Table 31

Red meat, prime and pricey, reigns in the Comcast Center. The menu is more modest in the lovely outdoor cafe.

The Philadelphia streetscape has tilted toward the corner of 17th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in the last few months. And it's not just the weight of the glass-and-steel skyscraper Comcast built there that did the trick.

It's the gravity of hunger it triggered that has electrified this once-dead zone on the Center City grid. The lunchtime masses now pour into the tower's sleek new underground food court for paninis, sushi, and $1 espresso shots with their mini-cannolis. Thousands of Comcast employees and their privileged guests, meanwhile, dine in the clouds at Ralph's Cafe, the rarefied 42d-floor cafeteria where sesame-seared tuna steaks come with a soaring view over the city's tallest spires.

Then again, it just may be all the prime beef - and beefy expense-account diners - at Table 31 in the tower's ground floors that has actually tipped the balance. This sprawling, upscale new steak house from Chris Scarduzio and Georges Perrier isn't bashful about feeding the captains of cable their red meat.

"Our special tonight is a 36-ounce prime porterhouse," crowed our waiter, who, sensing trepidation after we asked the price ($105!), added, "Chef recommends you share."

But I wasn't in a sharing mood, so I lowered my sights to the "tomahawk" chop. This 24-ounce, $68 mallet of prime rib steak is so Jurassically huge on its foot-long bone, it's already become the city's ultimate bombastic chop. And it is a genuine carnivore's trophy. I sank my teeth deep into that thick pillow of steer and my eyes flickered as the peppery spark of its heat-charred crust gave way to a gush of juice. The savor of richly marbled beef rang in my head like a bell (bong, bong, bong . . .).

Chef and co-owner Scarduzio earned a well-deserved following alongside "the patron" at Brasserie Perrier (whose prime table - number 31 - inspired their steak house's name). But he gets squeamish when I bring up the tomahawk, fretting that Table 31 will be branded as exclusive and unaffordable.

Well, it isn't cheap. All but a couple of the prime steaks cost in the high $30s or well beyond (which is why most restaurants avoid the pricier prime grade). But the quality is high. And it's also true that this multilevel restaurant with 200-plus seats aspires to be more versatile than a standard-issue steak house. The menu offers some intriguing bistro fare, well-cooked seafood, homemade pasta twirled around fistfuls of crab, and lunchtime sirloin burgers topped with mops of juicy short-rib meat.

Diners at the gorgeous outdoor Plaza Cafe - its 76 seats trimmed with orange umbrellas and a dancing fountain in front of the Comcast Tower - can graze a light menu almost entirely under $15 an item. The bountiful shellfish and white bean salad and forest mushroom pizza are worth at least that, although an early sushi roll at the outdoor cafe was clumsy. (And the service there was greener than that of the dining room's more experienced crew.)

But the breezy cafe, its stunning alfresco urban vista shielded from traffic by trees, is easily the restaurant's most compelling public space. There's little romance inside the crisp contemporary box and monochrome brown decor of Table 31's two main dining rooms, which are stacked, awkwardly, one atop the other. This space was tailored for a corporate crowd, and the power players have come hungry.

Even in the Siberian quiet of the upstairs room, we rose, after a fine meal of crispy pig trotters and City Hall gossip, to find Mayor Nutter just two booths away nibbling on peppered Peking duck.

It was a tasty, Asian-flavored bird, indeed, save for the slightly tough leg that came with mine. But this restaurant is less about distinctive culinary creations than stellar beef, which is good enough to place Table 31 among the city's top chop houses (though still, on my unofficial list of micro-rankings, behind Capital Grille and Barclay Prime).

Every cut I ate was top-notch, from the Delmonico ($36) rubbed in an exotic spice to the meltingly tender filet ($29), and the surprising "culotte," a beefy brick of top sirloin marinated in olive oil and garlic that, at $27, was the menu's best prime-grade value steak. Even Scarduzio's "wagyu sliders," a plump knock-off of Barclay Prime's "kobe" duo, were so memorably basted in their own juice, they soaked through their toasted brioche buns.

I've heard mixed reports on Table 31's skill at hitting the right temperature with its 1,800-degree broiler - though each of our steaks were spot-on rosy. Still, at these prices, one should expect the kitchen to rectify any misfires ("I will make it right," pledges Scarduzio). The wine program has already been improved, with a recent revamp of the wildly overpriced first list, with some wines dropping 25 percent to more reasonable markups, and more good choices under $60.

There are satisfying flavors beyond the steaks. The huge short rib, braised for eight or more hours, has an amazing depth of flavor. And I loved the pig trotters, a cast-iron crock of braised shredded pork, mushrooms and melty cubes of jellied trotter meat that was like eating broiled rillettes.

One disappointment was the halibut crusted in a crispy latke of lemongrass potatoes - a disappointing $32 hunk of overcooked fish. But a black cod special over squash blossoms and a saffron Provencale sauce was a delight. And the housemade cavatelli with crispy guanciale and tomato butter, the toothsome orecchiette with tender braised rabbit, and the ample crab fettuccine would have done any Italian kitchen proud.

Table 31's sides - indulgently creamed corn, sauteed mushrooms, richly cheesed macaroni, and a potato Tatin that sandwiched crispy rosettes of potato around sweet onions - were a solid notch above the usual steak-house frills.

Pastry chef Rocco Lugrine's creative riffs on classic American desserts help Table 31 make an emphatic finish. Vividly flavored sorbets and ice creams (watermelon-mint; espresso-peanut; rosemary-honey) come in an irresistible trio of color-matched mini-cones. PBJ spins the lunchbox staple into a lusciously layered bar of chocolate-and-raspberry ganache and bready peanut dacquoise topped with a toasty tuile cradling peanut butter mousse.

It's the tall wedge of ultimate chocolate cake, though, that best speaks to Table 31's spirit of chop house redux. It's so dark and moist with layered shades of chocolate - mousse, devil's food, crunchy meringue, ganache and more ganache - this is the cocoa equivalent of that tomahawk steak: a slice of pure decadence with the magnetic pull to alter gravity. Just watch out for flying forks.


Contact restaurants critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.



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