There is a fine art to coining the perfect one-word restaurant name. And Philly has seen a host of seemingly prosaic choices - Fork, Supper, and Salt, to name a few - that rose above their implied mundaneness to achieve a memorable cachet.
So jump to no early judgments if Saute, the latest BYOB to land in Queen Village, doesn't subliminally send the masses toward the speed dial for a reservation with its moniker. It signals such a ubiquitous and generic act in cooking, this 42-seater in the former La Creole might just as well have been named Stir or Boil.
Or, had co-owner Hector Torres and his chef, Nicholas Cassidy, really wanted to tap a foodie nerve with some of the techniques going on in this surprising kitchen, "Pressure" (for the sous-vide watermelon with feta salad) or "Grind" (for the house-made charcuterie) might have had a catchier ring.
A smart name, however, is never a replacement for simply delivering a great dining experience. And after a couple of intriguing meals, this ambitious newcomer clearly shows the promise (its few rough edges not withstanding) to become another bright addition to our ever-growing repertoire of sophisticated BYOBs.
First-time owner Torres, 35, a front-of-the-house veteran at Roy's (both in New York and Center City), has done a fine job transforming this space with his business partner, landlord Nikki Kaufman. The off-the-grid taproom of La Creole, known for its cheap beer and wings, has gone upscale with a chocolate-brown look that actually conjures some date-night romance and culinary ambition, as couples indulge in four-course tastings ranging from halibut cheeks to foie gras pancakes. They've kept the ornately carved wooden back bar and mirrors along one wall, added warm earth-tone accents, a cushy banquette and billowy curtains, paddle fans and palms for an ambience that is a bit more elegant and upscale than your typical BYO.
Saute's biggest draw, though, is the debut of talented young Cassidy. This 26-year-old began working the line at family-style restaurants in Harrisburg at age 14, studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh, and eventually found his way to Philly, where he landed a sous-chef job at Alma de Cuba.
Like many a young chef, Cassidy is enamored of the creative freedoms and techniques of New American cooking and its lions, poring over texts from Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Tom Colicchio, whose book Cassidy adores: "I slept with Craft of Cooking under my pillow."
And his menus reflect that restless curiosity, changing significantly from week to week, and ranging widely in influence from Latin seviche to house-made French charcuterie to the Asian-Italian fusion of seared tuna over soba carbonara, the buckwheat noodles tossed in a Parmesan froth with bacon and edamame.
With a few exceptions, Cassidy showed the sensibility, skill, and commitment to no-shortcut cooking that made these disparate flavors work.
Meaty slices of raw hamachi seviche came neatly folded around slices of sweet peach and tart ruby grapefruit with silky dabs of smoked avocado mousse to add another layer of flavor and texture. A special of slowly braised veal cheeks, having done tender time in a plastic vacuum bag, release their meaty softness over a sweet-pea risotto. (Hey, how about "Cheek"?) The long bones of a wonderful rack of lamb came crisscrossed over Israeli couscous studded with house-preserved Meyer lemons and cipollini onions simmered in duck fat.
Saute is the first place in a long while that's managed to cook my quail without killing it - brining the bird to a tangy moistness in exotically spiced balsamic before grilling it to a juicy crisp over wild rice and pureed eggplant, with Swiss chard and brandied cherries. Some enormous head-on shrimp were "sauteed" (right on theme - hooray!) beneath saffron-infused fennel and an oregano-tinged orange marmalade.
At the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from those Med flavors was another surprisingly tasty stroke of Italo-Asian fusion: a seared steak of meaty white wahu fish, posed over squid-ink ravioli filled with edamame in a pineapple-kombu ponzu broth. ("Broth" has a nice ring . . . .)
On the house-made charcuterie platter, meanwhile, Cassidy paid homage to the French butcher's art with silky chicken-liver mousse, fennel-scented duck pate, and a springy white chicken galantine stuffed with sweet brandied cherries. Of course, there was also that ill-advised shrimp chorizo, whose fishy twinge caused us all to wrinkle our noses. ("Wrinkle"? Maybe not . . . .)
Cassidy's youthful zeal was usually productive, but it also led to a number of ill-cast plates that were a tweak or two shy of success. A deep-seated love of duck fat gave his side of fingerling potatoes an extra gilding of richness ("Quack"), but a heavy hand with salt made them nearly inedible (and as mentioned, "Salt" has been done). I loved the flavors of his escargot and artichoke fonduta ravioli, but the presentation of snails atop the single giant raviolo, which covered the plate bottom like a squishy pillow, made for awkward eating.
He also overthought the sweet-tart strawberry-rhubarb compote and creamy cauliflower puree garnishes that came with the scallop entree when he should have focused more on simply giving diners a more satisfying value than four smallish scallops for $23. Similarly, the pairing of chorizo- and mushroom-studded white beans with sweetbreads was fantastic. I just wish there had been more than a single nugget of the crispy gland. ("Gland"? Not even going there.)
With menu prices that land slightly higher than most BYOs, Saute seems to be struggling to find a consistently acceptable portion. On my first visit, the crisply seared branzino fillet was plump and succulent over broccoli rabe and a smear of artichoke fondue. By my second visit, that single fillet ($22.50) had been zapped with a shrink-ray. ("Zap"!)
In terms of pure value, Saute's four-course midweek tasting menu for $35 might be your best bet, as the kitchen dips into special ingredients, from turbot to squab, for adventurous diners. On the other hand, judging from the couple beside us, who accidentally received the dessert course third instead of as the finale, I'm not sure the green service staff here is quite yet up to such elaborate orchestrations.
But before anyone leaps to any snide new name suggestions (like "Oops"), it's important to note that Saute does far more right than not. It's a lovely reincarnation for this once-overlooked space. There's an ambitious new talent in the kitchen. And even if there are a few rough edges, these are somewhat typical for a new BYO.
When they're as promising as Saute, we can never have enough, whatever they are called. I call them "Welcome."
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.