There is an undeniable charm to these suburban train station restaurants. The motion of the trains stopping, picking up and leaving commuters just outside the windows has a special appeal all its own. I spent many enjoyable hours at the former Stazi Milano at the Jenkintown station, the first and perhaps the most illustrious station-to-bar/restaurant conversion ever, and at Boccelli’s in Lower Gynnedd.
I am adding Trax Restaurant and Café in Ambler station to that list. This restaurant-in-a-train-station, which opened in 1998, is another charmer. The entrance passes under a lovely grape arbor and is in full bloom this time of year. 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 with cut alstroemeria 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 and owner Steve Waxman is the real deal. His knowledge of wines, having spent many years in the wine business, is outstanding (nevertheless, Trax is still a BYOB). His experience in the kitchens of The Fairmont in San Francisco, the William Penn Inn, and Conti Cross Key Inn makes Trax worthy of a visit.
His dinner menu is not large, but is 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 the 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 ranged from Satchmo singing “Up the Lazy River,” to 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 LDC (Lovely Dining Companion), we found the dining room at full capacity at 7 p.m. and the noise level alarmingly high. It eventually subsided about an hour later as one or two larger parties left. The cozy, romantic, dimly lighted dining room, with its striped papered walls, hardwood floors, and antique ceiling fans was charming.
We opted to have a lighter dinner, ordering just two starters and one shared entrée.
A cup of shrimp bisque ($5), 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, homemade desserts ($8 each), like Key lime pie, dark chocolate mousse and apple crisp.
Finally, over the four years I’ve dined at Trax Cafe, Waxman has somehow managed to not raise prices — a rare feat these days.
Overall Rating: m m m 1/2 (out of 5 m’s) Charming train station ambiance, quality chow by a skilled owner-chef
Trax Restaurant and Café
Location: 27 W. Butler Pike, Ambler
Cuisine: Contemporary, seasonal, upscale American
Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.
Dinner Prices: Appetizers, soups, salads $5 to $14; entrées, $23 to $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
To contact Mitch Davis, email: MdavisMainCourse@aol.com