"Do you have a reservation?"
It's been a long time since I ate dinner at a place with a bouncer. So I'll admit to being a little startled when Big Kevin emerged from the topiaries in front of Harp & Crown and asked me in his deep baritone to verify that I belonged.
A long list of potential aliases flitted through my brain as I craned my neck to take in his 6-foot-9 majesty. "Yes. . .?" I muttered.
"Have a nice meal!" he said with a gracious flourish, pulling back a long curtain at the door for me to enter. And once inside the understated glass-paned facade, I was stunned yet again, this time by the grand hall that unfolded before me.
A vast room with soaring 24-foot ceilings reached deep into the distance, the warehouselike space of a former Gap outlet (and Stouffer's restaurant before that) transformed into a salvage chic stage set for Rittenhouse's latest hot spot - a most unexpected hybrid of designer cocktails, lamb meatballs, and subterranean bowling.
A whitewashed-brick garden room in front with hanging ferns opens up into a vast amber-lit dining hall of communal tables, lounge chairs, and tufted booths. A patchwork of rustic plank siding and distressed plaster walls hung with random antique photos lend a nostalgic mood. And a lively crowd circling the big bar off to the side, a handsome mix of young couples, Market Street suits, and posses of Walnut Street fashionistas lend a hint of hot-spot glamour. But not exactly the aura of danger that might require a bouncer.
Could it be the rap star Meek Mill we saw later in the luxe bowling alley lounge downstairs - Elbow Lane - hidden away like a secret speakeasy? Maybe Kevin Hart, or one of the Sixers who've become regulars?
No. The extra security, Harp's management tells me, is simply a safety precaution that reflects the fast-evolving status of Sansom Street near Rittenhouse as a busy, and sometimes rowdy, nightlife zone.
I've come to expect dramatic settings and big crowds from Michael Schulson and his wife and partner, Nina Tinari-Schulson, who run Independence Beer Garden, Sampan, and Double Knot. The latter was also designed by flea market-decor specialist Kate Rohrer and shares Harp & Crown's creative underground intrigue - albeit for sushi, not bowling pins. But these people know how to use a basement!
I'm not much of a bowler - and at $100 an hour for a lane (with up to 8 players and a two-hour minimum for reservations), we're talking about a commitment. But with chef Karen Nicolas in the kitchen, formerly of Tria and Citron & Rose, the menu's ambition beats tater tots at North Bowl.
Nicolas' menu roams wide, from fish crudos to pizza to oversize platters for sharing. And it's better than a place with such automatic crowd appeal probably needs to be. Those lamb meatballs are tender and savory, inflected with cumin in a crock of spicy tomato shakshuka stew (a nod to C&R) beneath an herbed yogurt and sweet date relish. The toast trend gets multiple nods, with a crostini topped with pureed squash blended with apples, pumpkin seed pesto, and goat cheese being the best. An enormous two-pound pork shank, braised to tenderness with smoked chestnuts, turnips, and pickled pears was also a memorable centerpiece for the table.
There's an overambitious urge at Harp & Crown, however, to try to be too many things to too many people, and the inconsistencies can chip away at its potential. I appreciated the thoughtful selection of wines by the glass, with lesser-known grapes (alligoté, dry furmint, blaufränkisch, a rosé of negrette, a nero d'Avola) to keep things interesting. There's also a solid list of craft beers with an emphasis on local brewers. But the cocktail list, this spot's liquid wheelhouse, was consistently overthought, with one ingredient in most every creation - a cinnamon tincture, orange marmalade, cereal milk - that made it less appealing. The marmalade-infused sidecar riff, the Sideways Car, was better than I anticipated.
H&C also joins the long list of new restaurants that all feel obliged to try to make Neapolitan pizza as a sideline, and usually poorly. The crust here was bready and dull, and the toppings brought mixed success. I disliked a surf clam-Taleggio pie because it didn't taste either of clam or Taleggio (it has since been dropped). A lamb pizza was overbaked and dry. A surprise winner was the spicy soppressata, which covered the thin-sliced salumi rounds with the green crunch of fresh shishitos and a drizzle of honey to counter the heat with sweet.
