Caleb Lentchner was understandably a little scared as he prepared to give his notice to Marsha Brown. After all, he'd helped put her namesake Southern steak house on the map as one of the New Hope's best fine-dining destinations.
But after eight years at the helm of her broiler, Lentchner, 45, received a blessing that only confirmed his admiration for Brown as a person and restaurateur: "She was so excited for me, almost as if I was growing up and going off to college."
It's not like Lentchner actually moved so far away. His six-month-old Caleb's American Kitchen even still has a "New Hope" mailing address, though the BYOB sits on a bending road that winds through Lahaska, beside Peddler's Village.
But Lentchner, a longtime veteran of hotels and country clubs in Manhattan and Miami before moving to Bucks County, still looks to Brown, who also owns the Ruth's Chris franchise in Center City, as a model of class and leadership: "She never did things for immediate financial gain," he said, "but for the long-term goal of really taking care of guests."
That lesson has clearly inspired Lentchner's mission at Caleb's, a sunny revamp of an Italian restaurant that's now serving updated American cuisine to the central Bucks community every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But I wonder if Brown's Book of Restaurant Wisdom included much advice on the importance of consistency - especially when dinner entrées hover in the high $20s.
After two very different visits - one good, the follow-up a serious disappointment - it's possible those ambitious hours have stretched Caleb's resources too thin. This is especially true in an area where it's hard enough to find sufficient staff qualified to do justice to an upscale restaurant experience, let alone one without the tip-padding lure of a liquor license. Caleb's staff has the friendly part down, at least, if not some of the finer points.
But success of a restaurant serving such familiar fare - from chops and burgers to fresh salads - really hinges entirely on execution. There is an undeniable appeal to Caleb's when it is in the groove. And that is exactly what we found on our first weekend visit, when the contemporary gray-and-green space was bustling with a well-heeled over-50 crowd, and the affable Lentchner visited tables with a scruffy-cheeked, impish charm.
We dug into the simple pleasures of a tender bone-in pork chop paired with a chorizo-cornbread stuffing and a sweet-tart hash of apples, maple syrup, and sweet potatoes. Fresh cubes of raw tuna were served up in a martini glass tossed in Hawaiian poke dressing enlivened with ginger and crushed Macadamia nuts. A grilled cheese was deliciously updated with tender shreds of braised short rib. The burger was solid. And though the risotto wasn't exactly masterly, the lightly creamed, saffron-hued rice was chock-full of lobster bits, shrimp, and big, beautifully seared scallops.
And though Lentchner has been careful to make sure Caleb's is not viewed as a steak house, he has a massive bone-in strip for $39 that is very much worthy of his pedigree, a dry-aged chop perfectly cooked and tender with a complex savor. The desserts - a white chocolate mousse and raspberry trifle, a berry-pear crisp - were simple but delicious.
This isn't necessarily thrilling food. But it's satisfying when good ingredients are done right, in a country club-plus kind of way. Though when Lentchner isn't around, as he wasn't on a recent Tuesday, Caleb's stumbled over every detail.
The lobster roll, rolled sushi-style in buttered toast instead of a hot dog bun, was sliced into three little bites that contained more mayo than meat and were too puny for $13. The fried calamari over Asian-dressed salad was tender but also gave off the burnt aroma of spent fryer oil. The "chop chop" salad, which ideally should have presented a myriad of ingredients in every bite, was essentially a boring shred of lettuce, garbanzos, and little else.
I loved the freshly fried mini-taco shells stuffed with tangy shrimp ceviche, which perked up even more when I inserted a little chip of raw jalapeño. But that was about it.
The baked orange roughy, stuffed with spinach and crab and served with quinoa, a basic vegetable medley, and an inconsequential lemon butter sauce, had the workmanlike blandness of a diner special - not a $28 dish. A chicken breast stuffed with creamy spinach and mushrooms had a notch more ambition, but its sauce was artlessly overwhelmed by too much vinegary Pommery mustard, and the zucchini-potato pancakes were inedibly doughy.
The antelope ragu listed on the menu was unfortunately no longer available, though our waitress' comment that "it's being taken off the menu because it's seasonal" was amusing, since that was exactly the same reason given for its absence more than three weeks earlier.
The heavy lamb shank probably should have been removed, as it was smothered in a sludgy brown sauce that was almost unrecognizable as a mole.
The "bistro steak," which our server could not identify more specifically, was also no longer available. So I opted for the filet mignon and scallop cake special. The scallop cake - already a questionable variation on a crab cake - was carelessly cooked to rubber. The twin filet medallions ordered medium rare were also overcooked beneath a puck of hotel butter that was too cold to melt. It was swiftly replaced with a larger cut that looked more like a squashed potato than a filet, and that was predictably cool and raw inside.
We did receive some complimentary french fries for the trouble, but not a cent of apology off the $29 dish. But as the servers continuously hustled some entrée plates off our table despite the fact that some of us were still eating, it was clear this staff was simply eager to wrap it up and head home. After all, it was already 9:15.
I can only imagine Marsha Brown's lesson - that the long-term goal is "really taking care of guests" - ringing in Lentchner's head when he learns how things unraveled in his absence as employees rushed to pack it in early. It turns out the hardest part wasn't leaving the nest of a mentor, after all, but passing that wisdom on to each and every cook and server who represents your dreams.
Caleb Lentchner discusses Caleb's American Kitchen at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next week, Craig LaBan revisits a. Kitchen.