Mémé

Imaginative treatments of seemingly straightforward bistro dishes show promise at a place that still is a bit rough.

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Talented chef-owner David Katz has shown a knack for transforming the mundane - such as steak tartare - into the memorable, and turning expectations on their ear. (Ron Tarver/Staff Photographer)

The foolish words had been spoken just moments earlier - "I'm bored of mussels, let's skip 'em" - when I suddenly regretted my complaint.

Clank! Sizzle! Whoa!

A blazing hot steel pan landed on the cherry wood table beside us in a hissing plume of lemony steam like a comet sent down from the Great Mollusk God above. And when the vapors drifted away, I was transfixed: a pan full of mussels plucked from their shells glistened with olive oil and herbs. The smell of those delicate jewels still browning in the pan was pure intoxication. Must. Order. Mussels. Now.

"We'll have one of those," I told our server, looking covetously toward the neighboring table.

I should have known better than to expect the same old-same old at Mémé. Talented chef-owner David Katz has shown a knack here for transforming the mundane into the memorable.

To begin with, there is the blessing-curse of its space, a tiny corner room so redolent of good karma from its previous tenant, Melograno, that the new guy couldn't possibly live up to the expectations. And yet, while partisans still gnash their teeth that Melograno has moved its trattoria fare a few blocks northeast, this window-wrapped boîte couldn't have landed a more promising new tenant.

Katz, 32, a Cape May native who's cooked in several local kitchens (M, Salt, Avenue B, Lilly's on 12th, Pollo Rosso), has added his own personal touch to the room. He's warmed the previously austere space with Dijon colored walls, handsome food photography, Italian chandeliers fringed with cutlery, and unvarnished cherry wood tables in the 40-seat space beside the open kitchen. It's still a tight squeeze, but there's a great neighborhood energy here, as black-sweatered Fitler Squareans settle in beside noted wine merchants, food scenesters and fellow chefs checking out the buzz.

The name Mémé, a term of endearment for grandma in Katz's Moroccan-Jewish family, evokes a homeyness that informs the rustic simplicity of the small menu. But there's also an edginess, too, from the manically illustrated sign designed by gonzo artist Ralph Steadman, to the tattoos and plaid baggy shorts peeking out beneath Katz's white chef coat, to the jaunty iPod sound track (reggae, R.E.M., and the Beastie Boys' "Shake Your Rump") that bops through the room.

The constantly changing, seasonal fare embodies both spirits, with seemingly straightforward bistro dishes that get a rise from quality ingredients, a focused modern eye, and sharp techniques that coax maximum flavor from every dish.

Those mussels may be the showiest example, adding the seduction of aroma and sizzle to the payoff of taste. But Katz delivers a host of other polished bistro dishes worth noting. Big scallops, seared beneath a micro-crust of instant potato flakes, come with buttery onion confit and roe-flecked white wine cream.

Hand-minced steak tartare, ringed by house-fried potato chips, has an unexpected Asian spice from cuminy Madras curry and the dark soy sweetness of kecap manis, an Indonesian condiment. A freshly torched sugar crust adds a crème brûlée crackle and melting heat to a raw slice of anise-cured foie gras tart splashed with maple syrup-sherry vinaigrette.

A moist swordfish steak basks in the Mediterranean flavors of olive oil sparked with picholine olives and preserved lemon. Perfectly seared skate comes with classic brown-butter-caper sauce and the Provencale piquancy of tapenade, oven-dried tomatoes and fennel pollen. A Wagyu skirt steak, tenderized by a two-day marinade in garlic, soy and Worcestershire, is intensely beefy, with roasted royal trumpet mushrooms and a light hardwood smoke from its grilling.

There were a couple of less inspired dishes - a grilled flat bread one could find at a more standard BYOB, an uninspired cheese plate (with underripe robiola), and a lamb sirloin with ratatouille that was disappointingly bland.

But the culinary missteps were few. And Katz's most memorable moves were his welcome reply to the last year's small-plate trend: the double-sized sharing entree.

The rack of pork for two, a three-inch thick slice of Kurobuta heirloom pig, is one of the best pork chops I've had. Slow-roasted on the bones beneath a garlicky crust of fennel, coriander and mustard seeds, the tender two-toned meat is fanned beside creamy grain mustard, spice-roasted Fuji apples and cipollini onions. It sounds pricey, at $40. But with a crock of beluga lentils studded with bacon on the side, it's a fair fee for this distinctive and hearty meal for two.

Katz's $38 treatment for whole chickens is just as compelling. The breasts slow-poach up to four hours in a sous-vide pouch with foie gras, garlic and herbs before making the scene, juicy and golden, alongside legs crisped in duck fat, aromatic Madeira chicken jus, roasted, meaty shiitake caps and a decadent crock of onion-sweetened grits. If there is a better roast chicken in the city, I haven't eaten it.

Even desserts show some more skill than the usual chef-baked offerings - a surprisingly moist brown butter cake, rich chocolate ganache cake, a silky pot de creme infused with maple syrup.

Such intense flavors clearly establish Katz as a rising young chef to watch. Yet, Mémé as a whole still has a few rough service edges to polish before it steps up to a more elite tier. We never received one of the dishes we ordered at our first visit, a decadent fettuccine lavished with truffles. I especially regret not tasting it after devouring those same gossamer ribbons with an addictively spicy boar ragu at a later visit.

Of more concern, though, was the lame response to a colleague of mine who discovered a rubber band in her watercress salad. A complimentary round of desserts was the intended gesture, says Katz. Unfortunately, it wasn't offered. Instead, a condescending excuse and the lack of an overt apology may have lost Mémé a table of repeat diners. It's a pity, because this newcomer is too bright to dismiss after one greenhorn gaffe.

It will also be fascinating to watch how the addition of a liquor license (debuted just this week) inevitably changes the dynamic of a space so long used as a BYOB. No doubt, the new $10 corkage fee for BYO-ers is an unwelcome kick to the old karma. But it's too soon to gauge how that piece of the Mémé puzzle really sits, which means I'll be checking back before year's end.

If Katz holds true to his aim, and proves that a well-chosen list of artisan wines and beers with fair markups can only enhance the dining experience, then this corner bistro with the history of good flavors should only acquire a deeper luster.

I won't be surprised if Mémé surprises me again.

 


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Little Fish in South Philadelphia. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.