There are those who sign the autographs, and those who collect them. There are the creators, and the followers who admire them - and sometimes imitate their work.
At the new Autograph Brasserie in Wayne, it seems tribute, rather than pursuit of originality, is the guiding aesthetic. And yet, it works.
Inside this plush revamp of the Main Line strip mall manse that once was Le Mas Perrier, a series of distinct rooms holds more than 500 celebrity signatures on albums and movie star photos that pay homage to the people who have impacted American culture, says co-owner Marty Grims.
There's James Gandolfini smoking a stogie across from Keith Richards in the manly Club Room, where a roaring fire, vaulted ceiling, wood paneling, and oversize chairs give it a hunt-club vibe. Arnold Schwarzenegger surveys one of the semiprivate alcoves tucked into "the Boulevard" corridor that heads to the back rooms. For the dainty Sycamore Room, pictures of Sophia Loren, Katharine Hepburn, and Grace Kelly lend a deliberate feminine touch to a space decorated with butterflies around a central sculpted tree.
As for the big American brasserie menu, I cannot help but feel at times that it, too, is a derivative work. And not an inexpensive or thoroughly consistent one. Whether intentional or not, I often felt I was tasting a "greatest hits" medley of Center City's best tastes. There's a "toast" section à la Vernick. Some charred cauliflower (hello, Zahav!). A cocktail arrives with a glass turned upside down over a smoking plank, reminding me of Bar Volvér and Double Knot. There's even a budino served inside a mason jar for dessert. Sure, it's a relatively lightweight banana custard with hazelnuts and Frangelico compared to the dense, salted caramel decadence at Barbuzzo. But you get my drift.
Who even needs to head downtown anymore for dinner!? My worldly Main Line guests give me that knowing wink to that trick question, an acknowledgment that they realize inventiveness may not be Autograph's greatest suit. But they also made it clear they're glad to have it. As we settled into cushy oversize chairs, swirled glasses of Trisaetum Oregon pinot, and sliced into a 14-ounce slab of dry-aged rib eye at one end of the table and a juicy, prime burger at the other, I could see why.
Autograph works. And if there is a distinctive signature here, it is that of restaurateur Marty Grims, who, with two White Dog Cafes serving more than 300 seats between them just a little farther east down Lancaster Avenue, has a proven eye for creating upscale restaurant experiences and appealing spaces (with designer Barbara Balongue) that Main Liners embrace.
Like those suburban White Dogs, the 160-seat Autograph is comfortable and pleasantly posh - albeit with a meatier, less locally bound menu (including imported bottled water!) that pushes check prices a little higher. The service is outgoing and well-informed when it comes to the wines, most of them American, and 35 are available by the glass - with little samples kindly offered to help decide.
And as culinary interpreters go, chef and co-owner Ralph Fernandez, who made his name locally by bringing the Moshulu back to respectability, is a consummate pro. He knows good ingredients and serves them in proper style with subtle tweaks that express a personal touch.
A superbly tender octopus, charred in cast iron and seasoned with espelette pepper, preserved lemon and tossed with fingerlings, is a nod to his family's Spanish heritage. A julienned mince of yellowfin tuna crudo, mounded cool beside warm cubes of crispy chorizo, does the same. I would have loved his white almond gazpacho during my visit last summer had it been cold enough to be refreshing and not so huge that it lost its zing.
I realize many will consider "more" an automatic plus. And Autograph consistently delivers value in the portion department. But some dishes would simply have a greater impact with more finesse. The complimentary gougère puffs are too oversize and taste like eggy muffins. The toasts come with some great toppings - lemony crab with apple fennel slaw and mashed avocado, and wine-braised short ribs with cheddar and horseradish cream. But they're piled so high they can be unwieldy and turn to mush.
