The well-dressed crowds surged in from the Avenue of the Arts and through the front door of Sbraga, where amid a growing wait, the hopeful diners craned their necks for a glimpse of the star chef in his open kitchen.
I was craning my neck, too, and also feeling rather hungry, as Kevin Sbraga and his bearded band of fellow cooks scrambled behind the line, meticulously sauce-painting the plates of one tasting menu after another. The only difference between me and those standing is that I'd been waiting at a table - without a crumb, let alone dinner menu - more than half an hour.
Where is a remote control when I need it? Wouldn't it be nice if our restaurant meals were as seamless as the ones on reality TV, where the narrative arc is perfectly edited and you can skip the commercials? By the time I finally cracked open a popover, though, 45 minutes from the moment we sat down, I'd almost forgotten whether the name-draw had been on Top Chef or in Hell's Kitchen.
Sbraga, of course, was Top Chef's Season Seven champ. And there's little doubt when you taste his duck with seared foie gras and turnips, or a bowl of cobia fish and black trumpet mushrooms in kombu broth steeped with homemade XO spice, that the 33-year-old pride of Willingboro can cook. But winning a game show and getting an upscale new restaurant up to speed are separate skill sets.
Sbraga's solo debut shows plenty of promise, especially for those who are rooting for the survival of fine dining. The glassed-in corner space is a vast improvement over its predecessor, the garish purple and orange of Chew Man Chu replaced by the rustic-urban look of salvaged wood planks against stainless steel. And for $45, Sbraga delivers a four-course tasting menu that is relatively reasonable, with thoughtful concepts and good ingredients that, portion-wise, fall somewhere between an appetizer and an entree.
But even with $125,000 in prize money (and considerable media hype) to seed his dream, the growing pains of making his vision sing in a real restaurant were obvious throughout my meals. That was especially evident with the service, which is crucial for a complicated tasting format with wine pairings. The awkwardly long opening wait was a speed bump at my earlier meal, too, as we sat looking at drink menus for 15 minutes before the food menus were presented. The house-filtered sparkling water was offered (with no mention of the $5 cost), and first it came flat, then lukewarm. And my first server offered a preamble infused with such frothing hyperbole ("Are you ready for your amazing tasting menu?") that few mortal chefs could possibly live up to it.
The foie gras soup, a creamy tan froth poured tableside over an aromatic onion relish, was very good, indeed, but hardly the monumental "life changing" event our server promised, with the foie as an indulgent thickener rather than a featured flavor. (The rose petals scattered atop the onion relish - "He loves me! He loves me not!" - were a nice romantic touch.)
Sbraga's national celebrity is no doubt a blessing and a curse. The heightened interest reliably fills the 65-seat room with both TV groupies and curious locals, primed by Sbraga's mastery of self-promotional social media. With stints under Georges Perrier (at Le Mas), Stephen Starr (Rat's, Washington Square), the Ritz-Carlton Grill, and Jose Garces (Distrito, Chifa), he has the resumé for this debut. But expectations are almost unfairly high for a chef who, despite that tour of the region's better restaurants, never had a chance to organically cultivate a large following before his big network splash.
Sbraga has an appealing populist flair for updated comforts, such as his fancy meat loaf, bound with veal mousse, then topped with a sweet and salty bacon marmalade; or his "fish & chips" of crisply fried fluke dusted in cumin salt and posed over curried rémoulade. His lox-and-bagel inspired Arctic char was poached in smoked oil and crusted in everything spice and dill, plus a dollop of briny paddlefish caviar.
The classically trained chef can tip his hat to Escoffier, too, with a truffled, brandied, and roux-thickened Diplomat sauce for his butter-poached lobster tail over silky parsnip puree, a luxurious dish worth the $16 supplement. But his take on chain-restaurant crab and artichoke dip, a creamy little bowl of crab béchamel spanned by a crostini bridge with a few crustacean lumps, was too skimpy and ho-hum to merit the $8 supplement.
I found a handful of exciting ideas on these TV-gorgeous New American plates, but a surprising number of flavor details still needed more tweaking. His deep-fried Poussin rendition of Buffalo chicken was dry and bland. The fried sweetbreads for his revamp of vitello tonnato (a fairly common concept these days) were too thickly breaded. I love a chef with playful notions like the crimson beets roasted in pine needles beneath a "snow" of shaved frozen Gorgonzola and a "soil" of black trumpet streusel. It's just unfortunate the caraway seeds in that pastry had a grittiness too close to the texture of something dug from the earth.
Sbraga's take on the Philly cheesesteak, meanwhile, was served with a lusciously roasted short rib, brioche bread pudding, and fried onion rings. But it was also lathered in a stiflingly rich flow of provolone fondue that flooded the plate with salty Mornay.
I would have loved the hot pot of seared duck over red curry had the sauce, vibrant with lemongrass and Kaffir lime, not been so thickened with coconut milk.
A lighter touch would benefit the balance of a multicourse meal, and it characterized some of Sbraga's best dishes. An elegant vegetarian terrine of Chinese eggplant layered with goat cheese, tomatoes, and piquillo peppers was ringed by a green tomato vinaigrette sparked with chiles and black garlic. Black cod posed over beer-braised adzuki beans avoided too much sweetness in its Southeast Asian miso marinade, and picked up the spice with a mound of fresh kimchi and a spicy bok choy chip. Clams casino gets a modern twist with a briny glaze of sea urchin butter.
Even the lamb duo - one rosy chop over a blade of lamb bacon, a puddle of maple-scented oatmeal, and curried pears - managed a certain dainty elegance. That was a good thing considering yet another service mix-up that saw one guest get his lamb while the rest of us looked on without our meat courses for 20 minutes. When our plates finally arrived, they brought him another plate of lamb, a clumsy and redundant dose of overkill when a more appropriate gesture of apology (at least a different dish) would have sufficed.
A refreshing complimentary coconut sorbet, a prelude to the lovely desserts made by Sbraga's wife and pastry chef, Jesmary, helped. I didn't love the panna cotta (too much cranberry compote and streusel). But her pear and chestnut strudel was wonderfully delicate, and the warm bowl of chocolate soufflé was so moist, it quivered under a scoop of Grand Marnier ice cream.
The ham-handed service, though, continued to chip away at this restaurant's ambitions, from the sommelier's mispronunciation of wines to a tableside prep of Chemex coffee that saw an impatient manager shake the slow-dripping filter, then squeeze it like a pastry bag.
Pause. Edit. Rewind. Play those episodes again. Someday soon, the Sbraga show, with a little more rehearsal, still has a chance to become as good as it appeared on TV.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.
Contact Craig LaBan at firstname.lastname@example.org.