There was a full moon over Drury Street, and it was shining, in particular, over the Corner restaurant on the corner of Drury and Thirteenth.
I'd been to this address before, but it was different. This was Apothecary Bar and Lounge, a before-its-time bi-level laboratory for cocktail geeks that had the warmth of a pharmacy. The ice cubes were the best that money could by, and there were 25-plus variations on the Manhattan, some of which actually were served aflame. But the concept itself never quite caught fire in this space, and, even with a slight name change to APO, it eventually flickered out.
A lot has happened since. APO's co-owners, Tony Rim (of Raw) and architect Tim Chabon, decided to warm the space and focus more on food - a move that wouldn't have been possible sooner.
This long-aspiring stretch of 13th Street in Center City has finally blossomed into its own. With Lolita, Zavino, and now Barbuzzo going full-tilt, a brief puff of warm air in late winter made the sidewalk spontaneously combust in diners.
With its windows now flung wide to the city life, this space - now the Corner - was open and inviting for the passing crowds to peek in. Inside, they've brought in wood banquettes with cleverly sliding seat backs to replace the steely chairs. And instead of mixologists ruminating for 10 minutes over complicated drinks, the first-floor bars have been replaced with heat and flash behind a new open kitchen, their domain now rimmed (Barbuzzo-style) by a Carrera marble counter for spectator seating.
If APO was the epitome of liquid esoterica, the meals now emerging here are the picture of updated Americana, reimagined with good ingredients and a sophisticated modern flair.
There were chicken wings slow-poached in molten chicken schmaltz, then crisped beneath fried shallots and a honeyed glaze that tingled with sriracha heat. There were tender meatball sliders, impaled on mini-brioche buns and drenched in red sauce infused with lamb and pork. There were giant shrimp wound in crispy nests of kataifi phyllo. A straightforward grilled burger, made with the excellent LaFrieda short rib-brisket blend from New York that's suddenly everywhere, was a reminder of how satisfyingly savory this simple classic can be when the building blocks are right.
Who knew that, as we munched away, the Corner was on the precipice of yet another change? Opening chef Scott Swiderski, the big name from Buddakan who'd been there barely two months, was about to jump ship.
Lucky for us - not to mention the Corner's owners - that Swiderski's second in command, John "Chainsaw" Taus, was more than willing and able to step into the head job.
Taus, nicknamed for his look-alike in the '80s film Summer School, had already made a splash with revamped comfort fare at Snackbar. So he was already in his natural wheelhouse here, even on the first menu, where some of the best dishes were his own. His iconic chicken pot pie, self-contained by its own flaky pie dough at Snackbar, has been cast more conventionally here, snuggled beneath a biscuit in a skillet. As a general rule, cutting back on the flaky pastry is a downgrade. But this one, at least, is still a gem, the same creamy sage gravy filled with morsels of tender meat, carrots, and peas.
Taus' signature pierogi, meanwhile, remain a nod to his Grandmom Stella's recipe, the tender yet crisply seared dough encasing silky cheddared potatoes and caramelized onions over a swoosh of crème whipped green with chive.
Pruning the original menu, though, has been an ongoing chore, as Taus seeks to establish a more distinctive identity - vis-a-vis its neighbors - for both himself and the Corner 2.0.
Tossing the meatballs was an obvious start, with Barbuzzo and Zavino on the same block (and Marabella's not far) already cornering the meat-sphere trade. Ditto for the flatbread, thankfully, which was a soggy disappointment smeared with fig jam and arugula.
Some of the new additions are worth noting. Taus' sliders now feature some killer pork belly, braised to tenderness then crisped on the plancha, to be layered with garlicky house-cured kraut and the grainy spark of homemade mustard.
That kraut - perhaps the next frontier in our charcuterie craze (à la Franzen's The Corrections) - stars again on a gamed-up Reuben, the beer-infused rye bread layered with apple-smoked duck pastrami.
Taus' soups are generally not to be missed. One night we spooned through a smoky black bean soup topped with chipotle crema and a croquette made from smoked turkey butt. The next brought a rich chicken broth floating choux-pastry dumplings that tasted like dense, creamy matzo balls.
This kitchen has such a nice touch with seafood - searing succulent scallops with buttery leeks and fennel-tomato compote, or a pristine tuna steak with sweet-tart eggplant caponata - I wish they'd extend that finesse to tackle some more elegant dishes. Then again, with nothing on this menu more than $15, the substance Taus does achieve is admirable.
In the process, though, there were still a couple of near misses. The Blue Bay mussels were impressively tender, but 40-clove garlic red sauce was so sedate and lacking zing that it was hard to believe the chef was really counting. I was intrigued by the "masa tots," a Swiderski dish made from tortilla flour pureed with cilantro and jalapeño, but they were just a bit too doughy, and too lightly fried, to fulfill their destiny of bar-food greatness.
The fried chicken was not just disappointing, but confusing - the tenderly brined meat dunked into a fryer without the protective coat of a crust. If Taus is on the crust-eradication tear he appears to be, I'm fine with the pot pie, but fried chicken is not the place to do it.
Ironically, too much crust is my issue with the flounder sandwich. It's such a beautiful fillet of perfectly fried fish, why cover it up in the redundant, inelegant crunch of a crusty baguette? Like so many of these dishes, already bursting with good flavors and nice ingredients, it only begs for a small fix.
Desserts remain untouched, for now, while Taus' attention is still focused on the savory. The dramatic cream cheese mousse, a sort-of deconstructed cheesecake wrapped inside a towering coconut tuile, should survive, as should the silky maple panna cotta on the dessert trio. The molten chocolate cake - do we really need another? - can go.
Of more pressing concern, though, are the drinks, which, perhaps as a revolt against the building's hoity-toity DNA, are just average. APO's cocktailistas would likely pop a suspender if they heard our waitress ask what kind of bourbon I wanted in my Manhattan (a rye drink if there ever was one). The Sazerac was sorely missing its simple syrup. The wine list is just fine for affordable nightspot drinking. But what's really lacking here, especially considering Rim's close friendship with the owner of the Foodery, is a more compelling beer list.
For a restaurant that's already opened its windows and warmed its soul to entice the masses, the siren call of hops at this vital crossroads should be obvious. But take heart: this is one Corner that's always changing.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Dandelion near Rittenhouse Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.