The handmade pastas were also a mixed bag. A pappardelle made of farro flour and tangled with braised short rib was soulfully good. But a fettuccine partially made with corn flour was too mushy to stand up to duck ragu. A simple ricotta gnocchi with diced squash, mushrooms, and sage were good enough but shy of great.
I appreciate the effort to make burrata in-house. But why chop it up on the plate and defeat the whole purpose of its cream-stuffed beggar's-purse surprise? I also wonder why toasts needed to be grilled with schmaltz to accompany the otherwise delicious foie gras and duck confit terrine, as though it needed extra fat. And why were the "roasted olives" served cold? Such little details here could have made all the difference - like a lighter hand with the Reuben dressing for the tartare, so I could actually taste the beef.
On the plus side, the kitchen's success rate improved over the course of my visits, which got off to a rocky start with an overcooked lunch burger. Among the highlights were a crostini smeared with silky duck-liver mousse, pickled blackberries, and smoked walnuts. The half chicken was a Mediterranean dream, its juicy bone-in morsels tossed with lemony artichokes over escarole.
Nicolas' seafood was also generally superb, from gorgeously large scallops with creamy parsnip puree in zesty Moroccan chermoula sauce to the tender roasted octopus with the rustic Latin spice of a guajillo chili sauce. The crudos of tuna and hamachi were refreshing. A pairing of halibut and crab was clever and would have been perfect had the fish been cooked just a shade less and the heat been turned up a notch more in the "spicy" coconut fennel broth.
The desserts brought classic satisfaction - a layered chocolate cake, an iron pan of apple crumb pie - without making any major statements. (The pasty Meyer lemon tart needed work).
But Harp & Crown really delivered both big flavors and execution with its most ambitious efforts, the "for two" sharing platters where a menu that hovers fairly in the mid-$20s for single entrée "plates" steps up to steeper fees. The pork shank is actually a deal at $31, considering it feeds at least two people. The $68 Niman Ranch rib eye, though, is all about quality. And it instantly became one of my favorite steak splurges in town. This bouncer-sized 26-ounce chop of richly marbled beef is rubbed down with earthy porcini powder before it's grilled and fanned over truffled Castle Valley grits and a tangy chimichurri sauce studded with minced broccoli.
Crash! All 10 pins go flying in the little bowling alley of flavors in my mind - much easier to reserve than Elbow Lane. Harp & Crown had scored enough strikes to keep playing on.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews 24 Wood Fired Fare.
HARP & CROWN
1525 Sansom St., 215-330-2800; harpcrown.com
The latest scene magnet from Michael Schulson and Nina Tinari-Schulson (Double Knot, Independence Beer Garden) is another upstairs-downstairs surprise, with a soaring dining hall and bar dressed up in shabby chic nostalgia on the ground floor, and a luxe bowling alley lounge hidden in the basement favored by rap stars and sports celebs. The wide-ranging New American menu from chef Karen Nicolas is better than it needs to be for such a social hot spot, with her most satisfying successes on large-format sharing platters, but inconsistencies keep the kitchen from its full potential.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Duck and foie gras rillettes; chicken-liver crostini; squash crostini; octopus; tuna crudo; lamb meatballs; spicy soppressata pizza; half chicken; scallops; pork shank for two; rib eye for two; chocolate cake.
DRINKS The well-rounded drink selection has something for everyone, with cocktails being the most popular choice, although all the signature drinks bring creative twists to classic ideas that sometimes feel forced, such as cinnamon tincture, orange marmalade, coffee foam, and cereal milk. There are good choices among the extensive wines by the glass with some unexpected choices (Evolucio blaufränkisch; a negrette rosé; aligoté; a Colosi nero d'Avola that's perfect for the spicy pizza). There's also a solid selection of local craft brews and ciders.
WEEKEND NOISE The high ceilings actually help a little, but big crowds can still pump big noise into the high-90s. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Sundays and Mondays, 5-10 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, until 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Limited menu available between lunch and dinner.
Dinner entrees, $12-$25. Sharing platters, $31-$68.
All major cards.
Reservations highly suggested.
Validated parking costs $15 with a stamp for LAZ lot at 15th and Sansom Streets.