'Oh, so you mean the Cresheim Cottage is actually good now?"
Well, I'm used to more cheery replies when a dinner invitation is issued. But that is more or less the cynical attitude I got from the half-dozen or so friends in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill whom I tried to recruit for dinner at the Cresheim Cottage.
Now, I'd never been for a meal under the previous occupants of this Colonial stone cottage (circa 1748) on Germantown Avenue, so I have no idea if they lived "up" to their reputation: that is, the charm of period ambience and a lovely garden terrace served with a side of dull food. Fair or unfair, there is something to be said for the real and lingering effects of neighborhood word of mouth.
The Cresheim's newest owner, Donna Fitzgerald Robb, says she realized this obstacle only after signing the purchase papers. But that hasn't stopped her from toiling over the last three years to steadily right its reputation, sprucing up its classic dining rooms, lowering entree prices to the $20 range, and juicing the menu with some bright New American ideas and a focus on local, organic ingredients.
Robb also happens to come to the Cottage from a place at the opposite end of the aura spectrum. Both she and Cresheim sous-chef Joan Gigliotti helped run the kitchen for several years at Judy's Cafe, the much beloved (and now closed) Queen Village institution that set a Restaurant Renaissance standard for updated comfort foods and staunch neighborhood loyalty.
One gets a sense of that mission at Cresheim, too, in the little-kids-eat-free weekday nights (Tuesday through Thursday), and in the monthly fund-raisers for various gay and lesbian organizations.
You can also find some vestiges of the Judy's culinary comfort canon on Cresheim's menu: a strong focus on salads, a regular meatloaf twist. But it's clear that Robb, also a veteran of Sam's Morning Glory Diner and Penne, has grown since her Judy's days and worked to modernize and broaden her eclectic palette, from ancho wing rubs to African tea marinades.
If only the kitchen's finishing touch were more careful, a meal at the Cottage would at last be a sure bet. My experiences, though, were frustratingly inconsistent.
The Cresheim first caught my eye with an impressive lunch. No, I didn't love the fact that I was seated as the only diner in the empty back room while the main room next door bustled with a lively crowd and the crackle of the fireplace. And it's true, the service was sporadic and stern.
But the food made me very happy. The Mount Airy cheesesteak was a perfect example of how to upgrade the street-food classic, its tender slices of beefy hanger steak sauteed with caramelized onions, Lancaster farmers' co-op cheese, and a fistful of interesting mushrooms, woodsy kings and oysters and snappy shiitakes.
For dessert, I savored a marvelous coconut rice pudding scattered with poppy seeds and drizzled with tart lemon curd, a cleverly luscious deconstruction of lemon poppy cake.
My returns for dinner, though, saw the kitchen begin to lose its grip. There were still plenty of smart ideas and appealing combinations, but the execution was hit-or-miss.
Cresheim's best course seems to be salads, which offer intricate combinations of color, taste and texture. The Greek grain salad was among my favorites, a chiffonade of spinach filled with wheat berries, tiny quinoa beads, tart capers, and creamy Bulgarian feta. In another, the sweetness of cubed roasted beets played against the crunch of cubed jicama and toasted pumpkin seeds. I also liked the tomato tart, a warm square of baked puff pastry filled with tomatoes that came with a crunchy side of cool cucumber.
Other starters, though, lacked attention. I might have liked the ancho-dusted chicken wings with more of a sauce than that chunky salsa they came with. The fact that several were still nearly raw inside was a much bigger problem.
The Asian-flavored duck confit sandwiched between two crepes was an appealing presentation, but the filling was slathered with so much hoisin, it was overpoweringly sweet.
The cilantro-flecked fried oysters with spicy slaw were perfect, crisp on the outside and pudding-soft in the middle. And I loved the added touch of pesto to the retro round of oozy baked Camembert.
The loaflike house pate, though, was a mess of shabby charcuterie, the soggy puree of liver and meat reeking of cheap brandy.
Entrees were equally unpredictable. I enjoyed the neat muffin-shaped chicken meatloaf, its lean meat enriched with molten blue cheese. But the onion rings on top were the highlight, their billowy beer-batter crisps focusing the onion's sweetness. A simple lamb stew with chickpeas was satisfying (even if the meat was a little dry), its gravy scented with North African spice. I also appreciated the homier flavors of the roasted chicken breast with gnocchi and roasted mushrooms, though more tender, housemade dumplings would have been preferred.
Cresheim serves an unconventional shrimp and crab cake, a tall crisp square of minced seafood dominated by shrimp. It's flavorful, especially with the Israeli couscous salad, but it is not a crab lover's cake. Barbecue fans, likewise, should avoid the ribs altogether, as they're baked so long, the meat just flopped right off the bone.
I liked Robb's instinct to give the duck an exotic twist, with a floral rooibos tea marinade and a black rice risotto studded with sweet papaya. But the bird was so terribly overcooked I could barely chew it (I'd asked for it medium), and the manager kindly took it off the bill.
This was hardly the finale I anticipated when I left that first lunch, happily sated by the good flavors of thoughtful cooking and the promise of a classic space revived. The new Cresheim Cottage clearly still has that potential if only its kitchen were more careful. That kind of progress would go a long way toward sowing a hopeful word of mouth.
In a review of Snackbar in the March 4 Image section, Angie Wolfe was incorrectly described as the former pastry chef at Marigold Kitchen. She was a sous-chef. Julia Kovacs was Marigold's pastry chef.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.