Free will and good cooking should, in theory, allow any restaurant space to be reborn with a fresh personality under new operators without regard to the places that came before it. But there is something about the crossroads at 20th and Lombard Streets that suggests the character of its occupants is baked into the sidewalk.
For at least the last two decades, the southeast corner has been the raucous-tavern side of the street. It was a bundle of neighborhood energy when it was Chaucer's Tabard Inn. And it's retained that boisterous spirit as Pub & Kitchen, even as chef Eli Collins produces some of the most compelling plates near Rittenhouse Square.
The southwest corner, meanwhile, has always been the quiet side of the street. From the Waldorf Cafe through multiple incarnations of Meritage, this space has long been the mature and calm reply to its neighbor, with its front bar and rear dining rooms usually defined by a more subdued, upscale, and wine-forward ethos. And, yet, despite some bright moments in that history - the Anne Coll Asian-fusion era being my favorite - these projects have inevitably lacked the wattage to sustainably avoid being overshadowed by their across-the-street counterpart.
Not that there isn't more than enough business to go around in this thriving rowhouse community, where the Rittenhouse and Graduate Hospital neighborhoods meet. But I've long wondered whether the west-side story there would be more promising if someone took a considerably more casual approach. As much as I like the P&K, it's a shade too expensive for frequent meals. What this neighborhood really needs is more quality options in a more affordable price range.
Well, that won't be Lou Bird's, because this successor to Meritage is following the same playbook of making this a destination address. And, unfortunately, my meals there didn't make the case for it as a distinctive player yet in the $24-$32 entree club.
To be sure, motivated owner Norris Jordan, a bond trader by day who also owns the Happy Rooster with his wife, Debbie, has invested considerably to remake the old space, exposing the brick walls, opening the back dining room, moving the once awkwardly placed bathrooms, plus numerous needed infrastructure changes. The rooms have a low-lit Burgundy glow, but the overall design effect is boxy and noisy, to the point that conversation is strained.
Perhaps with all that work, a higher-end concept was needed to pay the bills. But it's unclear what on this menu is really going to lure customers to return.
Chef Natalie Maronski is clearly a young talent, with a fine track record in the Garces organization helming kitchens at Chifa and Volvér. But her first solo effort, an eclectic modern American menu broken into three groups (the current appetizer-busting fashion) has too many flawed details tempering the many good ideas.
The baby artichokes are the darling dish of the first-course nibbles, a plateful of quarter-size artichoke hearts (labor intensive, but worth it!) roasted golden on the griddle and set over a vivid green spinach pesto scattered with nutty sunflower seeds. Pierogies that nod to the Polish side of Maronski's family were pleasantly upscaled with duck confit fillings and a tang from the dollop of horseradish-dusted whipped buttermilk on the side.
But a promising small plate of seared rainbow trout was overcooked and dry, with a creamy mushroom sauce that was too thick to compensate. (Braised leeks were the highlight.) I like the instinct to reimagine chicken and waffles with a more delicate Asian (and gluten-free) twist. But the soy-lacquered poussin was too puny to dig into, even as a $12 starter, and the buckwheat-coconut waffle was so underdone its deep-gray batter was still strangely pasty.
Braised oxtail soup was mostly a success, an intensely flavored revamp of both French onion soup and French dip that had cute mini-toasts for dunking on the side topped with shaved Wagyu beef scraps and melted Gruyere lathered with tangy bone-marrow mustard. The overall flavors were splendid - I'd order it again. But the clumps of oxtail in the soup were awkward to eat and noticeably chewy. The pork belly starter was also a winner in the flavor department, the tender meat set over toast and glossed in a sorghum glaze. But the garnish - collards cooked to a scant dark puree and fried black-eyed peas scattered on top for crunch - minimized some favorite Southern comforts to a precious flourish.
A smoked cauliflower rigatoni was a potentially interesting vegetarian offering. But the creamy sauce made from smoked cauliflower was surprisingly bland and so heavy it collapsed the house-extruded rigatoni tubes.
Textures of thick purees, without sauces to thin and balance plates, were a lingering issue. I adored the house-smoked fish sauce (a subtle ode to Maronski's Vietnamese mom) that brought a whiff of mystery to the sheer fluke crudo. But dabs of pureed apple dotted on top lent an almost mayolike unctuous mouthfeel and misplaced fruity sweetness to an otherwise light and lithe dish.
I would have loved the lightly cured duck breast with sweet huckleberries had the thick chestnut puree on the side not eaten like peanut butter and brought the dish to a skidding halt. A more liquid sauce might also have benefited that gorgeous hunk of striped bass. Instead, it was ringed with a crimson slash of beet puree and a berm of beet-stained farro and fennel salad that left no neutral ground for any reluctant beet-phobes (but fish lovers) to ease their way in.
I admire Maronski's instinct to do something different with a familiar combo - like adding a Korean Argentine zing (with a kimchi-chimichurri hybrid sauce) to steak and potatoes. But the desire to upgrade the meat quality to a Wagyu beef misfired in the execution: The fat-boosted savor of Wagyu's telltale marbling was clear, but the overly thick cut of this strip was so dense the steak was simply chewy. A special request from Norris to re-create a lobster-and-mushroom dish he'd once eaten resulted in yet another mixed result. The flavor combo of crustacean paired with the earthiness of maitake mushrooms and rustic whole-wheat pasta was perfect - but the house-made noodles were borderline mushy and the half lobster portion so tiny it was hard to justify the $28 price. Or $32 for that chewy steak.
There are a lot of great restaurants within a few blocks that can do better for those prices, so what ultimately is Lou Bird's draw? Not the uninspired cocktails or the unremarkable wines by the glass. It may simply be a matter of working to iron out this menu's glitches. But I tend to think a bolder vision, and perhaps a more innovative approach, is going to be needed to draw a strong and steady neighborhood crowd to the southwest corner of 20th and Lombard. Otherwise, history will repeat, and its biggest draw will simply be as the mellow overflow space of the popular, boisterous tavern across the street.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Biga in Bryn Mawr.