On the other hand, making a meal out of those $14 toasts is one of the more affordable strategies here, considering entrées rise into the $30s and beyond. So are the $15-and-under plates of house-made pasta, which brought satisfyingly toothy rigatoni tossed with crab in a bouillabaisse broth in summer, a squash-filled ravioli fall special with chicken and bacon jam, and gemelli twists tangled up with tender curls of shrimp, mushrooms, and snappy peas in a lobster sherry emulsion.
We had more mixed luck with the big-ticket entrées. The huge crab cake bound with aioli and saltine crackers was outstanding. The half-pound burger was as memorable for its great flavors, with bacon, chipotle Thousand Island, and ripe tomatoes, as for its price ($19 . . . yikes!).
The flavorful veal Milanese, though, had been so thoroughly tenderized its interior had the texture of ground meat. The swordfish Basquaise was slightly overcooked. And that showstopping 14-ounce rib eye (for $52) would have been perfect had the meat showed a more convincing caramelized sear - which raised the question as to whether the kitchen had cheated its savor by precooking it sous-vide. The manager said yes when asked during a visit in July. Chef Fernandez, in a recent interview, says all his steaks (aside from the steak frites) are cooked from raw and basted with butter and shallots. As they should be.
Either way, our charming server, Christina Fernandez (the chef's eldest daughter), and general manager Christian Leo impressed with their determination to make sure guests were satisfied. After a harissa-grilled lamb loin proved unyieldingly chewy, they whisked it away in favor of a pork tenderloin that was butter tender and moist, with silky sweet potato puree, braised chard, and cranberry jam seasonally on point.
Before that moment, Autograph was riding precariously close to the one- and two-bell fence. At these prices, I would prefer more consistency.
But by the time pastry chef Colleen Winston had her say with an array of vividly creamy and flavorful fresh-churned ice creams (peanut butter, pumpkin and bourbon), a warm pear-and-almond tart, a gooey chocolate-and-cashew tart, a playfully good sundae, and yes, even that light-touch banana budino, I had been properly convinced.
Autograph Brasserie may not exactly be an original in its own right. But as an overall collection - not just of framed signatures, but of quality ingredients, well-trained staff, good wines, and a comfortable setting - it makes for a worthy experience.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Kanella Grill near Washington Square.
Autograph Brasserie VERY GOOD (two bells out of four)
503 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, 610-964-2588; autographbrasserie.com
The strip-mall manse in Wayne once occupied by Le Mas Perrier has been revived by the White Dog's Marty Grims and chef Ralph Fernandez as a lavishly clubby American brasserie. The upscale and meat-centric menu is sometimes not as consistent (or original) as it should be for the prices. But Fernandez (ex-Moshulu) generally puts high-quality ingredients into appealing combinations, often with good house-made pasta. Add a solid wine list, a handsome multiroom décor, and outgoing service that knows how to correct mistakes, and this new entry feels like a properly posh fit for the Main Line.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Toasts (crab and avocado; short ribs); tuna-chorizo crudo; burrata; charred octopus; gemelli with shrimp; rigatoni; squash agnolotti special; prime burger; pork tenderloin; crab cake; dry-aged rib eye; charred cauliflower; chocolate-cashew tart; pear almond tart; blueberry tart; sundae; daily ice creams.
DRINKS A solid list of classic cocktails come with a twist, from the Dual Fashioned (with two bourbons) to a tableside-smoked Sazerac and a Cosmo that sparkles. There's a small list of worthy craft beers (Founders, Cigar City, Orval), but wine is the focus here, with 135 labels and 35 by the glass. The focus leans toward familiar American reds that pair well with meat (Duckhorn cab; Trisaetum pinot from Oregon), though mark-ups are very high. A Rioja tempranillo from Montaña ($13 glass/$52 bottle) was an affordable and flexible choice.
WEEKEND NOISE Noise varies depending on room, from the buzzy bar and Club Room (88 decibels) to the claustrophobic quiet of one of the semi-private alcoves (80 decibels). (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:30 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $19-$52.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially on weekends.