Phantom Diner

The Cellar - Phantom Diner, Central PA Magazine, July 2009

Written by The Phantom Diner | Jun 16, 2009 6:51 PM

Regular readers of this column know the value I tend to place on place. Dining venues can and do impact the overall experience of a meal eaten out. And The Cellar, located in what’s left of a dilapidated strip mall next to a Wendy’s off a highway near Holy Spirit Hospital on Harrisburg’s West Shore, is not a venue that sings a siren song.

Inside the bilevel eatery, the noise level is high and the atmosphere suggests eat-and-run hustle and bustle more than sit-a-spell-and-dine relaxation. Décor is casual: hardwood floors, nice wall art, open and airy. No need to dress, but semi-dressy would not seem out of place. Waitstaff, though friendly, appeared in short supply, overworked and hurried.

But this BYOB has positive points, not least of which is an interesting menu and some very, very good food — details to follow.

First, allow me to address a peeve I’ve developed regarding almost every BYOB restaurant. Too often, I’ll arrive with guests and multiple bottles of wine, some chilled (the wine, not the guests) or needing to be, and find a server more interested in pouring water or spouting specials or asking how everyone is doing rather than dealing with the immediate issue of which wine or wines should be opened and poured, chilled or allowed to breathe.

Sadly, such was the case at The Cellar, no doubt a side effect of the apparent staff shortage — though a nifty tabletop wine cooler (the device, not the drink) arrived right away.

But since past experience is a teacher, I came prepared. There are a growing number of good wines, especially from California, with screw tops. Glasses were already on the table. So after our server poured water, chatted briefly and left, I took matters into my own forefinger and thumb.

Issue resolved.

(I’ve carried regular wine openers for corked bottles before, but using them seated and dressed for dinner presents possible perils.)

To the menu: It’s clever and fun, and varied enough to appeal to almost any taste. The food, as mentioned, is very good. Service was informed and helpful and, as I say, friendly.

Choices include the option of eating light and doing so in a different way. There is, for example, a Napa salad of free-range chicken with toasted hazelnuts, grapes and radicchio and buttermilk dressing with crostini ($12); or a pepper jack Kobe burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, hand-cut French fries and a salad ($16).

If you’re in for a full meal, “starters” include Mediterranean black olive hummus with grilled pita, stuffed grape leaves and pickled beets ($7); grilled chicken on skewers with a choice of glaze, a mini-meal really ($8); and excellent shrimp tempura in a light and tasty Japanese batter served with a luscious sauce ($9). Get the shrimp; forgo the chicken, which was tasty but overcooked.

There is soup, including a soup of the day, potato and corn chowder and tortilla soup with blackened chicken and smoked chipotle peppers, each priced at $4 a cup, $5 a bowl.

Entrees run the gamut and range in price from the high teens to the high $20s. The menu changes, and there are specials, but here are some examples:

A house specialty (I had to try it) is a mac-and-cheese dish with a twist. It’s “Cellar Macaroni & Cheese,” a piping hot casserole of lump crabmeat and lobster bits with rigatoni and Gruyère and chèvre cheeses accompanied by asparagus ($26). This concoction is delicious but rich and filling, and (be forewarned) hotter than lawsuit-inspiring McDonald’s coffee. When it arrives, spoon it out of the casserole onto your plate, or you’ll be waiting days for it to cool. But, boy, is it good.

I mentioned a range of entrees. You’ll find dishes such as wild mushroom udon — mushrooms and seared tofu with organic udon noodles and fried shallots in onion gravy — and you’ll come across specials such as an 18-ounce (that would be more than a pound) rib-eye steak.

There are smoked cheddar crab cakes (you can get a single crab cake dinner for $21) with basmati pilaf ($27); pappardelle pasta with scallops, shrimp and shaved black truffles ($25); hot and spicy pork enchilada with risotto ($20); or mustard-crusted lamb with mashed potatoes and a veggie medley ($26).

And if you’re still not finding something you like, there’s beef tenderloin medallions, shrimp-and-sausage ravioli, chicken and sea bass, and more.

The Cellar (as in wine cellar) is so named because the place offers lockers for regulars in which you can keep wines or other beverages. A nice idea. If, for example, you don’t finish a bottle on one visit, you can reseal it and keep there until you dine again.

And let me stress, this is a good kitchen, and BYOB is a pleasant, popular and economical way to enjoy an evening out. The Cellar also is open for lunch Monday through Friday, serving lots of salads and flat-bread pizzas.

I just wish it was quiet and somewhere other than in a strip mall next to a Wendy’s near a hospital. But maybe that’s just me.

The Cellar

433 N. 21st St., Camp Hill; open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday; takes major cards; ample parking; BYOB; reservations suggested; 717-724-2803.

Published in Phantom Diner

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