Chef, artist, tinkerer
In the weeks before he and his wife Andrea were about to open Hearth Kitchen, their latest restaurant concept, Bryan Sikora -- the James Beard Foundation finalist, restaurateur extraordinaire and rock star chef with the golden touch – sat in the temporary dust of his newest dream, and any resemblances to what promises to soon be one of the hottest culinary destinations in southern Chester County were only skeletal ones.
Contractors' tools rested on the bar. Design blueprints were curled and dog-eared in a booth. Shrink-wrapped furniture lay stacked and waiting, and yet, for anyone who has seen what the Sikoras have done to turn dust into magic -- at La Fia and Merchant Bar and Cocino Loco in downtown Wilmington, and what Sikora accomplished earlier, at Django's in Philadelphia and later, Talula's Table in Kennett Square -- there is little worry here. Everything will soon find its place, and beginning on June 24, the doors to Hearth Kitchen will open, the lights will shine, the wine will pour, and the meld of their vision will unveil itself like a brilliant painting at a gallery opening.
Andrea defines Hearth Kitchen, located in the Shoppes at Longwood, as "approachable but sophisticated." The restaurant will feature an 85-seat dining area, accented by handcrafted tables made of repurposed wood from North Carolina and quiet, overhead lighting from artisan-style chandeliers, and a spacious back room that will play host to large group gatherings, as well as wine-and-food-themed dinners.
The ambiance of the restaurant, Bryan said, will be "clean and contemporary, " and yet avoid the rustic design trap that many Italian-themed restaurants have fallen into, he said.
"I don't want it to feel that we've purposely slapped barn wood around just to give our customers the illusion that they're eating in someone's Italian farmhouse," he said. "Andrea and I want Hearth Kitchen to be a once-a-week, twice-a-month destination -- a place to come with friends and family to enjoy some bites and a glass of wine at the bar."
"We're shooting for something adventurous -- to create a very chef-driven experience," Andrea said. "One of our hallmarks has been to make everything fresh and in-house, and that's a big differential between us and a lot of other restaurants. Because we have the advantage of having a skillful, seasoned chef, it allows us to deviate from the normal formulas of restaurants that are operated by business owners, rather than chefs."
Sparked by Bryan's creativity, Hearth Kitchen will celebrate seasonal, Italian-influenced flavors, seen in an ever-evolving choice of wood-fired pizzas and hand-rolled pasta dishes. Guests will also get to sample a constantly-changing array of cocktails, as well as a wine menu crafted by Somelier Rich Hover, that will feature varietals from as near as New York and New Jersey to Malbecs from Argentina, Cabs from California, and labels from the top wine regions in Europe.
"Italian food has always been the coolest combination of cuisines, simply because of the craft involved in how it is made," Bryan said. "It is hand crafted and regionally specific within the boundaries of Italy, whether it's wine making, pasta making, cheese making.
"By nature, Italians are tinkerers, and the food that comes out of that tinkering is ultimately fun and simple and rich in texture and integrity. And that's who I've always been -- a tinkerer with food."
From the time he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Bryan's career has been an upward trajectory rocket on a circuitous route. After devoting much his early career to traveling and working in kitchens in Cape Cod; Portland, Ore.; Colorado and Washington, D.C., he and former wife Aimee Olexy opened Django in Philadelphia in 2001. It was a runaway BYOB success, and Sikora soon became the media darling of such food critics as Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He earned a StarChefs.com Rising Star Award in 2004, and in 2007, he and Olexy opened Talula's Table on State Street, which The New York Times “handsome, deceptively complex and masterfully executed,” likening the experience to a “spiritual retreat.”
In 2013, the Sikoras began to take downtown Wilmington by culinary storm. They created La Fia -- a bistro, bakery and gourmet shop, and eventually followed it up by opening Merchant Bar, an upscale gastro pub, and Cocino Loco, a Latin and Mexican-infused restaurant. And with it, a visit to La Fia, Merchant Bar and Cocino Loco became more than just a momentary stopover for food and drink and replenishment. It became a heightened and sometimes heady moment that is similar to falling into the world of a painting.
Asking a customer to take that journey is intentional, Bryan believes, and may in fact derive from the fact that painting was the first love of his life. He attended art school, and still manages to steal away for a few hours a week at his home in Downingtown to work on new canvases. In fact, a few of his paintings are placed above the bar at La Fia.
"Whether it's food, art or cooking, I am addicted to the process of creating," he said. "I have always been one of those people who sees something, and absorbs it. When I'm at my best, its when I'm driving to work in the countryside. I see a pasture or a tree or a farm, and I want to take a picture of everything and use it as subject matter for a painting. I want to stop along the side of a road and cut some greens that I can take to the restaurant and use as a design accent."
When Bryan was a student at the Culinary Institute of America, his teachers would tell him that a chef can learn something not only every day in the kitchen, but by looking at the same thing from a different perspective. He looked around the unmade bed of what will, in just three short weeks, become Hearth Kitchen. His eyes seemed to leapfrog over the current mess into what will soon become a reality: A packed bar of patrons discovering new wines; family after family in booth after booth enjoying the taste of wood-fired pizzas and hand-rolled pastas; and the casual, "Going over to Andrea's and Bryan's for dinner" ambiance of a restaurant at work.
"My whole vibe here will be, 'Come into my world. Let me get your attention,'" Bryan said. "'I am going to turn you on to some food you haven't had yet, and some wine you haven't tried yet. Sit back and relax. You're going to have an enjoyable experience here with us.'
"That's the different perspective."
Hearth Kitchen is located at The Shoppes of Longwood Village. To learn more, visit www.hearthkennettquare.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org