Longtime Harrisburg restaurateur Char Magaro’s bold addition to Central PA’s fine dining is almost certain to draw and hold high praise.
Your favorite Phantom is among those offering the same praise, assuming that Char’s at Tracy Mansion maintains the consistent excellence in quality that Magaro demonstrated for so many years at her earlier restaurant, Char’s Bella Mundo in the city’s Shipoke neighborhood. (That location was flooded out of business.)
The new digs opened last fall after much anticipation and are located in a large, early 20th-century manor house on Front Street in Harrisburg’s midtown section. It overlooks the Susquehanna River.
It was built as a residence for the manufacturing magnate David E. Tracy, a founder in the 1890s of a company that would become the Harrisburg Steel Co. and then ultimately Harsco Co.
It is elegantly restored. There is a gorgeous, well-appointed library for pre- or post-dinner drinks, a private dining room for group events, a large bar with drop lighting, and a dining room on the river side that features hardwood flooring, banquettes, tables and extraordinary glass chandeliers — the work of Magaro’s talented artist daughter, Ona.
A wrap-around porch with an awning faces both a sculpture garden and the river. It is likely to be the region’s premier al fresco dining spot during warmer months.
Magaro’s emphasis is on high-quality food provided by local and organic vendors in a menu that’s smart and engaging. You should know it’s pricey but not prohibitive.
During my visit, the menu included seven appetizers ranging from $10 for the soup du jour to $17 for a crab/avocado cocktail. Among other offerings were devilfish kabob with spicy sauce, rice and black beans ($12); grilled duck flatbread ($13); escargot with wilted spinach ($12); duck pate with a French baguette ($14), and sea scallop gratin with lobster sauce ($13).
I had fresh-shucked oysters, a mixed variety, $3 each, which were meaty and full of flavor.
There are several salads (served with excellent bread) for $10, $11 and $12: red beets and apples with shaved fennel, almonds and goat cheese; grilled Portobello with artichoke; pear and endive with toasted walnuts; and, on my visit, a special salad of micro-greens with blueberry/ blackberry vinaigrette, whole blueberries and blackberries, pecans and a cheese soufflé, the latter of which was described by a dining partner as “out of this world.”
Eleven menu entrées included four that were market price: risotto du jour; fish du jour; fresh pasta du jour, and filet mignon with bordelaise.
Other entrées ranged from the high $20s for a pasta du jour or marinated chicken in blackberry ginger vinaigrette to $45 for grilled center-cut New York strip steak with wild mushrooms and potatoes.
Ocean trout with apple butter sauce and roasted vegetables
There was also pork tenderloin (coffee-, cocoa- and herbrubbed) with cranberry roasted squash risotto cake for $30; shrimp paella with black mussels and English peas for $32; seared scallops with basmati rice, coconut milk, red pepper and veggies for $33; and blackened, aged prime sirloin with sweet potatoes and veggies for $32.
One companion ordered the pasta du jour — a three-cheese lasagna with pesto sauce ($28). It was a smallish portion, but it was deemed delicious. Another ordered fish du jour — walleye sautéed in a light egg-wash and served with wasabi mashed potatoes, squash and carrots for $38 — which also evoked raves.
I went with the small plates mostly because it’s a great way to sample different dishes. I had spinach gnocchi with truffle oil and Reggiano parmesan for $12, and mussels and vodka with garlic, lemon and horseradish for $15. Both were exceptional and more than enough for dinner when combined.
Other small plates during my visit included veal osso bucco with bacon and prunes ($19); seared trout with spinach risotto ($15); braised lamb tongue ragu with rigatoni ($14), and lamb meatball with smoked blue cheese and wild rice ($14).
Desserts are creative and plentiful. There also are petit desserts for those only interested in a taste of something sweet. A petite crème brulée is $5, and a petite bread pudding just $4.
I should warn you, however, that there’s a heavenly, irresistible chocolate gelato parfait with caramel and toasted pecans that might be the most rewarding $10 you’ll ever spend in a restaurant.
I expect this new Char’s to match or surpass the prior Char’s as a special occasion sort-ofplace, a warm-weather hangout for brunch on Sundays and a gathering spot for small plates and cocktails any time.
The Phantom Diner is a longtime restaurant reviewer for Central PA Magazine.
CHAR’S AT TRACY MANSION
1829 N. Front St., Harrisburg; 717-213-4002, charsrestaurant.com
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday; on-site parking; reservations a must.