Keeping up with the Kimptons can't be easy for the Sofitel. After all, this French hotel chain had the corner on chic lodging at 17th and Sansom Streets for a decade before that glitzy, art-draped boutique hotelier from San Francisco showed up last year with the Palomar, its stylish cocktail lounge, and an ambitious modern restaurant that actual Philadelphians not staying there might want to eat in.
The Sofitel's longtime dining room - the ever-disappointing but cozily hidden Chez Colette - had become positively shabby by Thanksgiving, when I regretfully led out-of-town relatives to a brunch that was alternately lukewarm, slow, and greasy.
It was time for a serious makeover, especially as the expanding Convention Center prepares to loose thousands of additional hungry visitors on the city.
The result of those efforts is Liberté, a revamped bar and restaurant wrapped inside the Sofitel's glassed-in ground floor whose motto, spelled out on a sign tacked to the sleek wood-veneer walls, is "urban.chic.lounge."
"Slow.reheated.disaster" would be more appropriate based on the meals I recently slogged through there, a performance of incompetence on the plate and in the dining room that I've not endured in quite some time.
There were chewy things that should have been tender, like the rubbery pork belly encased in a crust so impenetrably hidelike that it evoked all the wrong images of pigskin. There was cold coffee. There was a spoiled bottle of wine - already wildly overpriced before our server obliterated the desiccated cork. There was bouillabaisse the color of brown pond water, poured tableside with great fanfare into the bowl, but also onto the lap of my guest - The Inquirer's food editor.
At least it wasn't very hot.
As is often the case with corporate redos, the concept is obvious but sound: to transform a bland hotel bar (fresh off its brief ennui-filled cameo in Jonathan Franzen's book Freedom – coincidentally, English for "Liberté") into a hip and current city destination with charcuterie, "mixology," and stylish updates to French bistro fare.
And Sofitel has clearly invested richly in the smart new look, from the velveteen banquettes that flank the long arcing bar to the ruffled glass chandeliers and the modern library shelves framing a warming fireplace in the lounge.
As long as you stay parked in the drink-and-nibble zone, the visit should be safe. In fact, I sipped some well-crafted concoctions here, including the signature Liberté, a saucer swimming with pear-kissed vodka and Champagne; as well as a sage-infused Collins that found the perfect balance of herbal and lemony tart.
It is also a good bet to stick with the charcuterie and cheeses - Bayonne ham, country pâté, Pennsylvania Noble cheddar, Morbier, Humboldt Fog - that the Sofitel's kitchen can't ruin.
When we shifted toward our table in the back, though, I knew we were in trouble from our first seemingly innocuous exchange with the waiter.
"Hi, everyone!" he said. "Any questions?"
"Yes, what's the soup of the day?"
"Oh - that is a great question. Let me go ask."
Back with the answer (butternut squash), our server then one-upped himself by whipping out an iPhone to text himself our order in case he forgot. And then he went for a pad of paper. And then, of course, we got the whole story of how he was filling in for the waitress who was trying out for a play in New Haven who, etc., etc. . . .
I might have been interested had the DJ blasting his iPod in the lounge turned down the pounding '80s soundtrack - Prince, Rick Springfield, Human League – better suited for an oldies spin class than a $22-a-plate French dinner.
But the kitchen's performance was full of dissonance, too. The menu from new exec chef Kevin Levett, an Aussie brought in recently from London, shows a clever approach, with largely precooked, slow-braised building blocks that should require minimum competence to reheat and plate on the line.
Levett's crew rarely met that modest goal. The coq au vin of drumsticks was undercooked and chewy. So was the braised short rib "bourguignon," which was sloshed across an oddly tiny square plate that evoked the overeager heapings of an all-u-can-eat buffet.
There were a few bright spots - a lovely duet of crisply seared striped bass fillet perched against parcels of braised Savoy cabbage; a decent beet and goat cheese salad (despite the oddly gray puree smudged across the plate); a series of composed "tartines," rustic breads topped with French ham and Brie cream, truffled mushrooms, or bresaola with horseradish mayo.
But then there was the house-cured trout salad in too much mayo that was oxidizing brown by the time it landed on our table. There were chewily seared scallops separated by tall blades of pancetta that had been precooked in the morning to a deeply burnt black.
Some of the disappointments were fundamental flaws. Overcooking a duck breast with the cassoulet, for example, was a secondary offense compared to the soulless little mound of beans that looked to have been plopped on the side with an ice-cream scoop. Likewise for the no-brainer decadence of French onion soup. A measly crouton gratinéed with cheese languished in lonely obscurity at the bottom of a dark bowl of broth.
Vegetarians have to love the effort of a composed dish just for them. But this one - a watery artichoke heart perched between two card stacks of completely tasteless potato terrine - was an $18 punishment for such dietary virtue. Bargain seekers like the silver-haired quartet beside us in for a Restaurant Week night out also got a rude deal with the special menu's salmon (minuscule, cruelly oversalted, terribly overcooked) that had no business anchoring a $35 three-course prix-fixe.
After I swallowed part of mine, I started to feel for those around me - the seniors beside us making the best of it; the swankily dressed young couple who settled into a cozy corner booth before leaving suddenly, mysteriously, after the first course; those conventioneers from Kentucky who might think this reflects Philly's dining scene; my own unlucky guests. Even for chef Levett, who clearly doesn't have the kitchen horses to make such a transition.
On this second visit, I also began to feel sorry for our lovely young server, Janna, who was about the most composed person in the entire restaurant. She'd taken over for our flustered first-night waiter, then graciously replaced the corked wine with a newer, sounder bottle of similarly overpriced Chilean cab.
She also did not dim her smile when I sent back my pork belly because, for the second visit in a row, the kitchen had neglected to add the advertised blood sausage to the plate.
"I'm so sorry," she sighed. "It's just one of those nights."
Keeping up with the Kimptons must be even harder than it looks.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the White Dog Cafe in Wayne. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.