The three-course eaters are going hungry out there.
Not a week goes by that I don't hear yelping from one of these old-school diners, still off-kilter around the trendy small-plate restaurants that have erased appetizer and entree from their menu lexicon. Usually, after they've just paid big for a meal of itty-bitty portions, the tale of woe ends with a late-night soft pretzel or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, eaten in the comfort of their own kitchen.
Unfortunately for these folks, the small-plate phenomenon isn't going anywhere - especially if the new places continue to be as good as Supper, the ambitious South Street restaurant from Mitch and Jennifer Prensky. With its handsome "urban farmhouse" decor, a polished staff, and a menu brimming with clever twists and spot-on cooking, Supper is one of the most exciting restaurants I've reviewed in the last six months.
That is not to say its plates are somehow bigger than any of the other fine small-portion eateries that have sprung up in recent years - like James, Ansill, Tinto, Snackbar or Osteria. When Supper's menu advertises a "short rib," you're really going to get a short one.
But my goodness, that piece of meat melts in a way I haven't experienced in a while. It's the result of more than 36 hours of slow poaching, finished with a glaze of grainy mustard sparking against the earthy sweet-and-sour of a bitter chocolate and raisin sauce. Sided with tender baby turnips, carrots and brussels sprouts, I can see why it costs $19.
Lavishing that kind of attention on quality ingredients, spinning them with detail into inventive combinations, is the ultimate justification for these prices. And Supper, thanks to chef Mitch and his talented chef de cuisine Brinn Sinnott (ex-Lacroix), delivers at a high level with admirable consistency.
Vibrant green asparagus spears pose against the earthy tan sweetness of a cloudlike chestnut mousse. Delicate little baguette sandwiches called tartines come layered with simple but striking combinations, from smoked duck with tart quince membrillo to creamy foie gras medallions topped with sweet onion marmalade.
Boneless chicken wings crackle with Moroccan spice and tangy cubes of jellied yogurt. Even the potatoes here are completely addictive, little upturned fingerlings served in a cast-iron pan over an aromatic salt that infuses them with star anise, cardamom and juniper. A dip into bearnaise-flavored aioli is true indulgence.
Each of those little dishes is $7 or less, lending credibility to chef Mitch's assertion that a complete meal here - about four plates plus drink and tip - averages $75 a person. Supper has lowered its prices a shade since opening in October, keeping all but a couple of the larger meat or fish items toward the bottom of the list under $20.
It's a fair price for dinner here, especially given that Supper is already an impressively complete restaurant, with well-trained, pleasant servers and a stylish decor. Dressed up in rippled golden glass, hammered copper, exposed rafters, and groovy modern sculpture lighting, the bilevel space (formerly the Vespa store, and Krass Bros. before that) has a relaxed urban energy that would work for either a special occasion or a casual friends' night out.
The 30-label wine list has potential, with an interesting Aussie/Italian bent, with several available by the quartino, a small carafe equivalent of a glass and a half. Still, it could use better quartino choices among the reds than the wimpy Italian pinot noir and musty Torres carmenere.
This food demands a good wine. Prensky trained at some of New York's French classics (Lutece, Le Chantilly) as well as Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill before launching his own catering company here, the Global Dish, with wife Jennifer, a Philadelphia native. And he has mastered a seamless contemporary blend of classic techniques with an international palette of flavors.
There are adventurous twists on French bistro cooking, like smoked sweetbreads over creamed Swiss chard topped with shaved licorice and bacon. Or the perfect chunk of pork belly, a sublimely layered package of crunchy skin, creamy fat and tender meat over lentils. Or the yieldingly moist chicken with creamy "soubise" onions and Cognac-steeped prunes. The restaurant's sole "large plate," a massive lamb shank for $29, was as meltingly marvelous as the short rib (though more generous).
Supper also serves some convincing Asian fusion, like the sea scallops over butter-whipped sea urchin, the briny hama hama oysters shined with warm pumpkin butter and wasabi, or the meaty octopus served with Okinawa yams and honshimeji mushrooms smoked over hickory wood. Incredibly tender squid, sliced like a bangled bracelet, is topped with a Viet-flavored fish sauce foam warmed with minty shiso and tiny bursts of basil-pickled pineapple cubes.
There are also inventive vegetarian takes, like the tangerine-touched carrot soup that gets poured tableside into a bowl smeared with creamy homemade coconut marshmallow that has been torched to a campfire brown. The individual flavors swirl and meld when you stir it up. The mache salad, meanwhile, is like a still life of frisee tossed with tart green apple balls and ribbons of Beaufort, a pungent mountain cheese that also gets baked into a brik-pastry disk.
There were a few misses. The squash gnocchi were doughy. The half-seared hamachi with blood orange vinaigrette and a saffron crepe didn't quite come together. I would have loved the red drum if its deconstructed, gingery clam chowder sauce hadn't been too salty. The cheese platter would have been wonderful had the Epoisses not been completely unripe. And desserts, in general, were far less interesting than the savory course - a fact not lost on Prensky, who has been in the market for a pastry chef.
That said, nobody should go hungry at Supper, especially because the amazingly crusty breads baked in-house by Sinnott are absolutely free. In fact, if you're lucky enough to be one of the last diners in the room, you should get some of the leftover sourdough and whole-grain loaves servers pass out at evening's end. On the off chance you still have the munchies, they make a fabulous PB&J.
Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Astral Plane Millenium near Graduate Hospital. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.