There is a lot to like about "Alison two," the ambitious sequel and sister restaurant to Alison Barshak's first suburban hit, Alison at Blue Bell.
For one thing, it's a handsome space, with cobalt-blue and maize-yellow walls, lots of dark wood and vintage wrought-iron accents, comfy booths and cozy nooks. In all, it's a classy rehab of an old Mexican cantina beside the Fort Washington SEPTA station, an upscale dining option for a neighborhood that has too few, and a more sophisticated venue than the bare-bones little Blue Bell bistro that was the BYO launching pad for Barshak's comeback to the Philly scene.
As for the food at "two," well, the potato chips in the bar are fantastic. They're freshly fried and so crisp and salty, I could eat an entire meal's worth of the little spuds. In fact, that might not be a terrible plan, because our predinner drinks and nibbles at the splendid bar were among the brightest moments of our meals here. Apart from a few highlights, they ranged from adequate to amateurish, and came at steep prices that would make even a trust-fund baby blush.
There was the whole branzino that, despite its gorgeous presentation and ginger-lemongrass stuffing, was too bland and boring to merit $34. There was a brackish and thin lobster bisque. There was a mushy beet salad over "goat cheese Bavarian" that had the gelatinous bounce of cream cheese. There was a grilled Wagyu skirt steak that drew exotic goodness from a gingery tomato "chili" sauce but was so unpleasantly tough, it was more "Chew-n-Chew" than dreamy Wagyu. Not quite what I'd hoped for at $28.
Alison two, in general, is not quite what I'd hoped for from Barshak, who's had more ups and downs in her career than a ride at Wildwood. Over the course of that roller coaster, though, from her splashy rise at Striped Bass, to the flop of Venus and the Cowboy, to her bright resurgence in Blue Bell, long one of my favorite suburban BYOBs, I've grown to appreciate her culinary aesthetic - a knack for pairing great ingredients with focused, inventive dishes inspired by her international travels.
But Barshak isn't cooking here, having ceded the kitchen to another chef for the broader responsibilities of managing the big Alison expansion picture. (Blue Bell, which now has a liquor license, has been closed for renovations but is scheduled to reopen soon.) And it's too obvious in the lack of finesse and consistency here that this otherwise appealing menu is missing a steady hand.
To be sure, there were glimmers of that old Blue Bell mojo, a sign this new kitchen hasn't completely lost its way. A meaty fillet of Singapore-style monkfish over shaved sweet potato "noodles" was an electric dish, channeling Asia through a vivid yellow coconut-milk broth that was both light and vibrant from lemongrass, ginger and Vietnamese herbs. A tandoori-roasted lamb shoulder over chickpeas braised with orange was earthy and satisfying, the harissa-rubbed meat cooled by a tart streak of Afghani yogurt sauce. A seared skate wing, paired with silky cauliflower puree, crunchy shaved fennel, and a cardamom-turmeric vinaigrette, was a perfect bistro update.
But for every well-wrought dish, there were a couple that stumbled.
Did a chef with actual taste buds ever sample the "cured" duck breast with grits and sunchoke veloute being served for $29? Not only was it burnt, gray and rubbery (we went with our server's recommendation for "medium"), the startlingly salty meat clashed against the richly creamy Southern grits and jarringly sweet persimmon chutney.
Those heirloom North Carolina grits are a familiar element in Barshak's pantry, one of the many stellar ingredients that she's collected on her myriad travels from Asia to Turkey to Mexico. But they're far better served more simply, beneath an earthy ragout of roasted wild mushrooms.
In too many cases, this kitchen simply tried too hard to reconceive iconic ethnic dishes and missed the point in the process.
Papri chat, for example, is usually one of my favorite Indian salads, and this one had enough contrasting textures (potato cubes, cucumber, homemade crunchy chickpea crackers). But it was too dry, missing the typical swirl of colorful Indian chutneys that keeps it moist and lively. The addition of chewy grilled shrimp was odd and irrelevant.
I love the idea of smoked pork belly "al pastor." But this one was so deconstructed – the pineapple a "vinaigrette" instead of the usual earthy marinade, the guacamole turned to "avocado mousse," and hardly a flicker of requisite guajillo chile spice anywhere - that it was soulless.
Reducing flavorful Vietnamese pho broth to sauce for an appetizer is another good instinct, but the morsel of poorly seared tuna made a gray and chewy centerpiece. It wasn't the only victim of a poor finish. The potatoes beneath the daurade, soaked in lemony olive oil and bagna cauda sauce, were just oily. There wasn't nearly enough sauce, meanwhile, to moisten the delicate fluke, perched high and dry atop mushrooms and leeks. A nicely house-smoked trout fell flat beside soggy little potato cakes, roe that lacked pop, and fried capers that stole the dish.
I had no clue of the impending disappointment from our greeting at the bar, where beverage director Tom Pittakas has assembled a remarkably well-rounded sipper's menu. It ranges from superb classic cocktails crafted from top-notch spirits and house-made mixers (ginger beer, brandied cherries, an excellent Manhattan) to nearly 20 wines by the glass (white Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Qupe viognier, Cline GSM, Trefethen meritage) that were fine enough to merit the high-tech preservation system they're poured from.
Perhaps even more intriguing, though, was a serious beer list that had some nice surprises on the constantly changing taps (Brasserie Dupont's Christmas ale, Russian River Damnation) and 30 international all-stars (from St. Bernardus to Innis & Gunn) by the bottle.
This should make Alison two a worthy destination for brew-thirsty northern suburbanites, especially if they stop at the long and inviting bar, where there's a less expensive menu of nibbles, including the ginger-fried calamari that are a signature at her Blue Bell bistro. Or skip straight to dessert, where the power of positive menu writing (with items like "Wow 11 Awesome Cookies") is put to good use.
But Barshak will need more than smart ideas, warm ambience, and crafty menu wordplay to give this expensive dining room the real luster her fans expect. How about starting with some "Wow Awesome Cooking"?
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Meme near Fitler Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.