White Dog Cafe Wayne
At the lavish new Main Line location, food is still ethically sourced, but the wait for a table can be interminable and the cooking sometimes fumbles.
The server closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and hollered as sweetly as possible: "EXCUSE ME, PLEASE!" And then, with hot plates of ethically raised local food in hand, she plunged into the preppy mosh pit that coursed through the bar of the White Dog's new outpost in Wayne like a river of cashmere, tweed, and black-velvet cougar suits.
To denizens of the White Dog's original location in University City, where the academic crowd is earthy and diverse, and the rambling rowhouse decor of mismatched lamps and gingham curtains and family-style dining-room tables was pieced together organically from founder Judy Wicks' home upstairs, the lavish new Main Line location will be a culture shock.
The crowd, naturally, looks to be more hunt-club society than the crunchy co-op types that helped make the West Philly institution a pioneer in the go-local sustainable-food movement. And the grandly designed space emulates a Main Line manse rather than a funky city townhouse. The multiple spaces shift themes from a quaint garden room, to a woody library where books hang suspended open over the tables, to a sunny, wooden-beamed "kitchen" room decorated with copper pots and antique rolling pins and Mason jar chandeliers lighting the way.
There are also hundreds of pieces of dog-themed art that risk bringing the room to kitsch, but it's all both playful and classy, and I liked the feeling of the place far more than I expected.
And so do the White Dog's new suburban patrons - maybe too much. The restaurant's jammed parking lot has stoked the ire of its strip-mall neighbors and Radnor Township officials, who say owner Marty Grims has seating for 174 – nearly triple the amount on his permit.
From a diner's perspective, though, the unchecked crush of customers (on weekends especially) threatens to obscure a crucial fact: Both of Grims' White Dog locations, despite lack of overt lefty politics, have upheld the ethical-food practices of the founder. Wicks, who retained licensing rights to the name but sold the business to Grims with a legally binding social contract, even conducts audits to ensure the ingredients are local when possible, as well as sustainably, environmentally, and humanely raised.
That's all noble, of course. But the rest of Philly's cooks long ago jumped on that cart - a tribute to the movement Wicks helped launch.
But when customers cool their heels for nearly an hour past their 8 p.m. reservation in the clutch of a martini mob (alas, my only bite of food before 9:15 was a gin-soaked olive), I'm not sure how many will really give a fig that their lamb sliders came from a whole animal purchased from Lancaster's Meadow Run Farm.
Add to that the insult of a rush-job once seated - our three-course dinner, stumbling through some sloppy cooking, ran just over an hour - and you're talking about cultivating something unsustainable: bitter customers.
Even on a midweek night, we were made to wait 15 minutes. But with a notch less pandemonium, one could see the potential of the eager staff, the handsome rooms, and a young chef in Zach Grainda who is serious about his work.
The fare isn't especially innovative - dishes such as tuna tartare, goat-cheese beet salad, and sliders. But it's crafted with style from good ingredients that are generally allowed to shine.
Kennett Square mushrooms are pureed to an earthy cream that's poured tableside onto a little mound of grilled Amish chicken shreds that add texture to temper the truffled richness. In another starter, royal trumpets enrich a porcini cream that glazes some tasty tortelloni dumplings. The ground lamb for those mini-burgers is paired classically with the piquancy of a roasted tomato-olive tapenade and a tart drizzle of tzatziki yogurt.
An absolutely superb 13-ounce slice of NY strip from Painted Hills Farm in Oregon (not local, but "natural") has a minerally tenderness that is worth the $39 fee - by far the most expensive entrée of a menu whose prices hover in the mid-$20s. Green Meadow's local beef, meanwhile, is hand-minced into a perky tartare so silky from the texture of fine raw beef, it was a mistake to panfry the quail egg on top, instead of letting the raw yolk lend a finishing gloss.
For each of those hits, however, this kitchen fumbled another potentially successful dish through careless execution. Two beautiful fillets of arctic char with tender mushroom spaetzle were seared to such a hard crisp that they were dry. The Australian barramundi was delightful (moist, meaty, sweet), but was ringed by gummy sweet-potato gnocchi that had the texture of stale bits of doughnut. The lamb Bolognese - a flavorful dish done well at the West Philly locale - was overcreamed to a sticky thickness and ladled over floppy, overcooked rigatoni.
A wonderfully tasty pork chop with cheddar grits and greens was dry and chewy in the middle. Some gorgeously huge Maine scallops were paired memorably with curried cauliflower, golden raisins, and parsnip puree, but half of the "seared" scallops were basically raw.
I can enjoy a good day-boat scallop sashimi (even when not intended). But I can't blame my guests for recoiling at the raw chicken. Cooked most of the way in a sous vide bag, our Amish bird was seared too little on the finish, leaving flabby skin and a pink translucence inside the the breast. It's a shame. The rest of hearty dish - farro risotto, pickled cranberries, and glazed salsify - might have been worth the $26 fee.
I'm sure our waiter would have taken care of the dish (unlike the overwhelmed first-night waitress, who didn't flinch when I pointed out the undercooked scallops). He was the picture of professionalism. But he was also a prolific run-on talker, launching unprompted into lengthy descriptions of ingredients, the subtle variances among different oysters, the American wine list's best bets, and his many favorite dishes - not to mention details of the contract Grims signed with "Judith," which is apparently what a lifelong "Judy" has become in Wayne. The thought of more verbal fuss was unbearable.
Plus, we were ready for dessert. That course also proved uneven, with an average crème brûlée (crust too thick) and a ho-hum (albeit "fair trade") chocolate torte. But there was also a stroke of inspiration in the "milk and honey," fried custard over pistachio mousse and huckleberry compote, as well as the orchard comfort of apple bread pudding served in a Mason jar.
So, which restaurant will you discover - the good White Dog, or the erratic, hyper puppy still getting used to its new popular digs? Either way, you'll be fortunate just to find a parking space and get seated on time.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Taqueria Moroleón in Avondale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.