Philadelphia restaurants have been in full ampersand mode these days. A string of new places have employed that curvaceous conjunctive glyph - Bank & Bourbon, Bourbon & Branch, Crow & the Pitcher - for a wink of retro style or, perhaps, a hint that no single word can encapsulate the multifaceted mission so many restaurants must juggle in 2014.
We want craft beer. No, we want labor-intensive cocktails. No, wait - is wine cool again? Why not just ampersand cocktails & beer & wine & drink 'em all!
We want our freshly shaved summer truffles & house-potted terrines, but on a wooden slab at the casual neighborhood bar. We could just pop by to graze on spiced almonds and coppa-scented deviled eggs while the bartender works her alchemy. But we may decide to stay, in which case we'll expect a serious slab of rib eye glossed with a dark puddle of sauce bordelaise worthy of Le Bec-Fin.
You'll find all of these virtues at Crow & the Pitcher, a new restau-bar from chef Alex Capasso that strives to capture this ampersand-hybrid movement as much as any new venture. You may even see Georges Perrier sipping his iced vin rouge - while you lick that plate clean of bordelaise. Le Bec's retired chef has been something of a fixture at C&P of late.
A Brasserie Perrier vet, Capasso & his partner, Michael Franco, a front-of-the-house whiz who was general manager at Le Bec before becoming a captain at Per Se, both consider Perrier a mentor. So the chef has an honored place at the bar of this narrow storefront space on 19th Street, just south of Rittenhouse Square. With sunlight streaming through the front windows flung wide-open to the sidewalk tables, it's the perfect perch from which to ogle the cheese chariot that Perrier gave to Franco, a solid silver & mahogany trolley that, in its previous disrepair, had become a sorry, plexiglass-wrapped emblem of Le Bec's demise & the haute cuisine era it represented.
Lovingly restored by Franco here to its gleaming (once again genuine) crystal-lidded glory, the $20,000 cart adds serious class and neighborhood nibble appeal to an address with a history of failed concepts since it was once a popular bagel shop. The narrow room, clad in reclaimed barn wood & lit with Edison bulbs dangling inside mason jars, couldn't be farther from Le Bec's gilded glamour. But the mere fact that it rolls once again laden with nearly a dozen great rotating cheeses - from Epoisses to Ossau Iraty & Marieke - is reason enough to come. The cart is piloted by a dedicated monger in David O'Neill, whose dramatic & detailed intro to the offerings is almost like cheese vaudeville. There's even a humidity-controlled, glassed-in cave off the dining room to age them right.
Of course, Capasso has proven over the years to be a worthy cook, too, from his fine-dining days at Blackbird Dining Establishment in Collingswood (as well as Max's in Cinnaminson) to the comfort fare of Westside Gravy & the short-lived Benny's Burger Joint. He's boiled the full arc of that repertoire down to a single menu at Crow & the Pitcher (whose name refers to an Aesop's fable about a determinedly thirsty & clever bird).
It leans heavily, also most successfully, on the small plates & nibbles, from platters of cured meats (good prosciutto, fennel salami) to deeply roasted cauliflower topped with brown butter, hazelnuts & golden raisins. A bundle of grilled asparagus perched against a poached egg gets showered tableside with fresh-shaved Italian truffles. A mound of tiny morel caps plumped with chicken mousse is tumbled in juicy herbed broth. Fried artichokes are irresistible with garlic mayo dip.
Capasso's mussels are easily some of the best in town - clean, perfectly cooked, bathed in a creamy natural broth fortified with vermouth. The house-made charcuterie platter is also satisfying, its chicken terrine creamy with confit fat and leg meat, a heady lamb terrine piqued with olives & silky foie gras cured in Sauternes. Crisp nuggets of tender sweetbreads play against the bitter, roasty crunch of brussels sprouts in bordelaise.
There are just a handful of entree-sized plates, most reasonably priced at $18 to $22. The best were seafood-based, including a crisp fillet of meaty tilefish over fresh hearts of palm in a fennelly bouillabaisse broth. A chilled 11/2-pound lobster poached in Asian-scented court bouillon alongside mashed avocado was like a giant seafood cocktail - nice for summer.
The cooking, though, is less consistent than it should be. The wonderfully aromatic curried almonds were warm but not crunchy. The deep-fried pickles were too large for their batter, which just slipped off. Capasso's kitchen was also guilty of occasional oversalting, dimming half of an otherwise great rib eye steak (the other half was well-seasoned) and pushing the confit chicken leg (by nature a potentially salty dish) just past the line from delicious to wincingly sharp.
Then again, anyone who has tried to wrap their jaws around Capasso's $18 mega burger - a 10-ounce sirloin-short rib patty enriched with rendered marrow, then topped with great cheese (Tête de Moine my night), caramelized onions, mushrooms, plus gravy flows of more bordelaise - knows that intensity is this Crow's middle name. But hungry brunch-goers are the ones who get to witness this burger in its fully ampersanded excess: with funnel cake-battered French toast for buns & a quarter-pound sausage patty & bacon & a fried egg.
If that isn't the last tasty word on ampersand cuisine - & I sure hope so - I don't know what is.
Chef and co-owner Alex Capasso introduces Crow & the Pitcher at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews the Lucky Well in Ambler. firstname.lastname@example.org