When the sad news came recently that the Four Seasons hotel would shutter its Fountain Restaurant by the end of December, it signaled the finale of a four-bell era of extraordinary ambition in hotel dining.
I took some solace at Bank & Bourbon with a wooden board graced with silky piles of cured hams from Benton's, Creminelli, and the Hamery - plus my choice of 80 or so whiskeys. And while this nine-month-old newcomer to the Loews Philadelphia Hotel is clearly angling for a completely different role in our world, I was happily reminded that a generous course of cured pig and whiskey can go a long way toward easing through any challenging transition.
And there's no doubt Philadelphia's hotel restaurants are at a turning point. Yes, Lacroix at the Rittenhouse - itself a sort of Fountain descendant via founder Jean-Marie Lacroix - remains a bastion of posh hotel gastronomy. And who knows what the Four Seasons will unveil when it eventually moves to the upper floors of the new Comcast tower in 2017?
But for the most part, hotel restaurants in Philly - a city that once reveled in the opulent dining rooms of the Hyatt at the Bellevue, the Warwick, and the Barclay - have largely devolved into the role of soulless amenities.
And the unironically named SoleFood at Loews had become among the least relevant of them all. That is why Bank & Bourbon, the bourbon-fueled American brasserie that replaced it, represents such a surprisingly pleasant turnaround.
You just don't expect much from a hotel lobby and restaurant that, at times, has seemed overrun by conventioneers - many with their nametags still on - drinking boisterously in the glow of sports on flat-screen TVs, or canoodling on the oversize banquette to our right while twin plates of filet mignon (yawn) go cold.
The rambling 220-seat space, decked out with a retro ampersand stenciled into the name, wood floors, and down-home shelving for its extensive booze list, plus the quasi-rustic touches of leather and horsehide chairs, tries hard to be all things to many people. And it succeeds at many.
But assembling the strong bourbon program - with a "bourbon master" in Brian Bevilacqua to "nerd out" with guests over house barrel-aging and the best filters to clarify milk for punch - isn't the most impressive part.
What's most striking is the reemergence of chef Tom Harkins, a native Two-Streeter and alum of the Moshulu, Circa, Plate, and SoleFood, too, who's cooking his best food yet at age 46. This isn't an innovative menu, per se. It isn't inexpensive, either, with entrées ranging mostly from the mid-$20s to $42. But Harkins is presenting familiar American flavors with refined style, seasonality, and sharp technique that lets his good ingredients shine.
That could mean a perfectly roasted chicken, still juicy on the bone in a cast-iron pan drizzled with piquant salsa verde. It could be one of the best steaks I've had in town this year, an 18-ounce slab of prime-grade Creekstone N.Y. strip, its broiler-crusted edges snug against tufts of snappy red watercress. Or it could be an impressively layered cauliflower salad, the roasty florets brightened with sherry vinegar and sparked with the sweet crunch of pumpkin seed brittle.
Harkin's veg finesse first caught my attention in late summer with a gorgeous ode to sweet corn, still smoky from the grill alongside fresh snap peas and a toothy sesame granola. His celebration of multicolored carrots, roasted chipotle oil, along with toasted quinoa, pistachios, yogurt sauce, and spice, was a memorable starter for $9.
I also took note of a seriously outgoing new tone for the restaurant's service staff - though they can be over the top at times. Servers shouldn't have to wait with hot plates in hand while a manager finishes a lengthy tale about how George Dickel whiskey got its name.
The Dickel Barrel Select, it turns out, is one of the better bargains on the vast list of spirits that range from about $10 up to $65 a shot. And it's the perfect accompaniment to a country ham board that's one of the more generous in town. There are other worthy starters, like the luscious yellowtail sashimi shined with ginger oil, or the brown-buttered pierogi stuffed with Swiss chard wrapped in smoky speck. The cheese platter features personal favorites like Harbison, Birchrun Blue, and the Last Straw.
There were a couple of mild disappointments: the foie gras-chicken liver parfait tasted mostly like chicken liver; a deeply cured short-rib pastrami shredded like steamed meat onto an odd choice of buttermilk sauce. I loved the flavors of Harkins' steak tartare. But the crust of the deep-fried egg felt gimmicky and discardable once the yolk was popped.
For the most part, though, Harkins' kitchen turned out one solid dish after the other, from a succulent and tender pork chop over creamed parsnips and spicy mustard greens, to a roasted lamb loin with lentils and house-made lamb sausage (tasty, but a tad dry.) Both fish entrées I ordered - a thick seared salmon over mashed sweet potatoes with pistachios and chanterelle mushrooms; and a superbly moist whole branzino with fennel and romesco in fumet - were perfectly done.
With some equally competent renditions of crowd-pleaser desserts like cream-filled fresh doughnuts, a tall butterscotch sundae, and a creamy custard jar vivid with coffee, I can understand why some of the Loews' visitors might never feel the need to leave.
More Philadelphians should discover Bank & Bourbon's virtues, too, as a likable new venue with mass appeal - not to mention $6 valet parking. If nothing else, the chilly Philly Wonka cocktail makes a convincing nightcap, its bourbon-rum-amaro brew shaken into a noglike creamy froth with a whole egg. Life in local hotel restaurants may no longer be as fancy once the Fountain is gone. But the Loews' latest attempt strikes a tone I could get used to.
BANK & BOURBON
Loews Hotel, 1200 Market St., 215-627-1200; bankandbourbon.com
While hotel restaurants struggle for relevance, the Loews has delivered a thorough revamp of forgettable SoleFood into a smart American brasserie that hits all the right notes. From the extensive bourbon program to the casually styled leather decor, professional service, and a menu of American classics refined with spot-on technique and seasonality by veteran Tom Harkins, this is a venue with mass appeal (and great steaks) that's already popular with conventioneers - but deserves more local attention.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Taste of ham; yellowtail; swiss chard pierogies; roasted cauliflower salad; baby carrots; broccoli soup; roast chicken; pork chop; whole fish; salmon; lamb; bone-in N.Y. strip; mini- doughnuts; espresso parfait.
DRINKS A massive American whiskey list showcases a wide range of standards and rarities, though value pours under $15 are rare (try George Dickel from Tennessee.) The whiskey flights, house-aged white whiskies (get the Hudson), and cocktails are worthwhile, creative and well-crafted, if not always generous. There is a medium-size wine list with a focus on familiar New World brands that offer quality (Eroica, Cambria, Selyem, Goldeneye, Mer Soleil) though with usual high hotel markups.
WEEKEND NOISE A substantial bar presence can amp up to a noisy 92 decibels, but generally ranges in the still-talkable mid-80s. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Breakfast daily, 6 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner nightly, 5:30-10 p.m. Bar menu nightly, until midnight.
Dinner entrees, $18-$42.
All major cards.
Valet parking costs $6 with validation from restaurant.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews La Peg.