For wannabe insider diners weaned on Kitchen Confidential and chefs' Twitter feeds, it doesn't get any cooler than a chance to chow down like a kitchen grunt on a late-night "staff meal."
One should expect something edgy - brandied rabbit kidneys, or grilled duck hearts. But you'll take your offal and love it - especially if the message is this: These hard-core chefs are working in a suburb near you.
You have to wait until 10 p.m. for the weekend "midnight special" at NoBL in Lansdowne, well after bedtime for most suburban scenes. But Lansdowne is undergoing a modest resurgence, led in part by Sycamore, NoBL's sophisticated BYO sibling owned by borough councilman Stephen Wagner and run by talented chef Sam Jacobson.
If anyone can bring a city concept as current as a Mediterranean small-plater with a "salvage chic" look and an acronymic name (for "North of Baltimore & Lansdowne") to this reviving Delco crossroads, these are two I'd bet on.
I can see Jacobson's appealing culinary sensibility at play in such simple-but-catchy dishes as fennel toasts topped with oozy robiola and orange marmalade, oregano-crusted mackerel, or duck confit with blueberry vinaigrette. Wagner's knack for design is clear in his inviting revamp of an old hardware store space, the long tin-ceilinged room divided by huge windowpanes recovered from a Fishtown warehouse, pinewood tabletops set on (wobbly) sawhorses, an open kitchen edged by a metal counter, and a rear wall of pierced wooden planks that twinkle with lights.
The setup is smart. But I'm not so sure Lansdowne is ready to embrace it. For that matter, NoBL may not be ready yet to deliver on its promise, either.
Before it can snag the coveted late-night cool kids, NoBL could use a few more diners at 7:30 on a Friday night. It was so quiet when we arrived then, the waitress/hostess must have thought we were a mirage.
It's the only way to explain why we were ignored without a "hello" for nearly five minutes while she proceeded to set and arrange the mostly empty dining room. It was an ominous start to a parade of service miscues, from the excruciating wait just for water (pre-bottled, no less!), to the fits and starts of pacing (long pauses followed by a sudden rush of too many plates), to a general cluelessness.
"They're supposed to be pink inside," our waitress said, trying to reassure us that the cheese-stuffed meatballs in porcini cream weren't still partially raw. The spicing did add a rosy hue, but the still-mushy core of normally cooked-through ground turkey and Italian sausage was not reassuring.
Good help in the suburbs is famously hard to retain. And NoBL has been struggling to stabilize both its kitchen and its dining room as Jacobson and crew juggle two restaurants in the midst of some recent key departures. Sycamore apparently is still going gangbusters with its well-attended theme dinners and weekend tastings. The more casual and more affordable NoBL, averaging about $25 for three plates, would seem to be an ideal complement.
But inconsistent execution undermined numerous simple dishes that need attention to details to succeed. So many of the starters, which would have been ideal at room temperature, arrived ice-cold, as if the kitchen hadn't actually prepared for real diners to show up.
A plate of burrata cheese suffered this fate, the cream-stuffed mozzarella still too chilled to show well against a smart pairing of roasted hazelnuts. Similarly, the various pre-roasted seasonal vegetables - fairytale eggplant, honeyed parsnips, charred brussels sprouts - evoked "fridge-to-table" more than farm-market roots. Even the fried cauliflower dusted in Parmigiano-Reggiano, a flavor I usually love, was limp and not hot.
There were a handful of real successes. The deviled eggs offered a trio of vivid stuffings: blushing pink with pickled beets, truffled, and piquant with pecorino. The P.E.I. mussels basked in an earthy Spanish broth steamed with cuminy chorizo and garlic butter. Big grilled shrimp wrapped in serrano ham, then topped with shaved manchego and smoky orange dabs of chile oil, were an ideal example of good ingredients on a pedestal. The raw oysters were also plump and briny - even if our second-night server mislocated the Village Bay oysters to Vancouver (they're from New Brunswick), and the first night, those oysters (a favorite meal-starter) were nearly forgotten until they appeared inside a steel bowl of ice cubes just before dessert.
With a different cook presiding over the open kitchen each night (neither of them, unfortunately, was Jacobson), erratic performance was the norm. We had more than one undercooked item at my first meal, including grilled veal rolls stuffed with prosciutto that were still too raw inside to chew. At my second meal, overcooking doomed the chunky lobes of liver that were buried in cream at the bottom of some zipper-edged pappardelle. We had to dig through a deep mountain of bread crumbs to find the mackerel. At least this time, the meatballs were fully done.
Some of the safest bets were slow-cooked items reheated to order, such as the tender duck confit with blueberry vinaigrette, or the rustic moussaka blanketed in creamy bechamel, or the beef tongue marked on the grill and topped with sweet-and-tangy walnut agrodolce.
NoBL's biggest menu flaw is the section of grilled flatbreads. The toppings themselves are more or less appealing, from wild boar soppressata with caramelized onions and mozzarella, to house-cured guanciale and burrata, and meaty wild mushrooms with Taleggio. It's just too bad they're served atop par-cooked doughs that had the bland and crackery lifelessness of matzo.
There were bright moments at dessert, including little doughnuts fried from various fun batters (banana bread!) and a sampler of Franklin Fountain's outstanding ice creams. They were good enough to overlook the cold, leathery crepes stuffed with Nutella.
By then, however, we'd not forgotten to still save room (barely) for another savory round: the "staff meal" - which, at 10:01, we eagerly decided to order. Much to the kitchen's chagrin. Our waitress had no idea what it would be, and it's no wonder. I could sense a collective groan as the kitchen scrambled to figure out exactly what to cook, as if they never really planned to feed the staff, or, for that matter, any guests with a special that's little more than an infrequently ordered gimmick.
There was a tiny slice of tongue, but no hearts or kidneys, sadly, ever appeared (Jacobson says they have in nights past). And neither did we belly up next to weary employees chowing down at the end of their shift. We received instead a hodgepodge platter of everything we'd already ordered that night - a disappointment I'd rather have avoided after a 25-minute wait.
Our waitress, though, was clearly envious: "Wow, I've never seen a staff meal like that. We usually get flatbread and hummus."
I guess the truth is that "staff meal" - not unlike the gamble of pioneering restaurant concepts - isn't always as cool as it seems.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Yanako in Manayunk. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.