Talented chef at Pennsylvania 6
If "location, location, location" is such a sacred mantra, why do restaurateurs keep investing big in the space at 114 S. 12th St.?
The dramatic rear staircase sweeping up to a mezzanine with romantic balconies winging over the bar may be one sentimental reason the operators keep trying. But no fewer than five names have appeared on the window in the last 15 years alone, from Lilly's to Les Bon Temps and most recently Tweed, which wrongheadedly replaced those grand old steps with a sleeker modern staircase.
More likely, each newcomer has come hopefully to bask in the glow of the ever-brightening entertainment zone of Midtown Village nearby at 13th and Sansom. But what a difference a block can make. Whether it was the concepts, people, or timing, none lasted long.
If the power of a great raw bar and a succulent lobster roll means what I think it does, however, the address' latest hopeful, Pennsylvania 6, has a fighting chance - especially given the neighborhood's steady growth.
But the return of talented chef Marc Plessis to the culinary scene, two years after leaving XIX in the Hyatt at the Bellevue, is the prime reason this venture should be taken seriously. The French-born, Kentucky-bred, Atlanta-trained chef brings a unique combination of classically rooted polish and regional American flair to a menu that is equally at home frying perfect Ipswich clams inside a cuminy crust with caper aioli or serving tenderly stewed Duroc pork collar over cheesy grits, a garden tangle of breakfast radishes still clinging to their peppery stems on top.
The three-month-old Pennsylvania 6 (a reference to New York City's oldest continuing phone number), which, in fact, has a larger Manhattan sibling by the same name that opened in January, is the most ambitious project so far from Gary Cardi, whose pub-centric portfolio includes Public House, City Tap House, the Field House, and other bars. But Cardi's crew has struck an ideal tone of accessible sophistication with the bistro-style remake of this space, the long white marble bar top, tufted red banquettes, and art of '40s starlets evoking some of the vintage warmth that Tweed had ironed out.
With a small but well-handled raw bar serving a higher grade of oyster (Malpeques) for its happy hour than you'll find at other buck-a-shucks, stylish crudo plates, and a list of champagne cocktails that draws a crowd of Jefferson Hospital nurses, Pennsylvania 6 exudes a slightly more mature air than is typical in nearby Midtown Village.
Of course, that's a fine line we flirted with crossing after our enthusiastic waiter persuaded us to drain a shot of Woodford Reserve "luge-style" down a marrowbone's hollow after we scooped its herb-encrusted goodness onto toasts.
"I'm so pumped!" he'd say with a frat boy fist bump every time he passed our table in anticipation, making me regret it more with each pre-luge visit.
As the amber whiskey rushed past my gullet, the liquor's sweet spice glistening with the rich sheen of warm marrow, I regretted the luge no more.
But even the most decadent drinking games have their limits. And for the most part, Pennsylvania 6 rose above mere gimmicks with simple good cooking, fine ingredients properly cooked (usually), presented with straightforward appeal.
The east side of Center City has long lacked a good raw bar, and in many ways, Pennsylvania 6 hints at being a Washington Square West reply to Sansom Street's Oyster Bar. The seafood-centric Plessis doesn't have as many oysters as he once had at XIX, but his half-dozen here (Evening Coves, Sun Hollows, and Moonstones among them) are nicely chilled and briny. The half-shell clams are tangy with sea. The tender shrimp are sweet.
The lobster roll is a very luxe $25, the priciest item on a mostly affordable menu with good options under $20. But it's instantly a contender for the city's best, with big jewels of prime crustacean glazed in simple lemon mayo tucked generously into a toasted top-split brioche bun. With a crispy heap of duck-fat fries and truffled aioli, it makes for an indulgent meal.
Plessis' crudo platter is a study in raw fish style, with ivory slices of kampachi dusted with earthy cumin over bright green gooseberry salsa, and pale fluke exotic with Madras curry oil alongside the crunch of briny sea beans and radish. Only the tuna crudo was slightly out of tune, with anchovy in the caper dressing accentuating a fishy tang.
The piquancy of black-olive vinaigrette worked well, though, for the curling, charred tentacle arms of grilled octopus that also sparked with chile oil. Tangy tomato tapenade added Mediterranean brightness to creamy stuffed burrata cheese.
Pasta and clams seemed slightly out of place on this non-Italian menu at first, but Plessis' $19 rendition, with al dente bucatini tossed in garlicky broth with fresh littlenecks and half-wilted Tuscan kale, is worthy of a visit in its own right. I usually find chicken a bore, but this beautifully roasted airline breast, with fresh peas and meaty tubes of royal trumpet stems, was the epitome of refined bistro cooking. Huge scallops came with a salad perked by smoky bacon vinaigrette.
Plessis' Southern background was in full comfort mode with the cheesy stone-ground George grits that added a bed of Dixie decadence to the tender shreds of braised pork collar. It was also inspiration for his take on the pimento cheese trend, a jar of whipped cream cheese and cheddar cut with cherry peppers, perfect for smearing on crostini with silky prosciutto-like sheets of cured Benton's ham.
His ode to pig ears was less successful, the thin, crunchy strips tasting too much of the fryer. It wasn't the only misstep. An otherwise beautifully seared fillet of branzino veered off register with a piquant saffron-artichoke garnish that did not complement the delicate fish. The chef-made desserts were decent enough, but were served in the wrong formats: "cheesecake in a jar" would have been better on a plate; the pot de crème in a bowl would have been more memorable in that jar.
The one major mistake - a "bistro filet" steak crusted with marrow butter - was seriously overcooked. The goof was promptly fixed by a second attempt, but not before an odd explanation from a manager blaming our cheery waitress' order-taking (I suspect to appease an irate kitchen). Either way, the public shaming was a petty and unnecessary move, considering she is the most poised and professional server I encounter in my visits. Not a fist bump the entire meal.
With so much else going right here, from Plessis' menu to the new brasserie look and even a neighborhood that's finally ripe enough to make this location seem more of a blessing than a curse, Pennsylvania 6 needs to harness all the positive energy it can muster.
Chef Marc Plessis talks about Pennsylvania 6
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Noord in Passyunk Square. Follow him on Twitter @CraigLaBan or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.