There is an undeniable charm to these suburban train station restaurants. The motion of the trains coming, stopping, picking up and leaving off commuters just outside the windows has a special resonance all its own.
Trax Restaurant & Café in Ambler station, which opened in 1998, is a charmer. You enter passing under a lovely grape arbor, this time of year in full bloom. There are windows on both sides, allowing a view of the tracks on one, and, in the late afternoon, the sun to stream in on the other.
Further within, the clean, orderly open kitchen is also in partial view. Vases of cut astromeria often decorate the tables, which are fully clothed in white linen on weekends. The restaurant seats 45 inside, and another 40 at outside tables, a mere ring-toss from the rails.
Chef/owner Steve Waxman is the real deal. His knowledge of wines, having been many years in the wine business, is outstanding (nevertheless, Trax is still BYOB). His experience in the kitchens of The Fairmont in San Francisco, the William Penn Inn, and Conti Cross Key Inn makes him worthy of a visit – I think you will not be disappointed.
His dinner menu is not large, but more than adequate for most tastes, especially adding in the daily specials, among them the fish du jour. Everything is prepared in-house, in the small, but efficient kitchen. Waxman even smokes his own lunch meats.
Waxman's menu changes seasonally and often, with availability of fresh ingredients, and his penchant for variation. The dishes mentioned may not be on the menu on your visit, but represent the kind of experience you can expect.
At my first dinner visit to Trax Cafe, my dining companion was my good friend Roger, who brought three fine wines – two chilled crisp whites (a sauvignon blanc, and a white burgundy/chardonnay), and a magnificent red (a high-end French burgundy/pinot noir) - from his excellent wine cellar collection.
That evening, soft ambient music covered classic ragtime, e.g. Satchmo singing, “Up the Lazy River,” to cool modern jazz, e.g. Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk."
We started with a perfect summer salad, a plate of five locally grown tomato varieties, drizzled with fresh lemon and basil pesto, and topped with shaved handmade parmesan from a local artisan cheese maker, Hendrick’s Farm in Telford. A second warm salad of wilted spinach, with thick sliced maple-smoked bacon in a raspberry vinaigrette was almost as enjoyable.
To go with the great salads, we were served a basket of fresh-baked French bread and a dish of olive oil poured with a dollop of Louisiana hot sauce in the center to spark the palate.
An appetizer of grilled jumbo Gulf shrimp were firm and wonderful, but the accompanying Texas Slaw, made with daikon, jicama, and Vietnamese hot spice, was too hot for its own good, and for our tastebuds as well.
The unusual soup du jour, crab and kale soup in a tasty tomato base, sounded intriguing, and rewarded us with its good taste and subtle seasoning.
My friend chose the fish du jour, a succulent branzino (sea bass) filet, prepared Mediterranean style, with rice, local green peppers and onions, in a tomato-chipotle-honey vinaigrette. My entrée choice, pan seared veal chop in an exquisite brandy mushroom sauce (veal demiglace and mushroom reduction), was excellent. It was ringed by escalloped potatoes made with heavy cream.
Very recently, on a Friday evening visit with my regular lovely dining companion and delegated taster, we found the dining room at full capacity at 7 p.m. and the noise level alarmingly high, this time obscuring any music that may have been playing. It eventually abated by 8 p.m. as one or two larger parties left. The cozy, romantic, dimly lit dining room, with its striped papered walls, hardwoood floors, and antique ceiling fans was charming as ever.
We opted to have a lighter dinner, ordering just two starters and one shared entree.
A cup of shrimp bisque ($5, $7) was very tasteful, pleasantly spicy, and medium creamy. The other soup offered was black bean.
Our second starter was a caprese, a deliciously fresh cold appetizer of local tomato, mozzarella, and homemade pesto ($9). Hot appetizers on the day's menu were lobster ravioli ($12), and a Waxman creation: corn crab pudding ($14)
For our shared main course, the Berkshire pork chop entree ($28), the kitchen very accommodatingly split the thick-cut chop into two thinner – but more than adequate – chops, and grilled each to perfect doneness. It was served with mixed vegetables, and with very good mashed potatoes, instead of the candied sweet potatoes listed on the menu, and no explanation for the substitution.
We eschewed the tempting, all-homemade desserts ($8 each), like Key lime pie, dark chocolate mousse and apple crisp.
Finally, over the four years since I first dined at Trax Cafe, Waxman has somehow managed to not raise prices - a rare feat indeed these days.
Overall rating: mmm 1/2 (out of 5 ms) charming train station ambiance, quality chow by a skilled owner-chef.
Location: 27 W. Butler Pike, Ambler.
Web site: www.traxcafe.com
Cuisine: Contemporary, seasonal, upscale American
Hours: lunch: Tuesday - Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner: weekdays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, Saturday 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Dinner prices: appetizers, soups, salads $5 - $14; entrées, $23 - $28
Ambiance: A charming train-station-to-restaurant conversion - cozy, romantic, but high noise level on busy weekend evenings.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Credit cards: All major accepted
Alcoholic beverages: BYOB.
Wheelchair Access: Yes
To contact Mitch Davis, you can e-mail him.