There's a new chef - and some changes - at The Happy Rooster, the old-boys club turned inviting Center City neighborhood bar. Some of those changes include a move to a more upscale menu and emphasis on trendy dishes.
So is it a pub, a bar or a restaurant?
In the age-old chicken and egg query, let's start with the history. It's fun, and, oh so Philadelphia.
"Doc" Ulitsky and his wife, Madeline, established the restaurant in 1968, as the city's first vodka and caviar bar. They had a few rules - coats and ties for men and no single women at the bar.
When now-owner, Rose Parrotta, was thrown out (or nearly - accounts vary) for sitting alone at the bar, well, what else is any self-respecting woman to do but buy the place?
And she's done a great job of keeping the crown jewels: the antique brass, the wood and those ever-so-eclectic framed menus on the wall. Even the $105-per-ounce caviar remains. In Center City, where the ambience can either be too "Brooks Brothers" or "Same Chain," The Happy Rooster has always been an eclectic hideaway.
So, what's the deal with bringing in former Lacroix Chef du Cuisine Brendan Dougherty? His mission is to focus on a more "brasserie-style" menu and add something a little different.
For appetizers we sampled the Beet Carpaccio ($12), a stellar dish, but it loses its presentation impact when the thinly sliced beets are covered with micro-greens. Still, the produce and the concept are terrific.
The house-cured Gravlax ($9) is Chef Dougherty's own technique of using an eight-hour cure with dill and coriander seasoning. He then rinses the salmon and allows it to spend a day in the refrigerator to "dry" out.
This dish is a large portion that works for sharing, but it didn't really taste "cured," and there was no detectable flavor of the dill and coriander. The ultra-thinly sliced toast crisps from the excellent house bread are a perfect accompaniment.
All of my tasters agreed that the Tuna Nicoise ($12) was just a mish-mash and it was really hard to even find the tuna fish.
Entrees hit a bit more even keel. The blackboard special Coq au Vin ($14) was the best deal. The tender, falling-off-the-bone braised chicken was served with lots of broth and vegetables that were perfectly cooked with great texture and color. Dougherty gives this classic recipe a twist by using predominantly white wine, with very little red wine, and a touch of brandy.
We loved the Short Ribs ($21), even if it was a tad oversalted. Again, the long, slow braise created a flavorful dish.
The Filet of Beef ($27) was a second choice because the skirt steak was sold out. It was cooked as ordered, but we really should have sent it back as the cut had some unacceptable gristle that should have been noticed on the way out of the kitchen. We didn't want to rattle our server, though, and more on that later.
Desserts are fine, but nothing out of the ordinary. We shared a Chocolate Cake ($7) and Bread Pudding ($7).
Chef Dougherty has been in place for four months. He's still refining his philosophy and making the adjustment from a high-end kitchen with 13 cooks to managing a staff of two in the kitchen. It actually puts more of a burden on him to oversee everything.
Just as Parotta moved the Rooster to a new day and age when she got rid of the jackets, ties and escorts for women, Dougherty and Parotta will tweak the things on the menu that aren't working. I personally think the $15 chicken wings with truffles are a little gimmicky, but I'm told they are very popular.
The bigger issue for me is the front of the house. If I'm paying for more upscale food than a bar menu, then I'd better get service to match.
From the moment we walked in there was a cavalier attitude.
It didn't really matter that we had reservations, and we waited a significant amount of time to be acknowledged. When we asked for the wine list, we were presented with a somewhat disheveled handwritten diary.
We ordered a white and red for the table: La Cala Vermentino and Domaine Guyan, each $35. Our server was unable to open either bottle, which could have been just a charming fumble if she hadn't informed us, "Opening wine isn't what I do." Then she proceeded to discuss her day job.
Worse, on the second try she proclaimed, "I'm too weak to pull the cork because I've been on a 10-day flush."
EEEWWW, I hope you wash your hands well before you serve our food. And isn't that a little more information than you'd like strangers to know about you? I know that was way more than I did!