We all knew what was about to happen when the man rose from the table, then got down on one knee.
With rain glazing the brick patio outside framed by the French doors behind him, the golden pastry dome of an artichoke pot pie on the table, and a tantalizing series of cheese paintings hanging overhead, he opened the little box to a reveal gleaming ring and asked his date to marry him.
"Congratulations!" cheered all three of the other occupied tables in the dining room at M Restaurant at the Morris House as the couple embraced.
"I love this woman!" proclaimed the groom-to-be in reply.
"Dad … are you crying?" my son asked, catching me as I paused from my fried oysters and chicken salad to subtly dab my eyes.
I am unfailingly sentimental when witnessing major life moments play out on the public stage of a restaurant.
"Happens all the time around here," our server said with a no-biggie shrug. "This isn't my first rodeo."
Romance is certainly no stranger to M. With its plushly curtained comforts, classic look, and the gracious, light-strung courtyard ensconced between the restaurant and its boutique hotel in the Colonial Reynolds-Morris House, this property spent the better part of the last decade as a popular wedding venue. So, the good news: this couple can return there for their nuptials. At least, in theory.
The bad news? They'll have to keep it small, quiet, and end it early so as not to disturb residents of the ritzy high-rise condos that have been built nearby since partners Gene LeFevre and Michael DiPaolo bought the 1787 manor near Washington Square in 2000. That development, in fact, is one of the prime reasons they've revived their push recently to return M to relevance as an à la carte restaurant, albeit with the oddly specific but neighbor-friendly last reservation call of 9:15 each night. It's successfully captured a devoted neighborhood crowd with its cozy, convivial front bar, which LeFevre (who also co-owns the Black Sheep and Six Feet Under) says he hopes can replicate the vibe of Weaver Lilley's old Friday Saturday Sunday.
But jump-starting buzz for the dinner trade hasn't been easy. M, whose private garden fringed with dogwoods and magnolias may be the largest in Center City, has so much potential. But it fell off the radar after a promising start with talented David Katz as chef 11 years ago by going the private-party route for a few years after his departure. They tried bringing in some young talents from famous New York restaurants (Per Se; Daniel) to rekindle the reservation flame. But a decade of mixed messaging, tepid self-promotion, and a neighborhood in flux (though expanding residents in a way that might equal positive results) always left me wondering exactly what M wanted to be: Was it really more than a friendly neighborhood happy-hour spot? Or just a pretty garden to throw a shower?
So I was understandably excited when the owners eliminated any doubts last summer and announced that Joncarl Lachman was stepping in to help overhaul the restaurant. This is an elegant space that exudes a historic Philadelphia ambience, and it deserves a serious chef. And the affable Lachman, who runs one of my favorite BYOBs, the Dutch-inspired Noord on East Passyunk Avenue, could very well be that person. I also appreciated the initial concept here to update some historical Philadelphia flavors as an ode to the classic space — an idea local chefs have not explored enough.
But Lachman is no sure bet, especially in his role as a consultant rather than an on-site chef. And if the relatively short run of his second restaurant, Neuf, gave me pause at his luck in overseeing more than one restaurant at a time, my chaotic first visit to M during its festively decorated days in December left me genuinely concerned.
The fried salt cod fritters — an ode to Philadelphia's historic port days? — were fine enough, with a tasty but thin yogurt sauce for dipping. But the boat-size teardrop bowl of thick potato-leek soup, which was not exactly hot, was a weighty prelude to a meal that would be artlessly heavy.
A huge smoked turkey pot pie had the good earthy flavors of smoked meat and hominy, but it was a sloppy mush beneath its nearly burned puff pastry lid, and so thickly creamed to finish it was stultifyingly rich. That was like a dainty appetizer, though, compared with the huge pan of suckling pig, whose parts had been divided and braised; tossed with a hearty peasant base of cabbage, white beans, and roasted fingerling potatoes; and then also lavishly creamed — an unnecessary move for a dish that already was more than rich enough. It also had the unfortunate effect of soggying bits of bacon and a cracker of skin that would have been better crispy. One of the dish's prime draws, a house-made sausage, was also completely AWOL until I noted its absence, after which a link was hastily browned, but it was still not quite hot when delivered.
A side of carelessly half-cooked root veggies was so wet in a bowl with wine and sour vinegar that we sent it back with the server, who apologized, but who still charged us on the bill. A potentially fascinating cocktail supposedly touched with caraway-infused whiskey was so overdosed with the seedy booze — and thus tasted so much like rye bread mouthwash — that I nearly spit it out. The bartender had added far too much, a manager conceded while graciously replacing my drink with a delicious cab franc blend from Wildekrans in South Africa — a neat wine from the affordable, eclectic list. An equally good option with little chance for bartender error, perhaps, is to explore the big list of mix-and-match artisan gins and tonics. An herbal blend of Botanist gin with Jack Rudy tonic (and a kiss of Aperol) was memorably refreshing.
But something was off. And as the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killers" blared "Run, run away!" over the speakers — a jarring choice for this classically appointed space — we decided to do just that, and we didn't return for a couple months.
Behind the scenes, it appears M was in the midst of an early-days transition, having moved on from its opening chef to a kitchen of rising line cooks who Lachman felt had the potential to grow. I'm all for cultivating young talent. And my second visit showed real progress had been made, beginning with a crusty and rustic hunk of house-made rye bread fragrant with cider and a vibrant green dab of garlicky sage butter. But Lachman has still allowed them too much space, given all the little details left undone that could have transformed decent dishes into some very good ones.
This kitchen goes to great lengths to create a signature for the fried oysters it serves Philly-style alongside a good chicken salad, blending buckwheat, all-purpose flour, corn meal, and bulgur wheat into the crust. But the payoff would have been greater if they'd just chosen one.
A tuna tartare was creamy with avocado and a whiff of truffle vinaigrette, but it was clumsily diced and hastily plated. I liked the Moroccan spice and tangy crumbles of goat cheese that added interest to the cream of tomato soup, but it would have been more effective as a smaller portion. The notion of curried feta is a good one to perk up the creamy mac and cheese, but it wasn't seasoned quite boldly enough to make its statement.
A beautifully seared rainbow trout perched over roasted fingerling potatoes ringed by a vivid green halo of parsley pesto was the one perfect dish I wouldn't have edited. A succulent pair of pepper-crusted quails would have been the other, if only the barley risotto — a wonderfully earthy change from rice — had been cooked past half-raw crunchy.
My biggest disappointment, though, remains M's struggles to revive the lost art of pot pie — now limited to one choice from a more expansive feature on its earlier menus. I could go on about the shortcut of a prebaked crust plopped on top, rather than properly baked fresh as the vessel's pastry seal — a cheat that's become the regrettable standard these days. But my letdown was even greater for the contents, a vegetarian artichoke, collard green, and flageolet bean filling that was so, so promising but — like M itself — ultimately doomed by a lack of finesse. Ours was simply a huge bowl of overcooked mush, especially the artichokes, which had turned wickedly sour from intense preserved lemons.