"This is the place that I'm going to be attached to for a very long time," says Clark Gilbert of Gemelli on Main, his sleek new perch in Manayunk.
This is a chef, of course, who, at 45, is now on his 10th restaurant in 16 years. And the folks in Narberth likely heard something similar to that two years ago when he opened a cozy 40-seat BYO there as his first rendition of Gemelli. For a neighborhood short on fine dining, the relatively swift loss of Gilbert's well-polished Franco-Italian fare surely stung.
Aperto, a Mediterranean-focused successor from John Wolferth that I have yet to visit, will certainly have a chance to fill that void. And yet, Gilbert's recent move to the swankier, larger Manayunk space is telling on a number of levels.
For one, it shows yet again that our wonderful BYOB scene has some limits. A chef can generate only so much money from a 40-seat space without a liquor license - a legitimate concern for a single father with 13-year-old twins (gemelli in Italian, the inspiration for the restaurant's name). With 70 seats now comfortably scattered through a multilevel space, from the wide-open cafe windows of the ground floor to the mezzanine fireplace nook, and a full-service bar overlooking Main Street with a picture-window view from its second-floor perch, this Gemelli seems primed to draw dining traffic to Manayunk's southeastern end.
Whether Manayunk is ready to return to restaurant relevance is an open question. But after tasting just a few of these dishes - a mid-fall minted pea soup filled with sweet crab salad; fork-tender braised pork cheeks with creamy polenta - I'm quickly reminded of Gilbert's well-honed skills.
I've been impressed with the subtle but smart evolution of Gilbert's hybrid Euro style, now leaning back toward France (a strength, due to his Four Seasons roots) and a little lighter on the Italian flair. So there are cannelloni, but they're filled with an airy shrimp mousse studded with lobster, then snuggled between tender chunks of red-wine-braised pork belly in a cardamom-tinged sauce with favas and meaty mushrooms. There is risotto beneath the seared scallops, but the rich rice is flecked with quick-salted cod reminiscent of a light-touch brandade.
Yes, Gilbert is a chef serious enough to merit some attention from destination diners who long ago wrote off most of this neighborhood as a lost strip of nightclubs and martini bars. But if Gemelli is to become "the neighborhood place" Gilbert says he wants, he's likely going to need to rethink the upscale prices that have marked the early menus.
Poised in his open kitchen on the ground floor, Gilbert concedes he's seen the repeated sticker shock of $27 to $30 entrées on passersby (who keep on going) - and he's begun shaving those prices by a few dollars, even in the last two weeks. He may need to trim a few more before the calibration is complete.
Not that there's any lack of quality. Gilbert is using good ingredients, and the food, for the most part, was well-cooked. But I'd be happy to pay $5 less for smaller portions here of what is essentially polished, bistro-plus cooking.
The house-signature gemelli pasta gets sauced with a hearty lamb Bolognese sparked with the snap of chickpeas and green olives (and a smart recent price chop from $24 to $20). A crisply seared salmon was elevated from safe to stellar with a silky eggplant puree exotic with turmeric and cumin, and a sweet-tart marmalade of candied green tomatoes.
Gilbert continues the riff on "vitello tonnato" begun at his Narberth location with a plate of tuna tartare placed across from crisp veal sweetbreads. An unlikely sweet-and-savory bruschetta - roasted peaches with honeyed shallots over goat cheese with reduced port - was a perfect ode to late summer's fleeting fruit.
Rabbit legs are slow-cooked confit-style, then whipped into a creamy rillettes to be served like a puck of pâté with lentil salad. A seared duck breast starter - cooked rare and served cool, like roast beef - was shingled like cards over a lively celery root salad. Beef tartare, meanwhile, continuing the cold-meat theme, was glazed in a perfectly mustardy dressing but wasted its most brilliant idea - a cockle salad in curried vinaigrette - by setting it so coyly off to the side that it was nearly lost as an afterthought. I'd return for that dish alone, more boldly blended, especially now that it's switched to venison.
There were a few other dishes that could still use a tweak. Gilbert's desserts - long one of his weak links - still range from average to adequate, from the undercooked and thin rice pudding to a decent but unexciting chocolate torte and fine cheesecake.
On the savory side, the chestnut foie gras soup was just a bowl of creamy brown broth - tasty enough, but one-dimensional and missing a visible sign that foie gras has a starring role. The barramundi was overcooked and salty - especially beside the squid wrapped into a crispy pinwheel with a slice of serrano ham. The roast-pepper piperade, studded with morsels of chorizo, was the most compelling flavor on the plate. The pig cheeks - pricey at $27! - weren't quite as hot as they could be. The lobster cannelloni sauce was a shade too thin.
The fan of veal tenderloin, meanwhile, was superbly tender and moist, but the green-vegetable medley beneath the meat didn't taste much at all of the touted truffle. This was a perfect case of an enormous portion for $30 that would be much more appealing in a smaller $24 take.
The service, while young, was enthusiastic and well-informed - though they don't do a good enough job pointing diners to Gemelli's bottle list, which offers far better value than the marked-up by-the-glass pours. In addition, there were strangely long waits between courses at both my meals - even though the room was hardly filled.
I suspect those light crowds say less about the quality of the food here - which, overall, is recommendable - than about a neighborhood still trying to make its fine-dining comeback, and a chef still in the process of taking the pulse of his new surroundings. The well-traveled Gilbert has done that before. Let's hope he sticks it out long enough here to get it right.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.