Michael Dorris, a kid from Berwyn, met an Ohio lad named Michael Santoro in the culinary program at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I.
Ten years and many moves and jobs later, the Mikes are working together. Their joint venture, The Mildred, opens Sept. 12 at 824 S. Eighth St. (267-687-1600) in South Philly. Two restaurants ago, the Bella Vista spot was known as Michael's Ristorante. (Its previous use was the critically acclaimed James.) Rather than play off "Michael," Santoro and Dorris looked out back to the street that runs parallel to Eighth. They've blown out one wall on the Eighth Street frontage to allow more light. The open dining room has a romantic yet open feel.
Though both guys are seasoned chefs since their 2004 J&W graduation, Santoro (whose last stop was opening chef at Talula's Garden) will take the executive chef's role while Dorris general-manages. The kitchen will serve as home base for Dorris' previous business, a catering operation in the Philly suburbs. Dorris tells me that running his catering company - essentially cooks directly serving guests - taught him a different side of dining.
Cuisine is billed as American with British influences and classic French techniques. They've bought scads of beautiful, heavy and functional Staub cast-iron cookware, which will go from stove to table in many cases. Dorris' ceramics teacher from Conestoga High - John Matthews - is making all the plates and bowls in his home workshop. Many of the wooden items - tables and chairs included - were built by kids in the Challenge Program, a local educational millwork and carpentry center.
The Michaels are making their own breads, pastas, and sausages. They've landed the pastry services of Le Bec-Fin alumna Emily Riddell, whose signature is chocolate cake with salted caramel and lemon ice cream.
They're keeping everything homey - oven-roasted quail with braised lentils and beet root; free-range chicken breast and thigh with artichokes, grits and chervil; bouillabaisse for two. Entrees will be $17 to $25. The per-person check average will be $42 to $45 - about $20 less than James and $30 less than Talula's Garden.
A bar menu includes beef ribs in a crepe, rabbit and ricotta meatballs on a semolina roll; and warm sardines on toast with peppers and onions.
Santoro worked at Fat Duck in England and Mugaritz in Spain before moving back to the USA at Boqueria in NYC and the Blue Duck Tavern in D.C., a vanguard of the farm-to-table movement. Dorris' CV includes a stop in Switzerland, Gilt in Manhattan and private cheffing for an executive on St. Bart's.
Bar rundown includes 60 wine bottles (10 by the glass) - mainly Europeans. Six beers are on tap, and there's your obligatory cocktail list.
It will be open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday, at the outset; weekend brunch and Monday operation will follow in about a month.