December 2010 update:
Despite the soaring city view at Daniel Stern's second project this year, a swank restaurant and lounge atop Liberty Two, the fine-dining experience was shaky in its opening months in the spring. The ambitious New American menu, drawing partially on past glories from Rae and Gayle, was inconsistent for the lofty prices, and the service was so frazzled, it couldn't add up an accurate bill.
Amazingly, a year-end revisit was even worse, from the puffery of our server's endless preamble ("Daniel Stern is known for reinventing American cuisine! . . .") to a train of dishes that instead portrayed a "pretender" rather than "innovator" - rubbery scallop dumplings inside raggedly frayed wrappers of dough made from pureed bacon; short ribs as chewy as bark; taquitos with pasty rabbit filling; burnt surf-and-turf cocktail franks; browned avocado on the minuscule chopped salad, and more - at fees as high as R2L's perch. Even the tap water was skunked. If it wasn't for the unique view, cocktail lounge, and decent desserts, the year's loftiest dining project would more appropriately sit in the "no-bell" cellar.
"The view is nice. . . ."
When you're perched 37 floors up, gazing over a dinner table upon a twinkling galaxy of city lights below, that's about as loaded as faint praise gets.
Not that this roost at R2L atop Two Liberty Place isn't inspiring and rare - it is, especially in a low-rise town like Philly that hugs so close to street level at feeding time, it borders on phobic.
But with talented Daniel Stern in his chef whites cooking alongside his troops inside his glass-enclosed box of a kitchen, one might reasonably expect enough spectacular flavors on the plate to exert their own gravitational pull.
There were a few glimmers, no doubt, that harked back to the culinary wit and deft technique that won Stern praise at his past restaurants. His deconstructed veal stew, a favorite from Gayle, remains a masterful modern ode to the anti-P.C. meat, a montage of parts - seared, braised, ground to meat loaf - posed over a hash of tongue and sweetbreads glazed in dark gravy. His mini Reubens, an inventive whimsy from Rae that has evolved into bite-size packages of house-corned beef and kraut wrapped in rye cracker dough, should become a classic on the cocktail-party circuit.
Unfortunately, those highlights didn't appear nearly often enough over the course of my meals - especially with entrée prices drifting into the high $30s and above. Add in a service staff that was comically disorganized and frazzled at my first dinner, and it's clear that something is amiss. I'd suggest, at least, that everyone double-check their bills.
It was bad enough to be charged $90 for wine and beer I didn't drink on the first check. It was infuriating to then be overcharged on the "corrected" tab for drinks I did have, with two prices marked higher than the printed wine list.
"It's unacceptable," the manager who served our table sheepishly conceded, before fixing it.
It would be a shame for the R2L story to end on such a low. Because when it comes to soaring ambition and promise, there's nothing quite like it in the city.
Simply getting there is part of the allure. Diners pass through a discreet hallway in the Liberty Two lobby, step into a dedicated elevator, then – whoosh! The doors open onto Snazzyville. Jazz fills the air. The swelling buzz of a crowd leads you around the corner, where white-clad chefs hustle inside the glassed-in kitchen beside the corridor. And then the room opens up onto the lounge, where a hive of slinky party dresses and pinstripe suits sip classic cocktails while the setting sun melts like a maraschino cherry over the western horizon.
The lounge may show R2L to best advantage, in its relaxed vibe and its nibbles - the small bites are among the kitchen's strongest efforts. Beer-marinated morsels of striped bass are fried inside lacy potatoes for stellar "fish and chips." Fresh tacquitos are rolled around tenderly braised rabbit. And that old-school combo, bacon-wrapped scallops, gets Stern-ified into a smart pot-sticker update with scallop-mousse filling tucked inside dumpling dough actually made with pureed bacon.
It's far better than it sounds. Once you pass the bar and settle into one of the dining room's zebra-print booths for a meal, though, too many dishes leave the opposite impression.
A $20 crock of four large shrimp was virtually flavorless despite a lemon-truffle vinaigrette. The crab cakes were mushy, and slathered in too much lobster sauce. I wouldn't have known there was venison inside those tiny plugs of "cheesesteak" had the menu not said so - the measly stuffing was drowned by the over-toasted crunch of the Amoroso roll.
The larger plates were equally erratic. A smallish hunk of relatively unseasoned striped bass with a seared scallop was thoroughly ho-hum (for $34) - and shown up by the little garnish of pork belly. The beef short rib was braised overnight, but on the plate it was dry and chewy. The rib-eye duo brought a more successful slow-cooked cut, a confit of the fat cap that melted in my mouth. Too bad the grilled eye of rib was cold around the edges, which weren't covered in flowing bearnaise. Even more annoying: no $32 steak should come with french fries, even if they were this good.
The vegan at my table was equally miffed. His improvised entrée was flavorful enough, a gallimaufry of produce textures, temperatures, and color. Visually, though, it was a mash-up of naturalist art and mise-en-place scraps, including a decapitated stump of broccoli stem ("the part I generally don't eat," my vegan noted) that could have clogged a garbage disposal.
The "prepared simply" lobster, meanwhile, was just that, a plain tail curled around some claw meat. But the meat didn't exude that usual butter-poached richness, and, for $36, we just expected more.
By contrast, the lobster served with the "surf and turf" at my second meal was lusciously buttery and tender. Paired with a veal stew variation that included good old braised blanquette, it was just the imaginative and intricately wrought splurge a room like this demands.
The signature salmon, likewise, showed all the finesse and touch that I'd come to expect from Stern in previous years. The beautifully roasted brick of fish came over barley napped in a light, lemony cream, with an upturned little crepe on the side rolled around gravlax.
On my more satisfying second visit, it could have been, quite simply, that a slower midweek night was a calming balm for the kitchen. But the jumpy servers still had a pacing problem, yanking plates away while we were still chewing. The bill, at least, was correct.
Stern seems to be overwhelmed with the challenge of running two new restaurants (R2L and MidAtlantic). Perhaps, last week's hiring of ex-Talula's Table chef Bryan Sikora as company "culinary director" will improve both restaurants.
And pastry chef Peter Scarola, whose miso panna cotta with sweet soy ice cream was a highlight of meal one, came back with several winners: marble-size rice-pudding fritters rolling in orange-blossom foam; a delicate pastry boat filled with intense apple pie alongside cool sour cream mousse; vivid celery and green apple sorbet; a decadent dome lined with creamy layers of chocolate, chicory, and peanut butter mousse.
At last, the best view at R2L was finally on the plate.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.