Have you heard of the Pot Whisperers of the Mildred?
Some chefs listen to the seasons as their muse. Others channel the ancestral voices of family tradition. But for cooking school pals and partners Michael Santoro and Michael Dorris, the call of enameled cast iron - in particular, their collection of Staub stove-to-tableware - is what guides the Mildred's menu. The pot that hangs at the center of the restaurant's sign? It speaks.
"The bouillabaisse pot is telling us: 'Hey, you should put some nice fish in here and pour sauce over it!,'" says Santoro.
And voilà! When the fish-handled lid is lifted from the sapphire-colored tureen at our table, an iron teapot-toting server pours a stream of saffron elixir over top. A fennel-scented haze rises from the treasure bowl of seafood inside and it smells like the Côte d'Azure.
"The vertical spit-roaster plate is saying to us: 'Get the best bird you can find.'"
And so, if you're as lucky as we were, a golden pheasant will appear, presiding atop its trough-rimmed plate filled with Lady apples, chestnuts and dates, the bird soon to be carved into crispy-skinned medallions and sauced with huckleberry jus.
The dish is a tribute, of sorts, to the time both young cooks spent in England (Santoro at the Fat Duck, Dorris at the Waterside Inn) where it wasn't uncommon for a chef to appear shortly before service with a dozen freshly shot grouse over his shoulder. The Mildred's kitchen even left us a few beads of birdshot to ponder as certification this wild Scottish pheasant was legit. But it was worth the dental risk, the well-hung meat brined with cardamom and imbued with a savor that was hauntingly, unmistakably game.
At the crescendo of my second meal, it was easily the most memorable dish of the Mildred's promising start. And it bore a soulful, rustic quality that was a pleasant surprise and contrast to Santoro's Philly debut as opening chef at Talula's Garden, where the talent was clear, but the dishes often seemed cluttered, overthought, and overmanipulated.
"I've used some tweezers in my time," conceded Santoro.
But he's taken a significant step in a more compelling direction with a polished return to old-school flavors in his first stab as an owner-chef - even if the project as a whole is still imperfect. And with Dorris as his co-owner, the Berwyn-raised chef and caterer taking on more of the front-house duties, the two have tackled the tall task of reinvigorating the former James in South Philadelphia.
It's a difficult order in several subtle ways. The room has spatial challenges, with an awkward L-shape that offers a wonderful fireplace-lit bar at the entrance, but a large side dining area full of dead space. In addition, the Eighth Street address always been an outlier of sorts for its various tenants, especially James, which sat far enough from the Italian Market to ignore red gravy clichés, but whose upscale aspirations still outpaced the neighborhood's true gentrifying speed.
South Philly's dining landscape is now more receptive, perhaps, but the Mildred's task is just as tricky - finding that sliver of sweet spot between fine-dining destination and go-to neighborhood hang.
The bar offers some fine cocktails beside the fireplace hearth, including a house-cherried twist on the Manhattan, and a deliciously rummy maple egg nog called "Legend of a Good Woman." There are a handful of good beers (Great Lakes, Neshaminy Creek.) And the wine list, while still hovering modestly just under 30 labels, offers a smart collection of Eurocentric bottles at mostly about $50 a bottle or less (and virtually all by the glass), from an Austrian grüner-veltliner sparkler to Zind-Humbrecht pinot gris, Iuli Barbera, and a South African G.S.M. (Secateurs) that was ideal for Mildred's game.
And the prices, meanwhile, in the low $20s, are fair for the quality of ingredients and ambitious preparations.
You know from the moment a crusty loaf of house-baked chestnut bread is delivered that this kitchen is serious about scratch cooking with comforting soul and a sense of adventure. And for the most part, they deliver on that promise.
Hollowed pucks of confit-potatoes arrived stuffed with the shreds of slow-stewed pig trotters, the meat's various textures and flavors (creamy, bacony, gelatinous, silken) sparked with ginger, horseradish, and apples. Earthy chestnut soup brings cold-weather warmth to a crispy nugget garnish of tender sweetbreads. And barley risotto cleverly creamed with pureed parsnips is ringed by irresistible morsels of braised oxtail infused with wine and juniper.
There were dishes that still needed some fine-tuning. The house-made chitarra pasta tossed with cockles and uni butter in nori powder was so intensely seasoned, it was both brackish and over-baconed. The vegetarian tortellini filled with sweet potatoes were elegant, but redundantly sweet with dates and more sweet potatoes for sauce, when it craved a bitter counterpoint. By contrast, a starter of marinated Nantucket scallops could have done without the overlays of shaved radish. They were a distraction to an otherwise extraordinary and subtle taste - the dynamic sensation of raw scallops' natural sweetness washed in waves of lemon oil and coriander seed.
Such beautiful flavors tell me the Mildred's kitchen is reasonably close to its three-bell potential. And several of the entrées were already there: a meaty seared monkfish over chickpea and potato stew tinted orange with cuminy chorizo; a tender short rib nestled inside a crock of house-spun ziti gratin; a gorgeous "teres major" (a great cut of steak with a clunker name) paired with intense maitake mushrooms.
The Mildred's service staff, although still a little stiff, was informed and enthusiastic, eager to offer tastes of wines before committing diners to full glasses.
The biggest issue, though, may be elusive to remedy - the energy void of the dining room, at once blandly colored and poorly lit, with deeply shadowy corners (from which we moved ASAP) and jerky dimmers surging where tables are better lit. It's no coincidence our best meal was in full view of the cozy bar room fire. Perhaps a call to Hearths-R-Us for a twin might solve the dining room?
On the menu, the weakest link to refine is dessert. The Mildred's three-toned chocolate cake was just fine. But the sticky toffee carrot cake pudding was terribly dry. The lemon tart's curd was runny. And the tarte Tatin? I don't doubt Santoro who says it was created because, "the Staub [crock] told us what to do."
Something tells me, though, the cast-iron angels did not advise them the puff pastry crust should be soggy, too. On that detail, the Pot Whisperers of the Mildred should consider their own good sense.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Cambridge. Contact him on Twitter @CraigLaBan or at email@example.com.