Few names are as synonymous with Philadelphia restaurant history as Old Original Bookbinder's. Few names are as synonymous with Philadelphia's restaurant present as Jose Garces.
The two icons could not be further apart in style or era: the Food Network's modern Latin TV star in full empire-expansion mode; the once-grand old lobster palace long closed, fading from the consciousness of today's trend-obsessed diners like a crumbled oyster cracker sinking below the surface of a thick snapper soup. ("What is snapper soup again?" more than a few may ask.)
Wouldn't it be totally crazy, though, if the Iron Chef dipped his contemporary ladle into the old fish house cauldrons, gave them a stir, whipped-up some foamy espuma, and brought them back to life?
It's not so crazy, after all, because it has happened - even if the new Olde Bar owned by Garces is, at 50 seats, just a fraction of the massive restaurant at 125 Walnut St. that, in its midcentury heyday, could seat more than 1,000 diners, including every celebrity and politico worth their weight in Bookie's famous cheesecake.
Luckily, that bar, once known as the President's Room, was the beating heart of the institution that opened in 1898 primarily as an oyster saloon for Dock Street workers. And from the moment you pass beneath the elegant black portico through the restaurant's leaded glass facade and behold the glorious carved mahogany columns behind the authentic 19th-century bar, the ice bank lined with oysters, the intricately tiled floor, the far circular door framed by a big captain's wheel, it feels as if a genuine piece of lost Philadelphia has been rediscovered and restored.
For such a historic city, Philadelphia is shamefully weak at preserving its old restaurants. And we should be thrilled to have such a genuine part of our soul reborn as a viable destination - even if its greatest strength is as a raw bar and moody cocktail haven.
I saw a more diverse and youthful mix of customers here than ever before, with tattooed hipsters in sagging knit Smurf hats sipping craft beers and mezcal-smoked cocktails at the room's new tall tables, not far from dapper gents in bow ties and blazers exploring the long list of classics at the bar (excellent Sazerac and Vieux Carré; frothy Clover Club) expertly mixed by Matthew Polzin and crew.
With a huge list of prime spirits and unique signature drinks created by consultant Erich Weiss (the grandson of former owner John M. Taxin), the Olde Bar is fast becoming one of Philly's must-sip libation stations.
But the city's old spaces, it turns out, are easier to revive than its classic cuisine. One primary draw of the address was its use as a big catering event space in the rambling old dining rooms and a commissary in its huge kitchen, which, among other things, blanches all the French fries (in rendered duck or beef fat) for the company's nearby restaurants.
The menu at the Olde Bar itself is somewhat limited to bar snacks, soups and a handful of standby fish-house entrées. And while Garces and his chef de cuisine, Mike Siegel, an Atlantic City casino vet who worked for both Stephen Starr (Buddakan) and Garces at Revel (Amada, Village Whiskey), have admirably chosen to hew close to the retro side on their updates, the results can be described as solid more than inspired.
The raw bar offers an excellent array of oysters - half a dozen East Coasters (do slurp the Naughty Pilgrims and briny Blackpoints) plus three milder options from the West - that come in a beautifully shucked necklace of half-shells spiraling down a mound of ice.
But the shrimp rémoulade wasn't quite right, the big crustaceans plump and sweet, yet served naked cocktail-style beside their dip (all spice, not enough tangy zing) rather than fully submerged in dressing the proper Creole way.
The baked oysters Belmont would have been a perfect local riff on Rockefeller had their bacon-béchamel-spinach filling not been buried beneath excessive bread crumbs. A garnish of too many deeply fried brown potato bits distracted from the clam chowder's creamy broth and fresh clam taste.
I loved the simple pan of steamed middlenecks, those tender mollusks basking in a pool of winey broth, with a grilled slice of sourdough to sop it up. The fried Ipswich belly clams, though, were just shy of crisp.
The beef-fat fries - simmered in rosemaried tallow enriched with marrow before their finishing crisp - were worth the fuss, especially when elaborated with lobster butter, sweet lump crab, and a cheddared oyster stout fondue. If that isn't rich enough for you, the same fondue glazes a slice of toast as the Golden Buck, a take on Welsh rarebit threaded with tender braised oxtail and topped with a panfried quail egg.
My biggest disappointment at the Olde Bar was the dull snapper soup, which should have been a slam dunk. As if on cue, the kitchen does whip out its foaming siphon for a cumulus pouf of sherry espuma, but it cannot enliven an undistinctive brown broth that, while steeped from real turtle, was far too sedate with the aromatic spice that calls out its roots in Colonial port history.
I found the entrées a bit more satisfying. The cod fish and chips, superbly crisp inside its aerated batter of vodka-and-agave foam, rose to a close second as my Philly favorite (behind the Dandelion), and at $14, was also one of the menu's few bargains.
You will pay dearly for your lobster here (hey, Bookie's was even more expensive), but the crustacean is treated with style. And there are no lobster bibs this time around for a whole steamed beast. Siegel, who finishes his 11/2-pounder with a flavor-sealing bake, cuts away the shell for easy access to $42 worth of sweet meat. (Genteel, yes, but I still prefer a shell-cracking mess.)
If the lobster roll seemed small for $24, it was. But that's also because the warm, buttered meat was so delicious, I could easily have devoured three. Only one of the lobster Newburgs, though, is recommended. This version of the Delmonico's classic - a whole tail elegantly posed over a whole lobster's worth of chopped meat in bisquey sherry cream sauce over toast - is the richest thing I've eaten in recent memory.
I wish the dry, $20 crab cake had been as sumptuous. But the luxuriously creamy crab salad that tumbled over the steak Oscar more than compensated, the sweet lumps in buttery hollandaise elevating a thinnish slice of grilled New York strip.
The biggest surprise? Old Original Bookbinder's dessert case, a once epic display of monumental towering cakes, has been reduced to a single choice: a crimson curiosity for sharing that looks like a siren on a plate. When I plunged my fork through its red light jellied glaze, the familiar layers of a strawberry shortcake were revealed inside, the fluff of cream cheese mousse, cake and fresh strawberries perked with cool scoops of strawberry mint sorbet on the side.
It was a pure delight, as pastry chef Samantha Ross had captured the essence of a historical revamp done right - sleekly focused and modern in concept, but still a pure classic at its heart.
It's no wonder I cleaned my plate.
Next week, LaBan reviews Bing Bing Dim Sum.