I know some longtime Haddon Avenue habitues, like my pal Paul, are having a hard time accepting the notion that Franco's Place, the no-frills panzarotti hall, has been supplanted by an upscale wine bar like Kitchen 233 that serves $18 appetizers and $55 glasses of vino.
It's true. For the price of just one six-ounce pour of Nickel & Nickel Dragonfly cabernet (a fine wine, no doubt), you could have ordered 33 panzarottis during Franco's famous March Madness sale - enough to feed the entire Haddon Township basketball team, the cheerleading squad, and the coaches, too.
Then again, the dining scene has been growing up fast on the Westmont stretch of this South Jersey main street, which has essentially become the liquor-license row between the BYO havens of Collingswood and Haddonfield. So perhaps the group behind P.J. Whelihan's and the Chophouse has chosen the right moment to create a sophisticated destination restaurant.
Sticker shock aside, they're well on their way with Kitchen 233. I don't love the decor - so completely covered in monochrome chocolate-brown wood, it has a generic coolness rather than the intended tavern warmth. But thanks to some top-notch cooking from ex-Tangerine chef Chris Painter, and a 350-label cellar that is impressive in its breadth and quality - with most glasses priced between $5 and $15 - the old pizza shop has been transformed into one of the most ambitious new restaurants South Jersey has seen in some time.
Even the desserts by pastry chef Megan Kasper, from the intensely caramelized tarte Tatin to the molten chocolate gourmandise infused with Earl Grey and topped with house-churned buttermilk ice cream, rise a notch above the usual.
Painter, who was one of Stephen Starr's crack chefs for several years (he also opened Angelina), makes a satisfying return to the kitchen after several years out. His menu offers bold and artful updates to Mediterranean flavors, with a particular inspiration from the South of France.
Plump seared scallops, for example, come over a silky brandade of salt-cod and potato whose tangy marine swagger accentuates the scallops' natural sweetness. Pristine white fillets of turbot, still glistening with yellow-green beads from a slow poach in olive oil, are sparked by the piquance of nicoise olive tapenade, the firm snap of artichoke hearts, and sweet, oven-roasted tomatoes.
That $18 starter called "shrimp and lobster frites" is actually worth the price. It's a crispy fritto misto platter of an battered half-lobster and three large shrimp that come poised over a garlicky saffron aioli and a dark streak of squid-ink Nero sauce that rings with chile spice and earthy smoked paprika. Amazingly tender loins of Jamison lamb, meanwhile, stand atop fresh blini pancakes made of pureed roast eggplant, while sweet little onions braised in syrah wine loll around the plate.
When exploring the menu's meatier realms, you really can't go wrong with a good syrah or Rhone wine (a bottle of Domaine Cheze Saint-Joseph is one of the better values, at $50.) Then again, there are so many good choices, like the Paitin Barbaresco that made cynical Paul's strip steak sing.
The focus on great wine is obvious from the moment you arrive. A glass-walled cellar near the entrance displays California power bottles from Shafer, Heitz, Cakebread, Ojai and Joseph Phelps. Amid the bustling bar scene, a high-tech preservation system electronically dispenses three- and six-ounce servings of some excellent international wines.
An herby Kremstal gruner veltliner from Austria ($9), a lively Don Olegario albariño ($8), and a spicy Bosca malbec reserva ($11) from Argentina were just a few we enjoyed from the 40 choices. I resisted the big $55 glass of Dragonfly cab, though it usually sells for about $90 a bottle retail (and $165 on 233's list), so it is not, relatively speaking, a horrible deal.
Kitchen 233's service staff, however, still has serious kinks to iron out. They poured water into our white-wine glasses more than once. And my first-visit waitress condescendingly pressured us away from the three-ounce glasses (perfectly ample for a first-course drink) to more expensive six-ounce pours. At each of my visits, the wine was not even served before the first courses had landed on our table in a rush. The waits for our entrees, meanwhile, seemed interminably long - especially for one friend who waited nearly five minutes longer than the rest of us for his skirt steak.
As was usually the case, it proved to be worth the wait, the tender, herb- and garlic-infused steak paired with a fresh arugula-fingerling potato salad that radiated the perfume of truffles.
There were a few ho-hum efforts. The roasted beet salad was disappointingly plain, Paul sniffed. The tuna tartare was overdressed with salty Provencal dressing. The roast duck with lavender honey was tender, but the vegetable tian garnish was mushy. The pappardelle was homemade, but the noodles were too heavy, and the mushroom egg yolk-thickened sauce was too rich for a starter plate.
There were no such problems with the homemade ravioli, though, the delicate half-moon ricotta cheese dumplings that basked beneath a spicy amatriciana sauce. And I loved the buttery gnocchi tossed with ribbons of savoy cabbage that came in a little skillet alongside the meltingly tender braised veal short ribs.
A classic pairing of cod and mashed potatoes is elevated by a garlicky pancetta butter with snails. The simple, wood-grilled bone-in strip steak, meanwhile, was a primevally tasty slab of beef (the frites were wicked, too.) In fact, my pal Paul dispatched that juicy cut of sea-salt-dusted flesh - not to mention the final drops of our barbaresco when I wasn't looking - with such enthusiastic gusto, one might be tempted to think the old neighborhood curmudgeon was beginning to warm to the new taste of Haddon Avenue.
233 Haddon Ave., Westmont, 856-833-9233; www.kitchen233.com
Former Tangerine chef Chris Painter has teamed with the P.J. Whelihan's crew to craft a dark-wood-paneled, upscale wine-bar eatery for South Jersey. Painter delivers some spectacular Mediterranean cooking, and the cellar is stocked with an outstanding selection. The service, though, still needs to work out lots of kinks.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Provencal seafood stew; scallops with brandade; shrimp and lobster frites; ravioli amatriciana; NY strip; oil-poached turbot; veal short rib; skirt steak; cod in snail butter; lamb loin; tart Tatin.
WINE LIST An excellent selection of 350 quality bottles, with 40 available by the glass in different-size pours. The selection is international, with some hard-to-find labels, but the best choices draw from the Rhone, Spain and northern Italy, which also inspire the menu's flavors.
WEEKEND NOISE It's a noisy 84 decibels in the dining room, even louder in the bar. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday, 5-9 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
All major cards.
Free lot parking only.
OR TRY THESE
Here are two other new South Jersey restaurants of interest:
34 W. Merchant St., Audubon, N.J., 856-310-0605. After a sophisticated meal at this whimsical new BYOB, the dinerati should be able to spell E-X-C-I-T-E-M-E-N-T. The New American menu from chef and caterer Jayson Grossberg has some stunning dishes (best in a $65 multicourse tasting). With a few more touches, including better desserts, it could become one of South Jersey's best. Reviewed Dec. 17, 2006.
(Not yet formally rated)
800 Haddonfield Rd., Cherry Hill, 856-488-5888. The old Cherry Tree diner has been transformed into an airy Greek fish palace, where simply grilled whole fish take the spotlight alongside other Hellenic classics. It's still too new for a verdict, but an early visit brought an excellent grilled loup de mer. Visited January 2007.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine bar in Radnor. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.