Al fresco dining is a tradition as old as the restaurant business.
On a beautiful day, no one wants to be constrained to a dining room. And whether it’s a full patio or just a handful of seats, many of the area’s most popular restaurants have expanded their seating area into the open air.
But there’s one Reading restauranteur that has taken the concept and created a whole dining experience around it.
The 300 block of Cherry Street is the domain of Judy Henry. She opened her first restaurant, Judy’s on Cherry, in 2002. Next came the Speckled Hen Cottage Pub & Alehouse, located in the historic log cabin on the corner of 4th and Cherry Streets.
The third piece of the puzzle came in 2009. That’s when Plein Air was born.
Located in a narrow alley adjacent to the cottage, Plein Air is an outdoor extension of the Speckled Hen. The alley is decorated to feel like a garden terrace in Europe, with a large pergola hanging over the bistro seats.
Plein Air’s location creates unique challenges. First, it’s weather dependent (though there are a handful of seats inside). It’s also small, with only a few tables and seating for 20 outside.
The alley is also uneven so they have to get a little creative in balancing the tabletops: a handful of coasters under one leg, a piece of stone under another, just to keep your plates from sliding off.
Both Plein Air and the Speckled Hen serve out of the same kitchen. And for those dining outside, the Speckled Hen menu is also available (I would imagine that this also works in reverse, though I can’t say for sure).
The two menus are vastly different. The Pub side was big on comfort foods—pot pie, shepherd’s pie, wings and the signature Scotch egg. Plein Air’s menu is more fully developed, with tartines (single-slice sandwiches), salads and entrees, all of which feature fresh, seasonal ingredients.
One of the specialties at Plein Air is chilled soup. Gazpacho is a permanent fixture on the menu, but the standard tomato-based version had been replaced by beet for our visit.
Looking more like a smoothie than a soup, it was a vibrant purple with white creamy swirls and strips of basil on top. The basil helped sweeten the slightly sour soup. It was a delicious and refreshing way to start our meal.
Along with my soup, the waitress delivered our fresh-baked bread, quartered and served with a dollop of butter.
While Plein Air’s menu is quite a bit larger than the Speckled Hen, there are only a handful of large plate dinner entrees. One of those is the flat iron steak.
The seared steak is topped with garlic herb butter and served with fingerling potatoes and a side salad. The butter melted quickly, coating both the steak and potatoes in a blanket of white. With the steak, it was very good. The herbs really came through and added to the seared-in flavors of the meat. With the potatoes, it was even better, turning them into miniature baked potatoes that melted in your mouth.
The side salad was topped with a citrusy vinaigrette dressing that felt right on a warm August night.
Another large plate offering is the crab cake. The rich entree is topped with a choice of lemon pesto, avocado lime butter or tomato basil corn relish, which is what Julie decided on.
Fresh was the word we kept coming back to when describing our food to each other, and that was the case with everything on Julie’s plate. The crab cake, the relish and the skewer of zucchini that accompanied the dish.
Everything at Plein Air is well-portioned, and though we would have walked away happy after dinner, we decided to splurge for dessert.
Angel food cake is not normally my dessert of choice, but when our waitress told us that it was topped with strawberry reduction and served with whipped cream and pistachio sorbet, it immediately climbed to the top of my list.
Everything was delicious, especially the sorbet. I wish I could have eaten a whole bowl of it, but I was happy enough to enjoy the other sweet delights on the plate.
Our total food bill came to $42, but being thrifty, I had purchased $30 gift certificate for $15 on LocalFlavor.com when I saw it in June so we really only paid $27 for two entrees, an appetizer and dessert.
Enjoying a meal outside is a great way to enjoy a beautiful summer night, but it is even better with great food, like what Plein Air is serving during the spring, summer and fall.
Don’t waste these beautiful days and nights sitting inside, get out and get yourself something to eat.