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A perfectly charred “zucchini steak” over pureed yellow tomato sauce, smoked tomatoes, and Castle Valley grits was one of the better vegetarian dishes I ate all summer.
A devoted lunch crowd fills the rambling dining rooms and sunny porch of this Victorian stone house near the Fort Washington train station, lured by the bountiful salads, deep-dish quiches, and sandwiches, from house-roasted turkey with Brie to an excellent Cubano.
Italian chef-owner Antonio Rondinelli, who learned his craft well while working in San Sebastián, serves-up a traditional array of tapas, from platters of rich jamon Ibérico sliced to order off the bone, to imported Spanish cheeses, stellar octopus, tender garlicky shrimp, and one of the best paellas I’ve eaten in the region, rich with the flavors of house-made chorizo, delicately cooked seafood and tender of chicken on the bone. Since coming to America from Vietnam in 1982, he has worked almost exclusively in Italian kitchens, from Il Gallo Nero to La Veranda and then San Marco, where over 14 years he worked his way up to executive chef.
So when, at age 53, he finally achieved the lifelong dream of opening his own restaurant four years ago, it was no surprise that this charming little self-named BYOB (just down the street from San Marco) was serving some of the Italian classics he’s been refining for decades.
This swank bi-level restaurant outfitted with mahogany, a long curving bar, multiple fireplaces, an outdoor patio, and more than 40 wines by the glass (plus 200 bottles) is Ambler’s most sophisticated dining destination.But it’s my favorite project from him to date, as each of these crusty baguette sandwiches is made warm to order with fresh ingredients that pop: pickled carrots and daikon, plumes of cilantro, creamy liver pâté (a supplemental add-on, but essential), full-flavored proteins, and punny names (Simon Le Bánh garlic chicken; Al Báhndy spicy rib eye).It is pure coincidence my favorite happens to be the grilled pork meatball hoagie called … (Really) The Ambler branch has the added draw of Korean fried chicken.It has continuously evolved and improved (now with soundproofing to dampen the margarita-fuled noise) — enough to step up to 3 bells.There are suddenly two Spanish restaurants on Ambler’s main street, and while Vida & Comida has a crisper modern style, the rustic little BYOB called 555 Lagiola was decisively superior in back-to-back meals.
I favor the Middle Eastern flavors that speak to Khalil’s Egyptian roots, especially the sesame-crusted falafel and baba ghanoush on the combo platter, flaky spanakopita, and marinated chicken shish taouk skewers served with fresh-baked pita.