The glass votive candleholder began its slide as though pushed by a mystical force. It began to move the moment we sat down at Keen, and it picked up steam like an illuminated hockey puck gliding across the rink of a highly glossed wood tabletop. It hit a crack, tumbled over, and spilled hot wax across my place setting, where it dried into a web of tacky white goo.
And that’s where it remained, more or less ignored by the staff, for the duration of our visit.
Our meal went downhill from there.
My cocktail was nearly undrinkable, more bitter than sour. The pretzels were imposters. The pot pie was a biscuit-topped cheat. Someone forgot to cook the peas. The apple pie had so many issues it needed therapy. Even the poor dishwasher couldn’t keep up.
“Are you sure you want new silverware for your entrees?” a panicked and perspiring manager asked while clearing our starters. “If you do, it’s going to be a few minutes while we wash these.”
Um, yes, of course I want a fresh fork for a $25 bowl of shrimp! Then again, maybe insisting on clean tines wasn’t a wise choice, as we watched the entrees get cold on our table for several minutes while the staff searched for crumb-free cutlery.
Ultimately, it really didn’t make much difference. Because this dinner had already taken such a thoroughly surprising tumble into comedic ineptitude, I would have laughed it off — except for the fact that I was paying. I say surprising because perhaps I’d become a little naive. Philadelphia’s restaurant scene has grown so strong over the last decade I started to believe we’ve entered a “post-bad-food” golden age. How foolish of me, I thought, as a brackish whiff of the soup of the day — a ripe shrimp bisque — wafted across my nostrils.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve experienced my share of terrible meals over the last year. There was the bowl of seafood pescatore with limp noodles and so much sand in the shellfish that I declined to eat it at Pescatore in Bala Cynwyd, where the outgoing server was genuinely sympathetic but the chef begrudgingly took it off the bill in a huff only after we rejected the weak offering of an unwanted tiramisu. There was the soggy, greasy, plate-eclipsing paddle of a “big-ass chicken Parm” at the Ugly Duckling, which collapsed under the weight of its own problems within just a few months. And then there is Mad Rex, which is so mind-numbingly boring for an apocalypse-themed restaurant, it’s essentially Applebee’s with hot rocks and lots of gas masks. Am I surprised lines wait to slurp insipidly sweet cocktails from IV bags with virtual reality glasses on? No. The Old City party crowd has clearly begun to drift to the river’s edge of Fishtown.
It’s easy — even expected, with a wink — to be cynical about a flimsily executed theme concept like Mad Rex. But I hoped for more from Keen, which exudes an earnestness that assures these owners are really trying. But just because one has the resources and desire to open a restaurant doesn’t mean one should.
It took Caitlin Keeney Rorer and her husband, Chris Rorer, more than three years from conception to purchase the building and renovate the Lombard Street rowhouse that was once home to the parachute-tented funkiness of the restaurant renaissance fixture Astral Plane. A succession of less-inspired ventures in between, including Brick American Eatery, Fish, and the (misspelled) Astral Plane Millenium, began to make this space feel cursed. Could Keen change the mojo of an address that at least has cultural significance as an anchor of Philly’s homegrown dining roots?
Its fate wouldn’t be sealed by a lack of decorations. There is a sense of DIY whimsy to the colorful two-story space — with moody chandeliers that cast forest shadows and twisted branches recovered from walks (and Dumpsters) by a contractor who refinished them for banisters — that evokes in its own way the quirky vibe of Astral Plane, which was founded during a full moon and which lasted there for 34 years. Keen even had a full-moon party during my return visit, as though to channel that Astral karma.
“You need a glow stick!” said a manager I recognized from our silverware debacle a few weeks earlier, who was more jolly now as he snapped an illuminated necklace over my head and gave me a brief tour of the upstairs chill-out bar, with its lounge furniture, board games, and TVs. “We call this upstairs bar the Sexy Farmhouse. Downstairs,” he said, referring to the blue glass bar dappled with light droplets from a chandelier, “is the Sexy Rainstorm.”
