Monday, July 25, 2011

A.Kitchen Gets A B-minus

A newcomer to the Philly restaurant scene, opened up in a small space a mere block from Rittenhouse, an area with stiff competition from Rouge, Parc, Melograno, Village Whiskey, and Tinto (among a slew of others). Hell--there's even the newly opened NYC explant Serafina just catty-corner to Nevertheless, has been pretty much booked solid every weekend since its stoves were turned on. So what gives? History. A long time ago (early 2000's), there used to be a restaurant in Philly called Django. A tiny BYO, Django earned "Four Bells" from the Inquirer's Craig LaBan, the only BYO at the time to ever have accomplished such a feat (I have no idea if any BYO has gotten four since). The owners, Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, sold it and moved out to Kennett Square to open another eatery, the now cult favorite, Talula's Table (and Django went on to close a few years later).

Unfortunately, Aimee and Bryan split a few years later--Aimee kept the Table, while Bryan bounced around the area, including a very short stay at MidAtlantic. Just this year, Aimee returned to Philly with Starr's new "it" resto Talula's Garden, and is doing quite well as far as I can tell (those who read our blog know how much we love the food). But I've always wondered what this meant for Bryan, who was pretty much MIA from the Philly dining scene. Enter ... a brand new place with Bryan installed as head chef. So the implication is obvious: with Aimee holding down Washington Square, how would Bryan fare in Rittenhouse? Time will tell.

G and I went to with a singular goal in mind. Although the details of this post all come from a single visit (thus limiting its utility), we didn't want an in-depth analysis of the entire menu, rather, we wanted to accomplish a much simpler objective: does Bryan still have "it"? You see, when Bryan was at Talula's Table with Aimee, there was something so special about the food. It was downright magical. You'd read the "menu" (i.e. a list of ingredients) and have no idea how everything was going to come together, but it always did. Every bite was a complex cornucopia of evolving flavors and textures. And now, even though Aimee's new Table (and the Garden) both have splendid food, it's not quite the same as it used to be. So was it Bryan? ... or Aimee? ... or the combo? g and I went in to hoping for proof that Bryan could do it again.

Friday, 7pm, Party of 2. We arrived on time to be greeted by the hostess stationed outside of the restaurant (I imagine they'll move her indoors in inclement weather). We were informed that although they had our reservation, the table we were to be seated in was still in the process of finishing--we'd have to wait "no more than 30 minutes." That was a weird way to tell a customer that they have to wait--as if they were proud of that accomplishment. But it was ok--g and I understood--the place was at capacity, the kitchen's slammed, and they're still brand-spanking new (they had only been open for 2-3 weeks). No big deal. We found our way to the bar and ordered up a glass of rose and "the honeycomb," a cocktail of tequila, honey, and lemon. g took the time to note a lack of hooks upon which one would hang a handbag under the bar (come on, people!). I took the time to survey the interior. It was modern--not in a Pod kind of way (ugh) --rather, a simple/clean modern. There were dark tables, dark chairs, white plates, plain silverware, and I did appreciate the Riedel water glasses--somebody was obviously spending a bit of money to run this place. As far as layout is concerned, the restaurant was clearly built with the focus on the open kitchen (as a matter of fact, you can sit at the counter that is right in front of the chefs hard at work). Bryan was in the house, but obviously distracted. Even if he did notice us, I doubt that he'd remember us from our dining in the Talula's Table kitchen--Aimee was always "the face" of the duo--the one with the memory and welcoming smile.

In just over 8 minutes at the bar, we were offered our choice of seats: at the kitchen counter or outside. We chose outside. This ended up being a wise decision for a reason I'll get into later--I must first express how, upon arriving at our seats, I was quite taken aback. I guess I never noticed it in the past when walking by, but the "outdoor seating" is not arranged in a "normal" fashion. At other restaurants with outdoor seating options, like Parc, tables for 2 are set up for diners to face their respective dining partners. Here, it's a single row of chairs sitting side by side, with a table placed in front of each pair. It was like a row of seats at a stadium (how weird!) ... but what's there to see? For one, we had a good view of Anthropologie, which is a pretty building (actually, Anthropologie should start doing some funny advertisements to mess with the people dining at, and, if nothing else, by having both diners face the same direction, people-watching is much easier--I actually kind of liked the seating by the end of the meal. What this particular outdoor seating is NOT good for is something like a blind date. Imagine sitting shoulder-to-shoulder right next to someone whom you're not yet super-familiar with, rather than across from them ... kind of creepy. On the other hand, if you're looking to "make a move", you can always stretch your arm around your significant other as you eat (like at a movie theater ... in grade school) ... also kind of creepy.

As our server came to talk to us about the menu, we were told some of the best news of the night: the liquor license, while approved for the inside of the restaurant, was not yet approved for the sidewalk. Consequently, they couldn't charge any of us outdoor diners for alcohol. However, they still wanted to serve us alcohol. The result: they were willing to comp 2 drinks per customer. Bonus! It was going to be a good night (g and I are small people--2 drinks is plenty)--any doubt about my choice of seating disappeared.

We asked the server for his recommendations and, after careful consideration, ordered up four plates. The first round featured the gnocchi gratin and the burrata.

