I'm all for giving the undereducated, over-Budweisered campus crowd a chance to learn their Tucher from their tuchus. But what happens to the fizz of the city's hippest trend when craft beer goes college-town corporate?
The massive new 300-seat City Tap House is a fascinating test case. The typical Philly beer-bar grunge has been thoroughly supplanted here by a soaring Mission wood space outfitted with salvaged planks and hammered copper. Fire pits blaze at night on the expansive "green roof" terrace of the second-floor balcony at University City's mod new Radian building, where well-scrubbed Ivy Leaguers network around tasting racks of wheat beer and thin-crusted pizzas beneath moonlit high-rise dorms. Inside, meanwhile, taps with 60 craft beers line the 20-yard-long copper bar, gushing forth in the widest array of quality drafts the city has yet to sip.
All in all, it is a grandly polished showplace for the region's darling drink. It also promises an image upgrade for Public House Investments, a locally based group whose mega-bars and happy-hour havens (Field House, Public House, and Mission Grill) are best known for drink specials and a TV-screen blitz that even partner Gary Cardi concedes is "a little obnoxious."
But doing craft beer right involves more than simply putting some Arrogant Bastard on tap for $6 a goblet. To begin with, it helps to clean the glasses. My first glass on a Friday night still reeked of dish soap. The second came tattooed with lipstick ("Not yours?" winked the bartendress with an obviously well-practiced touché). Then came a glass with bread crumbs floating on top, though by this time I was almost willing to sip around the debris because the alternative - City Tap's skunky tap water - tasted like it was filtered through a goldfish bowl.
If you want good advice on what to drink, good luck if "beer steward" and manager Andy Farrell is otherwise occupied. Only one of my three servers (charming Lindsay) was more than clueless in guiding us through the big international list. One pleaded finals fatigue for his ignorance. Another needed us to tell him that Victory's Scarlet Fire is a smoked beer.
The scattered service, in general, needs polish. That was obvious when we spied a mouse scurrying between the tables beside us on the terrace, darting in and out of the scruffy brown patch of burned-out vegetation known as a "green roof."
"Sorry, gang," a passing waiter said with a shrug. "The mice kind of like to live in [the green roof], and we're not really happy about it, but we're not supposed to harm them, either. It's very sustainable."
OK, so now Mouse Meadows at City Tap House is part of the Fairmount Park green belt? A bit more concerned than his waiter, Cardi says the restaurant is working on the problem with thrice weekly visits from the exterminator.
As for the pub-plus menu from chef Al Paris (formerly of Mantra, City Grill, Rococo), it's also getting a continuous tune-up, with some triage and recipe tweaks from temporary "consulting chef" Scott Swiderski, of Buddakan renown. They've still got plenty of work to do.
Paris says the concept is to give a slightly lighter take on bar food than some of the pork-obsessed gastropubs in town, which I'm in favor of. But as always, the success (or lack thereof) is in the details.
If you're going to serve a trio of smallish sausages, for example, it's probably best if the snips of merguez, bratwurst, and fennel links don't look to have been shriveling under a heat lamp. The quinoa salad, one of the menu's healthier sides, tasted virtually unseasoned.
There were, no doubt, some decent salads, such as the orange segments tossed with marcona almonds and shaved fennel. The chicken wings get tossed in a mild spice rub, then roasted instead of fried.
But the best dishes were, in fact, the most indulgent. Crisply fried oysters came dabbed with spicy mayo over little corny johnnycakes, their sweet softness contrasting with the piquant crisp of the hot sauce buttermilk batter. Plump seared shrimp brought a Southern mood over cheddary stone-ground grits slathered in creamy tasso béchamel. The big burger, perfectly grilled Angus gilded with a molten Muenster lid, was exactly what I'd want from a solid beer-bar kitchen.
Where City Tap House really falters into mediocrity, though, is in the key domains of mussels and pizza. I ordered three different bowls of mussels, and whether prepared with leeks and Belgian ale (Abigail-style), or not enough chorizo and tomato (Pancho), or in Pernod garlic cream tinted with tangled wads of saffron (Carmine), the flavors were surprisingly pallid. At worst, the mollusks were overcooked and fishy.
City Tap's much-touted brick-oven pizzas, meanwhile, left me flat. Paris' crusts are cracker-crisp, for sure, but had little other character - no puffy lift or inner-softness, not enough salt, and often an unnecessary shine of olive oil and charred semolina clinging to the edges. As is, they weren't flavorful enough to remain sauce-less and blank for large patches as in the "tartufo," which, with a hard-fried egg plopped on top, was a poor man's rendition of another signature pie across town. The best were more conventional, a backdrop of garlicky red dotted with clouds of fresh mozzarella, sausage, or heat-crisped rounds of pepperoni.
Similarly, the barbecue dishes didn't deliver the pit-master payoff I'd expect from meats that had smoked for several hours. The bones of our Calvados and mustard wet-mopped ribs simply flopped out of their meat holsters, leaving flaccid riblets most notable for their sauce. The herb-roasted chicken was juicy and spot-on. But the smoked brisket reuben, an odd combo of barbecue-rubbed beef, pickled red cabbage, sharp Gruyère, and Jewish deli Russian and rye, amounted to an open-faced culture clash of flavors.
More straightforward, and more satisfying, was the good rare steak of achiote-rubbed tuna, fanned over an arugula-orange salad with a sweet-tart citrus sauce. I would have liked the sweet and zesty honey-chorizo shrimp dish, too, had those big crustaceans not been overcooked.
Desserts were equally mixed. Apple bread pudding was dry as a brick-size sponge. The chocolate cake was artlessly dense but layered with a serious cocoa jolt. The fresh doughnuts would have evoked Buddakan if they weren't so clumsily big.
A better solution is to opt for the smartly selected cheese platter - Valdeon, Taleggio, Grafton cheddar. Nibbled at a nice table inside, with a clean glass, far from terrace wildlife, it's the perfect match for City Tap House's best asset - beer, beer, and more beer.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Amuse near City Hall.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.