Over the course of Clark Gilbert's meandering career, one that in the last 15 years has seen him cook at no fewer than nine different restaurants (plus three stints at Taquet), the erudite chef has also tried his hand at food writing.
One essay I particularly relished was his screed a few years ago against the BYOB scene, which he found generally overrated considering the underwhelming experiences often presented: "If you can't produce superior food in a 40-seat restaurant that's only open five days a week," he said, "then you suck."
Gilbert, recalling the essay in our phone interview, could sense the irony coming on. The latest project from the talented 43-year-old chef is, uh-huh, a 40-plus-seat BYOB. And while there were plenty of moments from my meals at his new Gemelli to remind me of Gilbert's obvious skill (especially dishes built on slow-braised meats), there were also a number of small disappointments - a few hot coals, if you will, to stoke a little Gilbert crow-eating roast.
The pastas, for example, aren't homemade, which for an Italian-esque menu is a slight letdown. A snapper special was unfortunately seared to an oversalted brown crisp. Some of the desserts are homemade, but so uninspired that I wished they weren't. The service was unremarkable.
And yet, such nitpicks won't do justice to the very real virtues of this worthy bistro named Gemelli (Italian for "twins"), a nod to Gilbert's 11-year-old duo. This is especially true for a Main Line borough like Narberth that will hungrily embrace any local spot putting some quality effort into its menu. It's no coincidence that during a recent blizzard Gemelli served more than 70 diners - virtually all of whom walked.
Some of the food here is worth a trek through the drifts.
Tops on my list is Gilbert's inventive take on the classic Italian "vitello tonnato," a dice of tuna tartare molded atop a cylinder of braised veal cheek meat that's been cooked into the shredded texture of rillettes. Each ingredient heightens the other, the tuna a ruby spark of raw freshness against the savory intensity of the pâtélike meat, accented with a capery Caesar dressing. A special peekytoe crab salad was equally satisfying, an unbound crab cake whose briny sweetness was tuned up by a lemony herb vinaigrette, then enriched with a silky layer of avocado mousse.
An appetizer of beautifully seared scallops played against the crunch of noodlelike fennel shreds splashed in vanilla-orange vinaigrette. Scallops reappear later in one of the better entrees, alongside a butternut squash risotto studded with chewy morsels of duck confit.
I can see why some of my Narberth pals are hoping the ever-nomadic Gilbert will stay put for a while in the cozy confines of this former Carmine's/Margot space - its glaringly bright open kitchen softened by exposed brick, black granite tables, and the bustle of the dining room.
Now that he's a first-time owner, though, Gilbert concedes that running his own restaurant - even a little BYO - is a bigger challenge than he realized. With such a small staff, he says, compromises must be made, like the decision to outsource his pasta instead of making it in house, a move that he says saves 10 to 15 hours a week in labor.
The trade-off is real: "I'd rather spend that time braising veal cheeks and lamb shanks and making Bolognese," he said.
And the payoff is often worth it, as with a splendid pappardelle tossed with rustic morsels of tender lamb ragu, piqued by the briny green snap of slivered cerignola olives. A plate of gemelli pasta, likewise, comes beneath a soulful venison Bolgonese steeped with red wine and herbs and sparked by the fruit of cherries.
The downside, however, is apparent in other dishes that could be so much better, where a house-made pasta might have prompted a more delicate approach in the kitchen. The tortellini in Gorgonzola sauce was an over-creamed plate of heavy glop. The fettuccine with crab and shrimp was artless, the kind of pile o' pasta you'd expect in a mediocre trattoria, but at $26, considerably more expensive. And why the fistful of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top? That blasphemous sight of cheese on seafood would send many Italians into an apoplectic fit.
Gilbert has spent much of his recent career veering toward an Italian repertoire, but it isn't his strongest suit. The tomato-basil broth for his bowl of mussels was orangey thin and lacking a vivid punch. The polenta was borderline too salty - but not so much that it took away entirely from the fantastic chicken, its golden skin and pan-roasted meat just the kind of refined comfort that can make a place like Gemelli a neighborhood haunt.
That chicken seemed a microcosm - Gilbert has far more success with French techniques. A classic steak tartare was generous and fresh, the mound of minced meat zipped up with a lemony Dijon vinaigrette. The cooked steak was a juicy New York strip over roast fingerlings with a red wine reduction, a fair value at $27 - albeit a tad boring.
Like his calculation to save time and energy on pasta and desserts (the usual halfhearted chef efforts at crème brûlée, bread pudding, and minuscule fruit tarts), Gilbert has also decided that Gemelli's standard menu can go only so far in its haute ambitions. It needs a delicate balance - accessible to both the unadventurous and foodies alike.
So there is Asian-scented crispy pork belly with brussels sprouts for the trendy adventure diners; fried calamari and creamed mushroom soup for the rest.
Along those lines, however, there are tasting menus that can be ramped up well over the standard $45 five-course offering with a special-order ingredient - anything from chestnuts to venison chops and squab. And there's plenty of fine stemware here in various shapes to complement the wine - an upgrade that is no doubt the reason behind Gemelli's unusual $3-per-bottle corkage fee.
It's a small price, perhaps, to know that Gilbert, long a denizen of the fine-dining world, still harbors culinary ambitions to bring it on. At least most of the time. Even in a little BYOB.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Percy Street Barbecue on South Street. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.