If Alexander Hamilton can be the hero of a rap musical, I suppose there's no good reason he can't be the inspiration for the name of a restaurant serving Southern comforts.
True, it's unlikely the West Indies-born orphan turned New Yorker, Founding Father, and federalist had a soft spot for Dixie deep-fried chicken and smoked chicken wings. And never mind the irony of naming a bustling new Old City bar and restaurant in honor of the man behind the infamous whiskey tax. (Mr. Hamilton, the Rebel Distillers Association of Pennsylvania welcomes you!) But at least the Little Lion, which is a nod to Hamilton's nickname in battle, uses a tart splash of apple shrub to give its rye-spiked apple crisp some colonial cred. (The brûléed coffee martini called Peddler's Buzz . . . not so much).
OK, so this concept is a little confused. But popular is popular. And with the big Museum of the American Revolution right across Chestnut Street finally in sight of a 2017 opening, I can hardly blame co-owners Chris Younge and Jason Dills for embracing a colonial hero (and namesake of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway sensation) to catch the attention of the tourist trade.
The off-topic Southern menu theme, in fact, came later in the process, when they landed chef Sean Ciccarone, a Zot, Farmers' Cabinet, and Mainland Inn alum who developed an affection for Southern food during a stint in Charleston, S.C., while manning a missile launcher in the Navy.
(The restaurant owners announced Friday, April 22 that Ciccarone had left as of this week after some "temporary health issues." Sous chef Andre Davis will step up in the interim during a search for Ciccarone's replacement.)
The Lion's owners have done a nice job with renovations to bring some drama back to this historic 19th-century space. Previously the sleekly lit sushi disappointment known as Haru (which had been closed for years), this onetime bank and nautical-instrument company displays a return to a classic grandeur, a wooden balustrade now regally sweeping up to the mezzanine bar, which overlooks a dining hall with soaring cathedral ceilings; tall, mullioned windows; and lipstick-red spindle-back chairs set across from black banquettes.
This 176-seat room could be transformed into an updated colonial gastropub in a wink without changing a thing - including our friendly server, whose treacle-thick British accent would have been charming if we'd been able to hear a single word. Did he tell us that West Coast oysters were brinier than the East Coast oysters on the raw bar (a reverse of the usual style characterization)? Or was that info just garbled by the pounding echo and roar of the loudest room I've sound-measured all year? (An ear-pummeling 98 decibels.)
Our sweet-natured waitress repeated the same misinformation on our second visit, so I ordered the East Coasters anyway, but the Irish Points from Prince Edward Island were unimpressively puny and flaccid. I would have liked the char-grilled oysters better if they were anything like the New Orleans bivalves that inspired them. These, by contrast, were too large, and seemingly drained of any juice before they were buried inside a pile of dry Parmesan bread crumbs. The best oyster option here brought the mollusks fried inside a crisp cornmeal crust with a honeyed hot sauce sip on the side.
It was a steady theme at the Little Lion, where the most reliable things were fried, from the crispy green tomatoes with tomatoey bacon jam to the fried goat cheese fritters that were incongruously plopped on top of a pile of deeply roasted carrots and bitter greens but that ultimately gave personality to the dish.
The fried chicken is also an easy draw, though it could have been even better with a little more seasoning in the light crust, and a bit more juiciness if it had been fried to order instead of par-cooked. The best part was the corn pancake underneath, a nice switch from the usual waffle cushion.
Familiar picnic comforts are the menu's sweet spot, like the simple sliders of grilled chicken thighs lacquered in barbecue sauce over cabbage slaw, and the cast-iron pan of mac and cheese whose milky cheese sauce is dabbed with the tangy sweetness of classic stewed tomatoes.
The kitchen's biggest shortcomings appeared in moments where more finesse was required, unfortunately too often in the entrée category. Some beautifully big shrimp were sadly overcooked before being set around strangely soupy cheddar grits. I surprised myself by liking the thicker-set blue cheese grits paired with the tender braised short rib. But the brown sauce of thickened sarsaparilla soda was far too sweet and gloppy. A blackened catfish was an example of every misstep that happens when people really don't know how to blacken - the fish overseared into a stiff plank dredged in so much spice it was truly scorched instead of properly deeply bronzed. Another layer of disappointment: It was lukewarm and served over rapidly setting "rice" grits with a crawfish butter sauce that was bland.
This kitchen doesn't lack for effort. It makes good use of a smoker for an unusual and tasty smoked celery root soup, as well as for some smoked chicken wings tossed in sweet spice that are a tasty switch from the usual fried variety. But the house-made farmer's cheese was a bit of a bore, and its "local honey" (a menu note that caught the attention of my guest the beekeeper) turned out that night to be from Turkey, according to our server (currently the Little Lion is sourcing its honey again from Lansdale).
The house-made bacon was also a misstep, so thickly cut, unrendered, and chewy it got in the way of an otherwise delicious burger patty of blended short rib, brisket, and chuck, which came slathered with zippy pimento cheese. A potentially great pork chop over pureed sweet potatoes and charred Brussels sprouts carelessly took the safety of its brine for granted. It was somehow still dry and overcooked, which is a shame because its $29 price tag was an expensive outlier on this otherwise affordable menu, whose next-highest price is $21.
That mostly reasonable price point will probably guarantee that the Little Lion remains an enticing option for tourists who happen by, see a handsome dining room, and find the name intriguing. Old City, which has struggled lately to attract substantial new restaurants instead of the creeping haze of vapor bars, could do worse.
But the Little Lion can also do better - with the potential boon of a local crowd in play. The IPA-heavy beer list, which is large but unfocused and which was suffering on my last visit from funky draft lines, can use some extra love. The Southern flavors obviously still need work.
But Alexander Hamilton, whose once-threatened image on currency was secured this week by the current Treasury secretary and will remain on all the $10 bills bulging in those tourist pockets, isn't going anywhere. And I'm guessing the Little Lion will survive, as well, and hopefully eventually get it all right.
Next week, Craig LaBan rounds up Philly-owned restaurants in New York.
THE LITTLE LION (one bell out of four)
243 Chestnut St., 267-273-0688; thelittlelionphilly.com
Combine a historic Old City bank space with soaring vaulted ceilings, a loose thematic nod to the Founding Father of the moment, and a menu that riffs on Southern comforts, and you have an appealing, albeit somewhat confused, concept that should still become a magnet for the hungry tourist crowds in Philly's historic district. Old City could do worse than this friendly, good-looking, and mostly affordable casual tavern. But an insanely noisy room and a lack of finesse in the Southern fare hold it back from its potential as a local draw, too.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Fried green tomatoes; smoked celery root soup; macaroni and cheese; BBQ chicken sliders; heirloom carrots and goat cheese; fried chicken; short rib; pork chop; mud jar.
DRINKS The cocktails are "shrub"-heavy, giving the Apple Crisp and sangria a supposed colonial flair. There's a sizable list of IPA-heavy craft beers, though they tend to hew to breweries' greatest hits, and lighter draft selections - like Smuttynose Vunderbar Pilsner - show off flavors that indicate draft lines aren't especially well-maintained.
WEEKEND NOISE An ear-thrashing 98 decibels simply hurts on busy nights, when conversation is a major challenge. Some soundproofing is apparently on its way. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 4-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $14-$29.
All major cards.
Reservations recommended weekends.
Wheelchair accessible (first floor only).
Street and lot parking only.