In their final months at the William Penn Inn, where they worked to save for their big debut, it must have been a challenge for Joe and Amy McAtee to imagine the flight of modern fancy that would become Honey.
The William Penn, in Gwynedd, is as classic as it gets - an enormous 1714 inn where the service is stodgy black-tie and the culinary high points (veal Oscar and snapper soup) are fossils from the Prime Rib-a-zoic era.
The McAtees are grateful to the William Penn for the work, and respectful of its tradition. But what they've created at Honey, their trendy new small-plate boîte in downtown Doylestown, couldn't be further away on the restaurant trend continuum.
The cozy 13-table room exudes a chic contemporary sensuality, with a stacked stone wall, amber glass partitions, and booths that are intimate in the flickering candlelight. Diners sipping local craft beers and honeyed mojitos are encouraged by a perky service staff, led by Amy, to share food that arrives on geometric glass tiles streaked with colored sauce and exotic spices.
Joe McAtee's fusion-fueled kitchen ranges so freely around the globe it would make Billy Penn's hat spin, from lamb samosas to duck tamales to scallops with Chinese black rice. And much of it, of course, is themed with honey.
Honey softens the spicy wasabi vinaigrette striped alongside those huge sea scallops. It tempers the salt and sour of salmon-apple tartare crisps. It sweetens the brine that tenderized the marvelous breast that came with the Chicken and the Egg entree, meat fanned beside a pillar of potato-chanterelle salad crowned by a poached egg. (Runny yolk as sauce is the "it" flourish of 2007.)
There are moments when McAtee might ease up on the honey motif. It clashed with the calamari, which were already troubled by a soggy hominy crust. Sweetness killed the lady apple salad, too. The mini-apple rings were so shriveled from a steep in honeyed cider that they seemed an afterthought to the greens, which were limp beneath a vanilla-cinnamon vinaigrette that tasted like Cinnabon icing.
The "croutons" of fried brie almost singlehandedly saved that salad. Then again, there isn't much that molten brie can't redeem - even if it is the ultimate retro cliche to upscale anything. McAtee proves this maxim by adding brie to the duck tamales with chocolate-hazelnut mole (tasty but oversweetened, like Latino Nutella). The brie-zation was a success, though, melted into a sauce below deliciously earthy crabcakes blended with mushrooms.
The "small plates" that make up the large part of Honey's menu are small in spirit only. They're really oversized appetizers meant for easy sharing, and many arrive on plates so large they are essentially ceramic canvases for McAtee's modern ideas.
Occasionally, the crockery inspired the dish. This was true with the stellar baby back ribs slicked by a sweet soy glaze with black tea and brown sugar. A small indent in the glass platter cradled a surprising scoop of ginger ice cream that ignited an Asian sparkle in the ribs. The notion of a soup trio also took on added interest when served so stylishly, in three lidded terrines dangling from a wooden rack.
McAtee, 31, got his first taste of contemporary cooking under Matthew Levin (now at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse) while at the Landing in New Hope, where McAtee eventually became chef. His subsequent stint making roast beef sandwiches at the William Penn obviously didn't stifle his imagination.
At Honey, he's turning out addictive potstickers filled with short ribs and porcini mushrooms, tender octopus grilled Spanish style with chorizo and smoked paprika, and a spice-encrusted tuna steak over black-eyed peas laced with tender oxtail.
Some of the "main plates" are among the restaurant's best successes. The "meat and potatoes" was a triptych of beef and spuds - grilled filet over homemade fries, braised short rib over honey-mash, a kobe slider over potato bread - that was as tasty as it was clever. A crisp, crab-filled noodle cake added intrigue to the requisite salmon.
But, at times, it's clear McAtee is still refining his ideas. Prawns were wasted on a thick, sweet almond breading that reminded me of a Chinese buffet. The gargantuan pork shank, jutting from a mountain of squash-and-pecan risotto, was just too heavy, an obelisk of meat spiring over a candied risotto that tasted like dessert.
He already has that course covered, with delights such as pumpkin-filled fried dumplings with chocolate-cinnamon ice cream, or puddinglike chocolate bread cake with honeyed goat-cheese ice cream, which, oddly, tastes best when cake and ice cream don't mix.
Whether McAtee scores or stumbles, he does it with exuberance. It's a likable enthusiasm that infuses every aspect of Honey, including its friendly and generally well-prepared servers, who were charming even when they didn't have all the answers about the small American wine list.
That list should grow as Honey matures and moves toward a promising future, one small adventurous plate at a time.
Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Bluefin in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.