Lemon Hill was packed when I arrived one recent Friday for dinner. The tin-ceilinged tavern, supposedly once a speakeasy, has gone gastropub in its fine old age, with house-made sausages on the menu, top-shelf spirits and fancy ice cubes rattling in the cocktail shakers, and its big windows slung open to the Aspen Street autumn night.
But amid the happy surge of grown-ups that clung to the vintage wooden bar, I saw a familiar and surprising face: my son's buddy from elementary school, a fresh doughnut hole gripped in one hand as he sat on a bar stool beside his little sister. Both their grinning faces were smeared with warm malt chocolate sauce.
"I bribed them," confessed their dad, with only the vaguest hint of guilt in his voice as he lifted a perfectly chilled Old Fashioned to his lips. "Can I buy you a drink?"
I took a sip of that Old Fashioned - a backbone of good Buffalo Trace bourbon with an earthy clove whiff of Bitter Truth bitters - and I instantly understood the parenting logic of moving Dad's Night with the kids down the block. There's plenty for the with-it urban family to eat at this revived Fairmount-area pub, from an ode to the patty melt to house-baked pretzels and more ambitious plates built on scratch charcuterie and seasonal ingredients. The love for hot-from-the-fryer doughnuts is universal.
And Lemon's Hill penchant for weekend brunch has also been a smart way to build loyalty with nearby families who settle in for the sweet ricotta crepes (ours were covered with maple-sweetened peaches and almonds), deftly cooked omelets stuffed with heirloom tomatoes and lightly smoked Dante cheese, house-cured bacon, sagey sausage, and "Bubble and Squeak," a fluffy mashed potato cake filled with cabbage, onions, and herbs that's butter-fried to anchor the "full Irish breakfast."
But there's little doubt (even at brunch) that the greatest draws to Lemon Hill are flowing from the bar - no surprise considering it's operated by the crew behind the Franklin & Mortgage Investment Co. With a strong devotion to the classics, Lemon Hill's cocktails are both more affordable and less elaborate than its subterranean Rittenhouse sibling, but they are executed with the same craftsmanship, high-tech Kold-Draft ice cubes, and balance. There was just the right kiss of orange marmalade, for example, to temper an edgy Manhattan into a lovable Kensington. The Boulevardier, a bourbon-lover's twist on the ginny Negroni, softened its bitter Campari with the oaky vanilla of barrel-aged whiskey.
I could practically taste the Blues Explosion simply by listening to our server Steve Rauscher's dramatic narration of the interplay between souring grapefruit, rounding maple syrup, an extra dose of Angostura spice, and the woody sweetness of Jack Daniel's. Even better, though, was bartender Michelle Curtis' off-menu riff on Penicillin, a lemony brew of citrus, Scotch, and honey jazzed with ginger and a peaty float of Laphroaig that beckoned my nose with Islay smoke. My new favorite cure-all.
Add a seriously eclectic list of craft beers, from Clown Shoes on draft to Swiss BFM by the bottle, plus some intriguing wines (the Golem riesling; Aresti pinot; Orin Swift Abstract), and Lemon Hill has all frequencies of thirst sated.
The kitchen's effort, though not as universally strong as the bar's, is hardly an afterthought. An opening collaboration with consultant Mitch Prensky from Supper ended (amicably) this summer. And while there are still remnants of those early menus - like the excellent patty melt made from Pat LaFrieda's brisket-blend beef; and the head-on shrimp with Anson Mills grits - chef Joel Mazigian has steadily been making the fare his own.
Mazigian, like general manager Keith Raimondi, is a veteran of the Garces orbit, and his experience making sausages at the Garces Trading Co. is especially evident in several of the excellent links he produces here, like the hickory-smoked, garlicky andouille that recently replaced the shrimp over the braised collards and grits. Or the smoked paprika and arbol chile-infused chorizo that is crumbled over a bowl of mussels steamed in cuminy red chile broth with shaved radishes and cilantro that tastes like a giant seafood taco stew.
I wasn't a huge fan of Mazigian's braised pork belly, which was still too fatty to be enjoyed at brunch. The smoked dinner rendition was far more satisfying, tucked into a bowl of molasses-baked cranberry beans. Though shredding the okra to be fried into matchsticks on top, instead of cutting them into crosswise rounds, proves Mazigian still has lots to learn about Southern cooking. (The pod's slime he was trying to avoid is less a factor when fried.)
There were other small adjustments to be made. The lamb meatballs with gigante beans would have been great if they hadn't been overspiced. The red chile-glazed chicken wings were intriguing but chewy, and paired with a weird sauce - smoked onion yogurt mayo - that simply tried too hard. Likewise for the roasted lobster mushrooms, which were wonderfully meaty, adventurous, and flavorful, but dimmed by a vanilla-flavored brandy cream, hazelnuts, and sea beans, a garnish that was too precious for the barroom setting.
Yes, Mazigian is more than capable of searing a nice piece of fish, like the special skate over corn puree, roasted eggplant, and a zingy, pickled pepper vinaigrette. But Lemon Hill is at its best when it's updating the tavern spirit with thoughtful takes on simple fare. The baked flatbreads topped with pulled BBQ chicken meat, corn bread puree, and tart chunks of pickled green tomatoes are borderline Dixie genius. A flatbread with roast cauliflower, arugula, pecorino, and fava beans was reminiscent of my favorites from the Garces Trading Co. canon.
Anything with a seasoned cornmeal crust is worth ordering, whether it's the deep-fried chicken livers with bacon aioli or the thick fillet of catfish layered into a club sandwich lined with hot sauce-tinted mayo, pickled green tomatoes, Benton's country ham, and delicate Baker Street bread. It's a shame that dish - surprisingly well-balanced for a triple-decker - was recently removed from the menu. But I understand why an ambitious cook might want to keep the menu fresh, and the regulars interested. (I'm already charting a return visit just to taste the Korean BBQ steak sandwich with kimchi fried in beef fat.)
At least those house-made pretzels (a little breadstick-like but infused with caraway and nicely flaked with salt) remain to ballast those opening cocktails.
The trio of current desserts is also showing staying power. The butterscotch pudding is so intense, it's like a cartoon butterscotch, with the deepest caramel, vividest vanilla, and booziest bourbon bolstering its cream. The seasonal fruit crisp was a bubbling steel crock of black plum and crumble dolloped with crème fraîche ice cream. The doughnut holes were not quite perfect - ours were fried a little dark.
But with a dip into malt chocolate sauce (and, oh yes, another dip of fresh Concord grape jam), that still moist-in-the-middle little fritter more than did its trick. Bribe-worthy, indeed.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.