Before we bury the dear departed Striped Bass beneath a stampede of hungry meat-eaters, let us first pay tribute to the lasting splash of the big fish.
In terms of a culinary legacy, there's no denying its impact: In the last year alone, no fewer than 10 chefs reviewed in this column worked at some point behind the lines of Striped Bass' open kitchen.
Of course, its closing last year and recent replacement by a less-adventurous concept, a steak house called Butcher & Singer, marked the beginning of the end of an era, too, adding a scratch to the gold-plated culinary ambition of Walnut Street's Restaurant Row. That veneer has since taken a few more scuffs with the recent closing of Brasserie Perrier and news that Susanna Foo, ever the survivor, wasn't above starting to offer home delivery. (Not that I'm really complaining about Mongolian lamb pillows and moo-shu Berkshire pork to go - but it's both a humbling and a telling move on the local state of gourmet affairs.)
Bass' demise, especially, was a rude fine-dining reality check for Philadelphians: Our taste for highfalutin seafood gastronomy, it turns out, was less enthusiastic than many thought. Despite its lofty ambitions and glowing reviews, Striped Bass was never a whale of a financial success, contends Stephen Starr, its second owner. So last summer, he finally pulled the plug on the aquarium in favor of a safer gambit: red meat.
Out with the soaring fish sculpture. In with the gleaming golden bull and the retro chophouse look of Butcher & Singer.
"Holy porterhouse! Another steak place?!" gripes my inner cynic. "How much high-end beef can one city swallow?"
Well, pass the statins, Doc, because Butcher & Singer has made its case to my lipid-lovin' inner carnivore with some stellar chops and a throwback theme that, despite the kitschy plaid carpet and cloyingly chatty manager, is a perfect new identity for this classic space.
With a jazzy bass-line soundtrack pulsing through the air, couples old and young snuggle into their swanky tufted-leather half-moon booths. Servers shake and strain the icy cocktails tableside, streaming bygone gimlets, sidecars and perfect manhattans into elegant stemware wielded by power diners digging into giant porterhouse platters. With its fringed lamps, giant palms, and a palpable buzz, this room hums like it was meant to be a steak house all along. And maybe it was, considering the moniker, Butcher & Singer, was borrowed from the ironically named brokerage firm that resided here before it became Striped Bass.
Of course, this is only the second of four huge new meat palaces to fire up a prime beef grill here in the last few months, a phenomenon that seemingly defies the glum economic climate. But Starr has crafted a destination here, with the character, quality, and energy to distinguish it from cookie-cutter corporate competitors, not to mention his own sleeker, more contemporary (and more expensive) Barclay Prime nearby.
Not that Butcher & Singer is cheap by any measure, with hefty steaks ranging from $38 to $46. And there's little of the culinary acrobatics that long distinguished Striped Bass - which ultimately, Starr says, proved a turn-off to his mainstream crowd.
But this is the going price for genuine prime beef. And it's how well this kitchen delivered a straight-ahead menu, with a deft touch and focus on great ingredients, that reminds why the chophouse formula was appealing to begin with.
And Butcher doesn't mess around with its signature commodity: The meat here was outstanding and perfectly cooked. This was especially true of the 28-day dry-aged porterhouse, which had a sublime tenderness and mineral complexity, even a faint sweetness, that wore just enough funk for a dry-aged connoisseur. Double-size it into a 32-ounce broiler-charred slab for two ($74), like the plump lovebirds behind me did, and indulge in a T-bone romance.
The rest of Butcher's steaks are wet-aged, which I'm not typically fond of, but chef Shane Cash has mastered the technique (a little air-drying) to eliminate the common metallic aftertaste. Both the New York strip and filet mignon were exceptional. And the 18-ounce Delmonico, sourced from exclusive Four Story Hill Farm in Northeast Pennsylvania, was possibly even better than the porterhouse, with a buttery beefiness that revealed itself in waves of layered savor.
The steak Diane was one notable flub on a vintage classic, with a brown sauce overdosed on peppery Worcestershire and booze that showed how hard it is for young chefs to re-create dishes that pretty much died before they were born. They could have dialed back the spice in the beef tartare, too.
Speaking of toning it down, Butcher's overly chirpy manager might restrain herself from incessantly interrupting meals to blather on about the retro nostalgia. Her uninvited monologues (four at my first meal) and forced introductions were a saccharine distraction from the otherwise excellent, understated service given by waiters like Michael Galluccio.
The vintage shtick works best if left to speak for itself - especially because this kitchen can also do its part. Pastry chef Jennifer Martin, who delivered perfectly fine versions of the usual standbys (cheesecake, carrot cake and apple crumble), practically stole the show with her own throwback finale: the leaping meringue-topped dome of a baked Alaska hiding housemade banana ice cream and apricot compote.
But the savory side more than pulled its weight, too. I had far better luck, for example, with the lobster thermidor, a $55 splurge that brought the half-shell of a big crustacean stuffed with fistfuls of picked meat, royal trumpet mushrooms, and a bisquey sauce that pushed decadence to the edge. Flamed with brandy, toned up with Tabasco, and enriched with roe and a hollandaise glaze, it was impossible not to finish.
The fried oysters, lightly mesquite-smoked then crisped and served with chive creme fraiche and trout roe, may be the best in the city. The tall crab cake, bound with little more than seasoned mayo, butter, and whipped egg whites, was a paragon of unfettered crabby sweetness. The generous crab and shrimp Louis, with its spice-tingled Russian dressing, avocado fan, and iceberg wedge, was a meal in itself. I also loved the Butcher salad, a charcuterie-laced "hoagie in a bowl" that winked at cheap old-fashioned Italian dressing by cleverly re-creating it from scratch (secret ingredient: tomato juice).
The sides here are good renditions of the standards, from the fresh 22-ounce baked spuds to the log-size asparagus in vinaigrette and truffled wild mushrooms. One side, though, was irresistible - the stuffed hash brown, a plump cake of crisp potato laces sandwiched around diced potatoes and sweet onions enriched with sour cream.
Some other updates on the mundane also caught my eye: The addictively classic lobster bisque at lunch was almost like spooning thermidor sauce from a bowl. The French onion soup, topped with a molten lid of tangy cheese, was even better than the one served at Starr's Parc around the corner.
And what of the big juice bomb on a bun that is the Butcher burger? How can I resist this 10-ounce crumble of lightly packed dry-aged prime beef, charred onions, and oozy English cheddar? True, there are some perfectly excellent seafood options to consider here - the meaty halibut amandine with cauliflower puree, for one, which turns out to be a terrific (and popular) choice.
But who really comes to the corner of 15th and Walnut for fish anymore? In the land of ever-grander red-meat options, that's ancient history.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Soul in Chestnut Hill. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.