Most of the plates at Wayne's new contemporary bistro, At the Table BYOB, are vividly colorful and intricate compositions that seem ready-made for their photo close-up.
A "snow" of shaved romanesco jeweled with yellow persimmon settles like an airy green drift beside the striped bass. Blueberry puree whirls into a deep-purple spiral beneath crumbles of red quinoa "dirt" and a yuzu tart. And for the all-too-mundanely named garden salad, shaved carrots and cucumbers stand in tightly wound scrolls along the edge of a crescent moon of produce that hugs the edge of a dish beside green dots of pea puree, gold and crimson cubes of smoked beets, and an ivory smear of house ricotta. And a dusting of balsamic powder. And beet powder. And shaved horseradish. And pecans. And honey-marinated cherry tomatoes.
"You have a dish there that's taken me 15 years to make," said chef and co-owner Alex Hardy, 33, presenting it in the gray dining room.
Thank goodness he stopped at just a crescent and didn't make me wait another decade for him to tweezer more salad onto the empty other half of the plate. Because like so many of the precious dishes I encountered at this exceedingly ambitious bistro, it was more satisfying to behold than eat.
Ironically, the most memorable dish here was the homeliest thing on the table - a brown tower of braised pork jowls piled over swoops of black garlic puree and pumpernickel crumbs beneath white laces of shaved gruyère.
The dish is a clever nod to one of Hardy's culinary heroes, Grant Achatz, the chef of Alinea who famously lost (then regained) his sense of taste - in that it acknowledges Hardy's own disability: He's color-blind. It's a genuine surprise that a chef with such a painter's palette approach to plates actually sees food in gray scale. It's also telling that, without the distraction of colors to lean on, he lands a dish that satisfies in every other way - the tender strips of unctuously rich and flavorful meat (think of a pork version of short rib) soaking in the earthy, vaguely chocolatey-fruity notes conjured by the layers of the fermented garlic, dark rye, and tangy cheese. My second-favorite savory dish - a butter-roasted maitake with shaved radish and a coffee broth that heightened its woodsy aromatics - was also a monochromatic but powerful study in layered earth tones. Coincidence?
Of course, those pork jowls cost $34, which is a lot for a smallish portion of even the best rendition of an ingredient as humble as pig cheeks. And as the kitchen exhibited much less persuasive success with the rest of its ever-changing menu, hit-or-miss execution at big-ticket prices began to feed my growing reluctance about At the Table. With at least a couple of appetizers at $20 or more, and entrées soaring from the mid-$30s up to $50, these prices would make some of the best Center City restaurants blush.
Even most steak houses, which generally have no shame about prices, could do better for $42 than the four little chunks of Wagyu coulotte (a well-marbled cut from the top "cap" of the sirloin) that came to us both lukewarm and threaded with a sinew that required about 42 chews per bite to wrangle. The fact that each piece was also completely slathered in a thick tan cream was a noticeably passive-aggressive move by the sauce chef: You will eat my truffled foie gras Cognac peppercorn emulsion and like it!
Actually, I did like it enough, though I scraped most of it off so I could at least try to taste the meat. But some of the technical issues with that steak - in particular its less-than-hot temperature - persisted throughout the meal.
A flower-strewn spring pea soup was beautiful ("I want to paint my room that color!" said my guest) and just a little smoky with crisped prosciutto and rendered foie gras. And it was deliberately served warm - but would have had more impact if it had been hotter.
The elaborate bass dish with romanesco snow, also glazed with a strangely rich peanut sauce, was lukewarm. But more concerning was that it was dry and overcooked - on two separate visits. That's most likely because Hardy butter-poaches it sous-vide in a vacuum bag for 30 minutes - an odd preparation for a fish that needs no richness added to its naturally luxurious flesh and that often shines best when crisply seared or grilled to order.
But even searing food here proved problematic. The sautéed foie gras that came as an excessive $28 appetizer (who needs a quarter-pound of liver to start a meal?) was room temperature by the time our plate was festooned with no fewer than eight different elements of garnish.
Is this kitchen simply playing with its food too much before serving? Overthinking its compositions at the expense of mastering a few compelling strokes at the heart of each dish? Or maybe just off its game for my two visits? Perhaps a bit of all the above. Better execution at my meals surely would have improved its rating - and the potential here is high.
But first it should take a half-step back, focus more on basics, and reconsider the delusional prices - which set the bar high with little room for error.
This 24-seat BYOB is the kind of venture I always cheer for. A motivated (and recently engaged) young couple in Hardy and Tara Buzan, who owns a personal chef catering company, To the Table, are trying to create something personal, inventive, and forward-thinking for the Main Line. The suburban scene needs as many culinary stars as it can muster. And they have the promising bones for success - a crisply decorated little dining room (though the pop sound track is a generic minus), a personable and professional server in Kate Nelligan (who waited on us twice), and a chef in Hardy who's worked his way up to this opportunity.
That practical education, of course, is really what Hardy meant when he talked about that 15-year salad - the schooling at Johnson & Wales, the early inspiration at Gilmore's, the kitchen stints at MidAtlantic, Marigold Kitchen, Majolica, Georges', Pumpkin, and a bookshelf of reading (from Thomas Keller to Daniel Humm and Achatz) that sparks his artistic sensibility.
But when you're charging à la carte prices in league with (and in some cases exceeding) the city's best contemporary restaurants - think Vernick, Serpico, Will BYOB, Fork - the risotto can't be sticky beneath a somewhat chewy hindquarter of rabbit for $28. A $20 octopus appetizer should be a little more tender, a lot more generous, and less soupy, so that the whole point of putting burrata on the bottom of the bowl (their delicate creaminess and dual textures) doesn't get washed out. Also, choose either the brothy octopus jus or the chimichurri - but not both. And if you're going to serve something called red quinoa "dirt" beneath the yuzu tart, make sure it has enough crunch not to simply lodge in diners' molars.
The less colorful chocolate mousse gilded with 23-karat gold flakes was a more successful dessert - even if it was a little heavy with the finishing flakes of salt.
"The gold's on me!" quipped Nelligan, reminding me with good humor that real hospitality is at the heart of the mission for At the Table BYOB. There is clearly talent here, too. I can only hope it appears more consistently, and improves enough for a potential end-of-year revisit.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Res Ipsa near Rittenhouse Square.
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