I must admit that I had high hopes for the gnocchi, especially after the server showered us with propaganda: "the gnocchi gratin--it's my favorite thing I've served in over 20 years of waiting tables." Those are some pretty big words. When I finally got one in my mouth, I was greeted by a familiar texture of a classic Bryan-gnocchi. It was soft and pillowy with just the right amount of bite. But I was a little let down by everything else: the swamp of cheesy sauce and variety of veggies, leading to a cheese-and-veggie combo that was a little weird to me. The haddock was a nice touch, adding a brininess that gave the dish a very pleasant little "twist", but overall, the dish was kind of disjointed. In the end, after such a grand buildup, I'd liken my experience to being invited to watch the original trilogy of Star Wars, but instead being forced to watch the 3 prequels instead (and maybe the Haddock twist is like the first time you saw Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber). Thus, if the server was telling the truth, I suggest that he try more foods.

Unless I'm mistaken, a burrata is supposed to be an outer "shell" of mozzarella around an inside of some sort of cheese-cream concoction. So it's cheese ... stuffed with cheese. An easy win, right? Wrong. Although definitely not tasting overtly "bad" (and with a good texture of a softer mozzarella), the burrata was a bit ... ?insipid? It's wasn't particularly "cheesy" and didn't have any accompanying flavors. Happily, it was topped with a doo-dads to distract you. There were a few greens/onions, peas, and candied lemon which worked well with each other and I can see how they were definitely poised to "do something" to the cheese. Nevertheless, their impact was just too little to try and make such a large quantity of bland burrata more interesting. It was a nice thought, though.

Next to hit the table was the striped bass with a piperade and the duck confit. g dove into the fish first, and after two bites, said aloud "yea, this is cooked well ... and it tastes pretty good ... but that's it." That didn't inspire confidence in me. I went after my piece ... but I had to disagree with her: "so about that 'cooked well' part ... mine's over". Damn. No one likes over-cooked fish. Sure - every piece of fish I have ever cooked at home (minus our salt-baked fish) has been overcooked due to my obsessive-compulsive personality traits, but I expect more from the pros. Was it worth raising a fuss about? I debated but ultimately decided no--it'd simply be too mean to send back a half-eaten dish (g had taken her piece) to a kitchen that's slammed in the first few weeks of opening (see? I build people up, not tear them down!). The piperade had some depth to it with a rustic tone to the peppers, and the fish was well-seasoned, so it wasn't a total loss. There was also some unidentified brown smear and my memory has faded, so it's lost and gone forever--it apparently failed to leave an impression on me.

Finally, there was the duck confit. This was another surprise of the evening. Little did we know it, but "duck confit" as detailed on the menu merely described the method of duck cookery - it failed to describe the final presentation which was clearly that of a cold terrine. Fortunately, the terrine tasted pretty good--it was moist and tasted of well-seasoned duck. But where was the "oomph" of the confit? Where was that richness that made you go "holy crap"? It was lost in the cold, I suppose. The slice was accompanied by cherry and mustard which were a nice touch indeed and would have worked wondrously with a warmer duck. But overall, I appreciated the dish and consumed every last bit.

When dessert came around, g and I were a little too full. I asked the guy, "I'll gladly pass on my second glass of wine if you provide me with espresso instead," but he didn't budge. Darn. So g and I lingered on a glass of Riesling, pondering the people walking by, and whispering sweet nothings into each other's ear as the sun set in the distance ... (insert g's eye rolling here). Aside from my feeble, often unsuccessful attempts at humor, we also saw a hilarious event (and complete travesty) occur. It had nothing to do with food. As we sat, we watched the car parked right in front of us leave its superb street parking spot (it was first in line on the block). A few seconds later, a [loud] shiny black Maserati pulled up to the curb and backed into the vacant spot. The driver hopped out of his fancy car, prominently displaying his waxed chest through his top-three-buttons-unbuttoned white shirt, walked over to assist his way-too-much-makeup female passenger ... only to find that he had parked on the curb. Both tires. Completely on the sidewalk. Keep in mind that all he had to do was back straight up--not even parallel park! As the rest of us in the row giggled uncontrollably, some people--like me--took a picture of his piss-poor parking.

The best part was what happened next. This dude clearly had two choices: he could either correct his parking, thereby admitting that he sucks at operating his $120K+ car OR he could ignore it, thereby pretending that he's not a bad driver so much as oblivious to his treatment of his $120K+ car. He chose the latter. Hilarious. The only thing that would have made it better is if a dog-walker had allowed his pet to evacuate his/her bladder/bowels on it. I contemplated calling up my pet-owning parents in Jersey to see if they could race on up here so we could put on such a stunt--I'm sure the other folk at would have loved to have seen that.

Ok, back to the restaurant. Presumably, you'd like a final impression. First off, as you can tell from the title, it wasn't a "magical" dinner I had been hoping. At best, it was a "good" dinner. Whether this means that Bryan no longer as the "it" anymore or if perhaps we just didn't see "it" in the dishes we tried (e.g. someone else is limiting his menu), I don't know. Either way, I was sad at having to face even the possibility that the food that I had once tasted might not be had again. What makes me even sadder is that without the Bryan magic, the food, itself, just isn't that remarkable. It's "good" and in most cases, it's better than what I could make at home, yes - but let's be honest here ... Barbuzzo could totally bitch-slap the's burrata and obliterate the gnocchi gratin with just about any of their pasta dishes. Little Fish would butcher the striped bass in every aspect, from fish cookery to complexity of accompaniments. And finally, Bibou would scoff at the terrine with an outrrrrrrageous French accent (Monty Python anyone?). So for us, we'll go to once again as the crowd dies down, especially when the menu changes (per the waiter, the ones we had were "the best" on the menu). But for the time being, I just don't understand why it's drawing such a crowd--I'll chuckle at them as we shop across the street at Anthropologie.

135 S 18th Street
Philadelphia PA 19103
215. 825. 7030

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