What do you do when you have an earnest, hardworking owner and staff, a business with an ethical mission and mixed reviews from your clientele?
I suppose you could hope that the Fox network's Gordon Ramsay and his "Kitchen Nightmares" reality TV would return to Philadelphia to take you from tough culinary love to emotional meltdown.
That's what happened when Ramsay and company invaded the Hot Potato Cafe last month. (If the Fishtown eatery had ditched the frozen potatoes as I suggested in my review two years ago, they would have spared themselves a heck of a lot of reality.)
I respectfully tender this WWGRD (What Would Gordon Ramsay Do?) review of Sweeties Pie Diner.
Stephanie Thaw and her business partner, Kathy Tench, opened Sweeties Pie Diner on the corner of 19th and Spring Garden streets last October. And, yes, the theme is pies, both sweet and savory.
Thaw is a veteran of the '70s restaurant renaissance, and worked as a pastry chef from 1976 to 1989 at Friday Saturday Sunday. She took a break to pursue social-service interests, and has returned to the food scene hoping to combine the two.
Thaw has the passion and drive to please Chef Gordon, but inconsistencies in the kitchen and service have given Sweeties some negative reviews on the Web.
I agree with many of the comments I've heard from customers. There's a real desire to see Sweeties succeed because vegetarian fare and a small local business that supports sustainability and philanthropic endeavors enhances the city's food landscape.
Some missteps in the kitchen and service issues paired with the prices, however, need to be addressed to make the dining experience as top-notch as the mission.
My tasting panel named The Frittata Platter ($9.50) as one of their favorites. The plate was filled with a pile of baked sweet potato wedges and a generous green salad lightly dressed with a vinaigrette.
The frittata had a lovely creamy texture and was a perfect combo of egg to vegetable mix.
We also enjoyed the Shiitake Corn Tart ($5.75), a slice of Thaw's signature cream-cheese pastry topped with slices of sautéed shiitake mushrooms, leeks and a sprinkling of grated cheese.
On a separate visit with a new panel, the Mediterranean Peasant Salad ($6) was deemed a favorite.
This dish made good use of items that work in the winter, such as cucumber, grape tomatoes and kalamata olives. The Valbreso sheep's-milk feta cheese was stellar.
The Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with citrus basil vinaigrette ($6.50) was well conceived for winter use of root vegetables; however, the big chunks of roasted garlic should have been mashed and distributed throughout. A whole clove of garlic, even roasted, is much too overpowering.
We followed the salads with an order of the soup of the day and sandwich ($8), and here's where things started to fall apart.
The mushroom soup consisted of chunks of mushrooms floating in a weak, flavorless broth accented with an undefinable grain - our best guess is that it was overcooked barley.
One of the problems that a vegetarian restaurant has to overcome in order to have a large enough clientele is that it will have to appeal to a carnivore's palate. That means that the flavor profile has to be distinct, and the dish has to make up for the lack of the satisfying texture that meat gives.
Or, as Gordon might put it, "Where's the flavor? I don't care about your bloody ethics, the dish still has to taste good."
The soup needed something to give the broth substance - either some miso for a rich umami quality, or by pureeing part of the mushroom and grain mixture to add a fuller mouth feel to the broth.
The Mac and Cheese with stewed tomatoes ($6.50) was tasty with plenty of flavor coming from the Asiago, Parmesan and cheddar cheese mix, but the pasta was overcooked. The stewed tomatoes were a nice touch of '50s nostalgia.
If you can't make up your mind, the dessert sampler ($6) offers three pies.
Some of the selections, such as the Honey Lavender with Pine Nuts, were too experimental for me, but Thaw sure has a good hand for the flaky pie crust.
I was astonished that the vegan cupcake (there is always at least one vegan and one gluten-free entrée and dessert on the menu) tasted like a Mounds bar and had to offer no excuses for its lack of dairy and eggs.
And, although the whipped cream was organic, it came out of a can and had a slightly acrid taste. I'd substitute a scoop of high-quality vanilla ice cream here and in the hot cocoa as well.
Despite the criticism, my hope is that Sweeties can realize its dream and potential. And that's not pie-in-the-sky thinking.