With a vintage condom dispenser in the upstairs bathroom offering free prophylactics marked with the restaurant logo, I was starting to see a theme: “We thought it was fun, a good branding opportunity,” Caitlin said.
I know a better branding strategy: Cook some edible food.
There were a handful of dishes that exceeded that standard from the kitchen crew of family and a friend the Rorers met while attending the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. The “pig candy,” or bacon glazed in syrup, is a simple pleasure hard to resist. A burger with pickles and Cooper sharp cheese was solid. And fried arancini rice balls stuffed with butternut squash beside celery pesto would have been fine if they hadn’t been burnt.
But the number of bigger bloopers here bordered on epic, to the point that Keen set a new low standard for a long-anticipated Center City debut that isn’t making the cut.
No proof was more miserable than a bowl of vegan mushroom soup that appeared to be half pureed and half possessed, a sludgy mash of “gourmet” button mushrooms that stood up on my spoon like a chunky gray wave of baby food. Sometimes, professional kitchens make mistakes that should simply not be served to the paying public. This was one of those times.
But it wasn’t an isolated offense. There was something seriously wrong with nearly every dish we were served. The chicken wings were flabby, and the sauces were thin. The deep-fried chicken tenders were tough. The curried samosa was essentially the same thing as the broccoli-cheese hand pie, albeit with different stuffing, but the turnovers’ crimped fried edges were equally hard to bite through.
The house pretzels are boiled with baking soda instead of the traditional lye bath, so the only faint pretzel flavor on these, which were also burnt on the bottom, was the kosher salt on top. How hard it is to make a few dips for crudité? Based on the watery yogurt-whipped beets and garlic-bombed celery-sage pesto, not so easy. Thank God for the refuge of carrot hummus.
The veggie burger was mush at first bite compounded by an over-garlicky slaw made from broccoli stems. An individual root vegetable bread pudding sounded like a great idea, except these muffin-shaped minis were as dry as reheated plugs of old stuffing.
The bowl of seared shrimp over brown rice had promise as one of the menu’s more upscale dishes but was swimming in a deep pool of oil with peas that still had their raw crunch. The pot pie brought a satisfyingly rich chicken stew, but also a sad dry biscuit plopped onto the edge of the bowl for last-minute effect. Sorry, either you bake it with the crust on top, or it isn’t legit pot pie. (Amish noodle casseroles excepted). The poorly fried chicken skin that jutted off the bowl like an amorphous spinnaker added its lack of crunch to my disappointment. The big hunk of short rib, the menu’s most expensive effort, was at least tender from its slow cooking. But it was also severely underseasoned, and brought $17 worth of flavor to a $27 dish. If a lot of croutons, beets, and shaved raw Brussels sprouts turn you on, there is always an entree of the “Big Sexy Salad.”
I wish I could say the bar helped Keen’s case. It’s a friendly place to hang out, the liquors are local, and the beers are cheap. The “fast craft” effort to streamline the cocktails, though, resulted in one shabbily mixed drink after another, tasting of all elbows and booze. There are some decent, affordable wines to choose from (Badenhorst, Jovly Vouvray) but the fact that there are at least five typos on a list of two dozen wines does not instill confidence that the passionate vision here was guided by an eye for detail.
A chocolate mousse given as an apology at the end of our meal to acknowledge “the total chaos” of our visit was perfectly good. But it was also hard to ignore the dessert we did order — a mini apple pie whose diced fruit was still raw and caked with gritty cinnamon, and whose doughy crust was so leathery and tough the pie kept sliding up and out of its little glass dish away from me every time I reached to slice off a bite. A mystical force at work expressing the spirits’ displeasure? Or just sublimely horrible baking? A bit of both, it seems, haunt the efforts of Keen to revive this classic space.