Robert Halpern had been forewarned. The 33-year-old Villanova native was well-informed when he embarked on his bubbly avant-garde adventures as the new chef-owner of Marigold Kitchen. Stiflingly conservative Philadelphians, it seems, are just not keen on the futuristic food movement known as molecular gastronomy.
"I've heard people here aren't just neutral about foam," he said. "They dislike it. It makes them angry."
That assertion, which didn't deter Halpern, is certainly borne out by the paucity of chefs pushing boundaries with scientific techniques for reimagining food, along the lines of those innovated by pioneers such as Spain's El Bulli, Chicago's Alinea, and New York's wd~50. Yes, there are plenty of foaming canisters and quick-freeze liquid-nitro tanks in town. But few places, since the demise of Salt, have dedicated themselves as wholly as the new Marigold does to the pursuit of deconstructing and re-extruding our food.
Halpern, it seems, hasn't met a piece of flesh at Marigold he didn't want to slice to bits and sculpt back together with a little meat glue. ("We like perfect cylinders here," he said.) No wonder the tenderloin in his "pork, beans & beer" was such a strikingly smooth pillar, albeit dabbed with a sudsy toupee of bubbled Guinness over pureed white beans.
There were some ridiculously overwrought flourishes on the plate, like those microscopic yellow and red gummy-gel dots reduced from the zest of 20 lemons and who-knows-how-many cranberries. But this dish overall, like much of Marigold's menu, showed fundamental virtues in its strong pairing of vividly steeped flavors and textures, the stout's snapping bubbles an aroma as much as a sauce, the beans adding a starch of creamy silk, the pork as tender as ever. Hey, meat glue is not half-bad.
Too many young chefs, caught up in the whiz-bang of their immersion circulators and soy lecithin powders, forget the basic concept of simply making their food taste good - not just weird. Halpern, whose impressively varied experiences range from the crunchy veg mecca of Ithaca's Moosewood to Santa Fe's Southwestern trailblazer Coyote Cafe, and Radnor's 333 Belrose, clearly isn't one of those.
Great flavor combinations abound here, like the stunningly earthy taste of the chorizo-scented broth and perfectly cooked seafood of his "New World paella," served over a base of cauliflower (instead of rice) minced into toothy cous-cous-size bits. Or the tropical mist of bubbled banana that topped a demitasse amuse-bouche, then disappeared as a rush of intensely rich, hot butternut soup followed like a squash chaser.
That contrast was far more effective with the intimate nose-on-foam interplay of a demitasse than it was in the bowl-size appetizer form, where the unfortunate addition of less-than-crunchy freeze-dried raisins lodged like taffy in my teeth. (Sniff, sniff. "Hey," I mumbled, "do you guys smell something burning? . . .")
This kitchen is a long way from perfect. In fact, Halpern, whose molecular cred is limited to a couple of short internships, including a stint at Alinea filling collapsible pillows with nutmeg smoke, is clearly still finding his way through the medium.
By national standards of a genre ever-measured by novelty, this menu catalogues some rather old-hat tricks, from the deconstructions to foam, gels, powdered fats, and pretty standard sous-vide. No one's innovating food science here yet. In fact, Halpern's palate is relatively traditional - witness his Champagne-braised snail ode to Georges Perrier, the tuna tartare, or the slow-cooked short rib with truffled potato mousse - a point that might give him a chance with a more cautious local crowd.
But who knows if he can sustain this menu at such ambitious, fine-dining-destination prices (high $20s) in a residential area that came to regard the former, less-expensive version of Marigold as West Philly's neighborhood BYOB gastronomic bargain. The butternut-colored room still exudes a warmth that's especially cozy when the fireplace is aflicker. And judging from all the well-coiffed Penn students we saw getting frisky on the banquette, it's getting a reputation as a special-occasion spot for a University City date.
Marigold will have to step up the sedate service, though. The servers were adept at describing every flourish on the plate, but had no clue how to respond when I pulled an inedible piece of plastic wrap from my mouthful of green-bean-mushroom gravy terrine. It was not an overgelled hunk of agar agar, as the manager first insisted. And though desserts were eventually comped as a proper gesture, no one ever apologized with the kind of overt fuss I suspect most patrons would expect.
It was a shame because that terrine came atop one of Halpern's more memorable plates, a wink to Thanksgiving with a crispy-skinned log of juicy turkey breast (meat-glued and sous-vide cooked) over a "risotto" of minced apples with rosemary bubbles.
The swordfish with parmesan broth and succotash was fully cooked by sous-vide, but not nearly hot enough on the plate. The big Colorado rack of lamb was gorgeous (and not even glued to its chops!), but underseasoned and overshadowed by its intriguing, not-too-sweet, white-chocolate-parsnip puree. Likewise, the thick piece of seared foie gras seemed secondary to its many catchy garnishes: date shortbread, pistachios braised to a surprisingly plump softness, and green tea bubbles.
"Sometimes, we build the bubbles first," Halpern concedes, and "create the dish around it."
It's a backward, gimcrack-centric approach that sometimes shows in his weaker efforts. But Halpern proves himself to be a solid-enough chef to earn some allowance to have fun - which ultimately is the mind-bending appeal of molecular gastronomy to begin with.
Some diners will never get it. But for those who are open, it will be fascinating to watch as Halpern moves forward in his ever-changing-menu quest to meld that experimental sense of adventure with dishes that still have soul. I have no doubt that he's capable.
Even with desserts, you can taste an appealingly quirky sensibility at work, from profiteroles stuffed with butternut squash ice cream to the rich chocolate torte with pine-nut pudding and a delightfully tart gooseberry. Or the perfect creme brulee infused with bay leaf that was simply herbal and haunting.
Who could forget, though, the apple tart that arrived with a smoking "candle" of cinnamon stick engulfed in flame? Pungently aromatic, at once evocative of grandma pies past and a Christmas ornament store on fire, it's bound to stoke strong emotions. For the foam haters, it will undoubtedly be Marigold's last straw. I, however, simply snuffed it out in a glass of water like a strange cigar, took a scoop of melting brown butter ice cream, and then savored what turned out to be pretty darn good slice of old-fashioned apple pie.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Parker's Prime in Newtown Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.