"Oh, Robert," said the distinguished lady, embracing the blond and bushy-headed young restaurateur before her exit, "we would follow you anywhere."
As the older couple turned from co-owner Robert Reilly to leave, one might have thought Salt & Pepper had just transplanted itself from some distant burg. In fact, it had only moved from one part of South Philly to another, zagging just a mile southwest down to East Passyunk Avenue from its former cozy nook in Queen Village.
In this city of micro-neighborhoods, that trip might as well have required a visa. Back in its former life, S&P was just another pleasant shoebox BYOB in a mellow residential neighborhood that already had plenty. In its snazzy new digs on East Passyunk Avenue, however, this American bistro is now in the spotlight as the latest storefront to open on arguably the city's hottest strip.
After years of building momentum, "the Avenue" now positively thrums with full-throttle life, as hipsters down margaritas and craft beer at sidewalk tables, browse the used record stores and hip-couture boutiques, sip Third Wave coffee, and spoon through cups of local rhubarb sorbetto. There is a destination here now for virtually every taste, whether it's for sophisticated foodies (Fond), sushi (Izumi), Italians of all stripes ("Old School" Mr. Martino's; "New School" Paradiso; or "Autentico" Le Virtù), as well as gastropubs galore.
For a former BYO with big ambitions to rise up the radar to a bigger stage, this would seem an ideal spot to land. So why, then, is Salt & Pepper so darn bland?
It isn't a matter of looks. The bilevel storefront is a strikingly handsome urban space, the former Roselena's stripped of its granny parlor look (outta here, teacups and fringey lace), replaced with earth tones and a sleek decor that lends the historic bones some contemporary class. With thick pillar candles flickering in the fireplace and couples everywhere I looked, it's genuinely romantic. Add a liquor license and an appealing front bar, and this newcomer should be ready to play.
But while it should be reveling in its new wine list, the drink offerings are anemic, with just a few nice spirits, a handful of forgettable wines, and beers that make me grateful BYOB is still permitted (Tuesday and Wednesday). Man cannot live on snifters of Laphroaig Quarter Cask alone (on second thought . . .).
The primary concern, though, is the menu, which is timidly retro to the point of being boring. Sesame seared tuna with lemongrass sauce? That would be cutting-edge circa 1998. Roast chicken, seared salmon, onion soup, beet salad, and the ever-present steak-frites (with frozen fries, no less) should be conservative fallbacks for a 2011 menu - not a reason to come.
The lack of flavor flash is deliberate, according to Reilly, a former Buddakan waiter who owns the new spot with fellow Starr alum Joseph Massara, a veteran server from Striped Bass.
"We're safe," says Reilly. "We both came from very conceptualized restaurants, so there's been a very conscious effort to un-conceptualize [here], to let the people dictate what they want as opposed to something we wanted that they don't."
I understand Reilly's genuinely warm impulse to soothe his faithful with accessible flavors and a "New Age" vibe that floats on a Keb Mo' soundtrack so mellow you could do yoga while dinner is served. And that fawning farewell from a devoted regular proves that the simple equation may be enough to hold a certain audience.
But menus honed to humdrum by popular demand are the stuff of America's chain restaurants. And I don't think that's why most folks drift down to East Passyunk to eat.
Ironically, both Reilly and his chef, Lacina "Kouma" Koné, acknowledge that the most exciting food here may never leave the kitchen's staff meals - the electric African flavors of Koné's native Ivory Coast, from athieke and braised fish to chicken stewed with spicy tomatoes. With Koné's decade on the line at Brasserie Perrier as a lens to focus those exotic flavors for the mainstream, the adventure could be intriguing.
"Bangin'," says Reilly. "Some of my favorite meals. But [Koné] is not sure it would be received well . . . and we don't want to overload our menu with too many possibilities."
As it is, the possibilities are too predictable. And unfortunately, these familiar flavors exhibit neither the consistency nor the fresh imagination to make them compelling.
There were some passable options. I liked the tropical addition of pineapple to the familiar beet and goat cheese salad. The roast chicken was tender and savory, despite a risotto below it overly cheesed with mascarpone. Even the old faithful sesame-seared tuna was just fine, with its coconut-lemongrass sauce and baby bok choy (though the rice was salty).
But so many of the other easy standards were dimmed by a lack of finesse. I could have loved the gnocchi with porcini sauce topped with a cracker of crispy prosciutto, but why make those dumplings so hard with semolina flour that they practically bounced with pasty chew? The seared scallops were good enough, but the unexpected chill of the lentil salad threw me off.
As a rule, when reinventing a classic like French onion soup, it's best not to shrink the best part: the molten cheese lid. It arrived here as a dinky crouton floating on a broth overpowered by rosemary. Another standard combo - raw tuna and avocado - emerged in an odd construction, the tuna pounded out into a sheet, then wrapped around avocado mush like a fishy, squishy guacamole burrito.
How to mess up a basic piece of salmon with Israeli couscous? Top it with cheap red caviar for visual effect (and a harsh salty pop) when more delicate salmon caviar would have been a far better choice without adding much expense.
Oversalting was an issue at my first meal, spoiling the mashed potatoes beneath a rack of lamb that, at $30, was oddly $10 more than most of the other reasonable entrees. Overcooking took away from the other notably pricey dish, a $28 duck breast, which turned giblety once it passed medium and wasted the ringing depth of a ginger and honey gastrique.
The bargain steak-frites for $18 was also so overdone and sliced so oddly I could scarcely recognize the cut - though at least the richly steeped Bordelaise gravy added some savor. The big cheeseburger was terribly undercooked, giving the too finely ground beef (from Painted Creek and otherwise tasty) the texture of raw meat mush.
To his credit, our extremely outgoing waiter bent over backward to make amends, returning the burger for more time on the grill (the texture was still a turnoff), and offering some complimentary desserts, a proper gesture. But gelatinous cheesecake, cakey-crusted pecan pie, and a banana split topped with unripe bananas can go only so far in that regard. Traditionalists, whom this menu seems to have in mind, will take comfort in the knowledge that they can still get that showy old '80s cliche, the chocolate lava cake.
It oozed dark and treacly sweet, as always. But I couldn't help shaking my head, wondering at all the untapped possibilities this fresh Salt & Pepper - so promising in so many ways - may never embrace while it plays safe amid the pioneering spirit of its new neighborhood.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, email@example.com, or on twitter: @CraigLaBan.