December 2010 update:
Audrey Taichman and chef-partner Kiong Banh have given their decade-old Rittenhouse resto-lounge a homey makeover, replacing the once-trendy Asian-fusion fare and black-leather chic with a warmer yellow bistro look and a broader menu with lower prices and neighborhood appeal. This cheery and smartly redone corner space feels like the local hang it was meant to be, but the comfort-food menu has a surprising number of rough spots.
A disappointing recent revisit showed little improvement. The burger was too finely ground and squishy. A side salad was inedibly salted. The lobster pot pie was remarkably undecadent. Two ill-chosen sauces - maple-syrupy figs and over-creamed Gorgonzola cheese - made a pork chop evoke breakfast pancakes and a wedge salad on the same plate. Twenty Manning, alas, is reverting to its true calling as a Rittenhouse bar scene. But keep it simple, as even the cocktails (like the undrinkable Iconoclast) can be hit-or-miss.
The last time this much good energy surged through Audrey Taichman's resto-lounge at the corner of 20th and Manning, it was 1999 and edamame was exotic, wheatgrass was the word in edible table arrangements, and chic was defined by late-night DJs, squared black leather couches, and shiny metal community tables.
After 11 years and a pretension-humbling recession, though, even Taichman concedes that trendy old Twenty Manning was getting tired. So she and her business partner, chef Kiong Banh, decided to go for a homey change. Out with the old Asian fusion. In with a more diverse menu and bistro warmth. The old monochrome grays and black Le Corbusier furniture has been swapped for creamy stamped tin ceilings, rattan cafe chairs, and the overstuffed tufted comfort of a 22-foot-long Chesterfield banquette the color of a mango smoothie.
"I wanted a happy place," says Taichman, "something for the neighborhood."
And that is exactly what she got. Rittenhouse guys now hang against the softer curves of the new mahogany bar, sipping from an expanded list of craft beers (as well as the inevitable organic cucumber lime caipiroska) and watching the Phillies on a flat-screen TV once reserved for muted black-and-white films. Families and couples with pets relax with thin-crusted pizzas and bowls of spicy mussels beneath sidewalk cafe awnings fringed with a heat-quenching mist. The longtime regulars, meanwhile, can be seen stopping their beloved chef Banh for a hug and a special request as he strolls the room in cook's clogs and grandpa glasses.
The makeover may not be entirely original - the folksy "Grill" tacked onto the name and the retro cook-it-all logo now hanging from a banner outside ("Fish Fowl Beef Pork") appear to have been borrowed verbatim from the facade of the hot Standard Grill in New York. But this is surely a warmer, more welcoming space than it was. The young servers are friendly and well-informed. But does that mean this happy place is also well-fed?
Unfortunately, ordering well here is not nearly as easy as it should be. A 50 percent bump up in food sales, according to Taichman, might indicate that the broader, more affordable new menu, now about $3 less an entree and ranging from pizzas to roast chicken, is resonating again. My plates, though, were frustratingly erratic, with meals that offered some bright flavors but were also the definition of hit-or-miss, especially when it came to entrees.
For the most part, I had better luck with our starters. The shrimp cocktail was a classic done right, the huge crustaceans tender and sweet. A duo of mini crab cakes were delightfully simple, the panko-crisped little pucks dabbed with Old Bay tartar sauce and filled with good Venezuelan meat, a light salad of mâche and Granny Smith apples on the side. An iceberg salad gets a clever revamp from the usual wedge into a stylish stump, two thick rounds cut from the center then stacked askew beneath a creamy flow of blue-cheese dressing, bacon, and cherry tomatoes. The spicy calamari were delicately crisped in a vivid crust of ground chiles and cornmeal. And wonderful handcrafted pork dumplings, one of the carryovers from Twenty Manning's Asian fusion past, are a reminder of why this restaurant had fans to begin with - aside, of course, from the infectious personalities of both Taichman and Banh.
Too often on this wide-ranging menu, though, it felt like the kitchen was stretching beyond its comfort zone. The bucatini amatriciana, a dish Banh says he'd eaten once before, was lacking in enough of one crucial ingredient - tomatoes - to moisten what tasted like pasta tossed in a very dry coating of ground chile and guanciale bacon. The mac 'n' cheese Tuesday special was overwhelmed by the addition of starchy frozen peas, a too-thick top layer of bread crumbs, and the flavor of cheap cheese at its core. That same preshredded cheddar and frozen peas gave the canoe-size "chop chop" salad a mass-market look reminiscent of something from Applebee's (certainly not the "cooking for the neighborhood" feel that Taichman was going for).
When the kitchen got the style points right - like those burgers served enticingly on big wooden boards - essential details were off. Mine was even perfectly cooked and full of juicy savor, but the lean meat was ground so finely that the texture was all wrong, like a squishy medium-rare pate. A glass of zippy day-boat scallop ceviche had been over-marinated until the scallops were rubbery. Our half-dozen oysters on the half-shell were so poorly handled that I decided the disconcertingly dry and chewy Blue Point was better not swallowed.
None of this food is intended to be complicated, and there were moments that showed the Grill's clear potential to deliver on simple pleasures. A crispy little flatbread dough, taught to Banh by old pal and former Perrier pastry man Rocco Lugrine, made for a delightfully light Margherita pizza. A plump 14-ounce pork chop, moist and flavorful from its herby brine, was the picture of zestiness over charred Brussels sprouts and seasonal grilled peaches topped with creamy blue cheese. A gorgeous pink tuna steak of lightly seared ahi fanned next to an addictive pineapple rice, meanwhile, was another worthy favorite retained from the old menu, though with little more than a balsamic-soy dip as a complement, it could also have used one more substantial element on the plate.
In a few other less-exciting dishes, the missing puzzle piece was simply brighter flavors. The charred sirloin noodles, a blandly upscaled take on Vietnamese vermicelli "bun" (Banh is ethnically Chinese but from Vietnam), was lacking a more assertive fish-sauce twang of "nuoc mam." Apparently, some was added, though I couldn't taste it - next time I'd ask for more on the side. A roasted salmon topped with dill vinaigrette was dull. A yellow pepper-olive oil puree was too subtle to enliven the slightly overcooked scallops. The steak-frites brought a thick cut of fairly average rib eye threaded with a tough sinew and sided by a pile of frozen fries. For $24, by far the most expensive entree on a menu hovering in the high teens, those fries, at least, should get a fresh-made upgrade.
When it comes to dessert, this kitchen is already in its feel-good groove, headlined by a meltingly soft half-baked Toll House cookie topped with ice cream and caramel, a decadent slice of tangy sour cream cheesecake, and a warm cobbler of Jersey berries topped with cakey crust. They're just the kind of dishes that evoke the comfort food success of Carolina's, which thrived in this space for many years before Taichman arrived with the wheatgrass and black leather 11 years ago.
If only the savory menu can be fine-tuned - and it so easily could with a few recipe tweaks, finishing touches, or a click more focus on the flavors of each plate - Twenty Manning Grill is very close to arriving at that next level, where it can become a neighborhood mainstay for another decade. The happy vibe from its smart renovation is already well-ensconced. I'm just waiting for the flavors to consistently hum along, too.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-2862.