Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: Red Star Craft House, Exton PA

Dave McGrogan is among the top tier restaurant stars of Chester County PA and nearby areas. On several occasions, I've visited his signature Doc McGrogan's Oyster House in downtown West Chester. 
Pizza at Red Star Craft House, Exton

There, the great seafood, casual-yet-elegant ambiance and consistently fresh food make for a regularly excellent dining experience. There are three other Doc McGrogan's locations in the region.


Barra Rossa, Downingtown
The Dave McGrogan restaurant group also includes Kildare's, a West Chester Irish pub, Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar (five locations), Barra Rossa in Downingtown (reviewed HERE before the name changed from Stella Rossa), and now Red Star Craft House in Exton PA.
Mall entrance to Red Star

Red Star was designed to be a variant of Barra Rossa, with more emphasis on casual fare. It is housed within the Exton Square Mall, in the site formerly occupied by Houlihan's.  Along with its new neighbor Main Line Health, Red Star is just the kind of place that this sleepy mall needed to give it a boost of traffic and interest.
Cafe and takeout area

Much like the nearby Pour House on Route 100, Red Star has enjoyed a flood of traffic upon opening. Exton area diners don't have a lot of interesting choices beyond the wonderful and growing crop of Indian restaurants in the "Dosa Belt" as described by Philly food critic Craig Laban. If you want an authentic dining experience, you generally head to West Chester or Phoenixville; Exton is a bit crammed with dreary chain restaurants.

Bar and dining area

We tried to go early on a Friday night without reservations - and faced a 90 minute wait. We chose instead to go across Rt. 30 from the mall to Biryani King. There, the service is a bit confused but the Indian food is wonderful and expertly presented. The Mongolian cauliflower is other-worldly. Ask for a table in the back of this converted old mansion.  But - let's get back to Red Star.
Dining room and bar, from opposite end

We tried next on a Sunday at 6:30pm, with reservations. We arrived 15 minutes early, but could not be seated early - the place was buzzing.  Folks without reservations faced a 30 minute wait. Hence, with great anticipation, we were seated in the hip-but-comfy dining room and began to examine the menu.

Our server was excellent and spoke knowingly of the menu. We had come for the pizza, of course, but we decided to split an appetizer (shrimp lettuce wraps), a burger, and a pizza.  I was delighted by the interesting cocktail selection, at a reasonable $7 each. I ordered a craft beer from the extensive list while my wife had a basil-infused martini.
Shrimp lettuce wraps

The lettuce wraps were fine, but I thought the sauce was a little too sweet and that the green peppers dominated the milder flavors of the shrimp and the excellent mango strips included.  

We made a mistake by ordering the smokehouse burger "medium well."  It was a nicely constructed burger, but the meat was cooked "well done" and was a bit dry. The lovely brioche roll was probably a day past its prime, as well. The fries, smartly served in a metal cup, were undercooked and limp. This may have been "Sunday night at a new restaurant" syndrome, because several things on the menu were not available.  Bottom line - good but not great for both the burger and the appetizer.

We had visited sister restaurant Barra Rossa in Downingtown on two occasions. On our first visit, we had excellent pasta and almost-great Neapolitan pizza. I tried the pizza again on my second visit, and I came away thinking that the ingredients were right, but the execution was not. Too much cheese and an undercooked crust made for a tasty pie that lacked the character and texture of the best Neapolitans.
Pepperoni Neapolitan

Here, the pizza seems to be very much the same. There is an authentic wood-fired dome oven, but the magic isn't happening.  Our pepperoni (with long hots) pizza had excellent cheese and pepperoni. The "long hots" came out as green dollops of pepper pesto, which was a nice touch but lacking any real spicy fire.

The crust, though, was a failure. It was good - not great - in flavor, but its major defect was texture. It was limp (but not wet) and lacking substantial char, crisping, or hole structure. Terrific opportunity to take this pie from OK to wonderful by getting the crust right and cooking it properly.
Droopy slice

Overall, Red Star is a big plus for Exton. We instantly loved the ambiance, and much like Barra Rossa and Doc McGrogan's, the staff was friendly and efficient.
Underside of crust

The pizza is the second-best pizza in Exton, trailing Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza by a large margin. But it could be so much better. This pie earns a 6 out of 10. We'll be back, though - Dave McGrogan has a good idea of how to keep his patrons happy.


Red Star Craft House Exton on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Pizza Hut Pretzel Crust Pan Pizza

While the main purpose of Pizza Quixote is finding unique pizzerias serving destination pizza (pizza worth the trip), we live in a world also filled with convenience pizza.  That includes frozen pizza, refrigerated bake-at-home pizza, and chain pizza. We enjoy quite a few of the smaller chains (round-up HERE), but it's been several years since I've eaten pie from Domino's, Little Caesar's, or Pizza Hut.

Perhaps in response to the rise of better pizza in America, Pizza Hut recently revamped its menu with some bold new choices. The ordering process is very confusing! There is a lot of advertising about specialty crusts, but that is really just about some extra flavorings brushed onto the cornicione.

