—our experience at A la Maison was pleasant. The décor is quaint, the servers were friendly, and, most importantly, the food was good. But this last point is the crux: the food was good—but most of it was not great. Not show stopping. Not earth shattering. Aside from the bouef bourguignon, none of the dishes left me craving more. In a meal that totaled a little over $75 for two (before adding in tip!), is it wrong to want to be wowed?
I don't think so.
Excellent food, presentation and service can merit a large bill, but I left A la Maison wondering whether the experience was worth the cash. I know that personally, $35-50 is more than I am willing to spend on a meal I don't absolutely love—but for some diners, a restaurant's atmosphere and good service may compensate for a good—but not perfect—meal. In that case, A la Maison provides a worthwhile dining option.
Monday through Saturday, A la Maison is open for lunch from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9:30 p.m. (10:30 on Friday and Saturday). The restaurant is a BYOB and outdoor seating is available. There is a metered parking lot (free after 6 p.m.) behind the block of restaurants and shops in which A la Maison is located. The bistro's website lists the full menu and pricing, along with a convenient link for making your reservation online.