You begin by choosing from several crust foundations that include:

  • Hand-tossed
  • Thin 'n' crispy
  • Pan pizza
  • Skinny
  • Original stuffed crust

You next have a choice of sauces:

  • Marinara
  • Crushed tomato
  • Garlic Parmesan
  • Honey Sriracha
  • BBQ
  • Buffalo

Then you pick a flavor drizzle to top your pie:

  • Balsamic
  • Honey Sriracha
  • BBQ
  • Buffalo

Finally, you select a flavor for your cornicione:

  • Toasted Parmesan
  • Salted pretzel
  • Honey sriracha
  • Toasted asiago
  • Fiery red pepper
  • Toasted cheddar
  • Garlic buttery blend
  • Curry
  • Ginger

It's a dizzying array of choices.  I wanted a reasonably traditional pizza, so I chose the pan pizza crust, crushed tomato, no sauce drizzle, with sausage and pepperoni for toppings. To make it a little more interesting, I chose the salted pretzel cornicione.

One more element of confusion - I had a print ad with advertised specials, including a two-topping large pizza for $7.99. However, the physical location Pizza Hut store could not honor that price, which applies to internet orders only. So I (and another patron in that store) used smartphones to place an order online while standing in the store! The store owner (Exton, PA) apologized for the system, which is beyond his control.

The pie was ready in less than 15 minutes. "Large" by Pizza Hut standards is not a very big pie; this one was about 13.5 inches in diameter.

How did it taste?

The crust was actually quite good. It had some good browning and crispness on the bottom. It was properly thick, but it had a nice hole structure and overall texture. Surprisingly, it had its own good flavor, which is rare in any big-chain pie.

The salted pretzel edge was a disappointment. I wanted pretzel crust, what I got was salted pizza crust. Still good, but not what it might have been.

The sauce also disappointed. Crushed tomatoes are standard in the superb tomato pies of Trenton, and the best pies have a distinct tomato flavor. This sauce (and the cheese) were simply pleasant role players with no distinct character.  There was a bit too much cheese, and it could have used more and bolder tomato sauce. 

The toppings were ordinary, featuring standard-grade pepperoni, very thinly sliced. The sausage was pre-cooked, and I regretted that I hadn't opted for the new "premium salami" instead.

All told, this pie was tasty and of course filling. It was a little better than a DiGiorno frozen pizza, for not much more money. I'm in no hurry to eat Pizza Hut again, because there are so many better choices.

A pizza is about crust, sauce, cheese - and mostly about the crust. Whenever there is an emphasis on toppings or other unusual flavors, the purpose is typically to distract from a mediocre crust. And that it true, for the most part, with this new Pizza Hut menu.  But for a big chain, "mediocre" is a step forward. I had remembered Pizza Hut as lousy pizza - but this pie was pretty good. Not memorable, but there are a lot of worse ways to fill your belly for $8.

Pizza Hut on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Rise—and Fault—in Pizza Lists

We have a guest blog post by one of our favorite pizza writers. Liz Barrett, author of Pizza: A Slice of American History, offers her thoughts on the merits and the traps of pizza rankings.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed the number of “Best Pizza” lists growing over the last few years. We used to see one or two big lists released per year, drumming up huge disagreements over which pizzerias made the list and which did not. I remember when Alan Richman’s 25 Best Pizzas in America list came out in GQ back in 2009. Personally, I thought he named some great places, many of which still make the cut years later, but therein lies the fault with lists—they’re personal.


Don’t get me wrong. I love “Best” lists. I read any I can get my hands on. When I first started working at PMQ Pizza Magazine in 2007, I kept all of the “Best Pizza/Pizzeria” lists that were released. My plan was to make it to every pizzeria that made the list. It went OK for a while there, but then the lists started coming faster and I started falling behind (think Lucy in the chocolate factory). In addition to long-standing historic pizzerias, brand new places started showing up on the lists. How could I make it to all of them without working from an RV?

It suddenly became very apparent that I would never make it to every “best” pizzeria. Besides that, there are more than 70,000 pizzerias in the U.S., so there had to be some missing from the lists I was finding.

I get asked regularly about my “favorite” or “the best” pizza, and I’ve easily eaten enough pizzas to run the comparison, but I very rarely answer the question. 

You see, the odds of my favorite pizza turning out to be your favorite pizza are highly unlikely, and vice versa. We’re all products of our own culinary upbringing and individual likes and dislikes. I recently broke down and participated in a couple of “Favorite” lists, but only because after eight years of writing for the industry it’s getting harder and harder to escape the question.

The bottom line is, “Best Pizza” lists should be read and enjoyed for what they are—a list of someone else’s favorite pizzas. They’re great for promoting pizza and getting the pizza conversation started, but they are by no means the final word in what your best pizza will be. Leave the judging to your own palate, and never stop exploring and searching for your own favorite pizza.

Liz Barrett
Author of Pizza: A Slice of American History (www.writtenbyliz.com/the-pizza-book.html)
Editor-at-Large, PMQ Pizza Magazine (www.pmq.com)

Blogger, The Pizza Insider (http://thepizzainsider.pmq.com/)