December 2010 update:
Ambler's burgeoning downtown dining scene has a potential powerhouse destination in this slick bi-level wine bar and grill, replete with mahogany trim, fireplaces, and more than 50 wines by the glass. Unfortunately, during the initial review, the eclectic menu, ranging from pizza to prime steaks, was underwhelming and overpriced.
A major improvement, however, has resulted from the arrival of new chef Jeffrey Power (ex-Blackfish, Le Bec-Fin). Our meal brought one impressive dish after the other, from spicy duck dumplings to tender head-on shrimp with white bean ragout, crispy pizza topped with merguez and goat cheese, a perfect local pumpkin soup topped with soft cubes of sweet pumpkin bread and a crackly chip of nougatine, followed by a moist pork loin wrapped in a sheer crisp of bacon over lentils. The once-clueless service has made serious strides, too, especially in wine service. As a rule, restaurants can't rise (or fall) more than one tier based on a single end-of-year revisit. But if Dettera keeps up this consistently, it has a chance to reach a more elite echelon some day.
Of the many suburban downtowns with main streets ready to pop, Ambler has long seemed among the more promising. There isn't much competition in the near northern burbs. And after a decade of slow but steady progress amid the quaint storefronts on Butler Pike, which saw the arrival of a casual but ambitious BYOB in the train station (Trax), a tony martini bar-steak house (Bridgets), and an Irish pub (Shanachie) for pints of stout and lively Celtic jam sessions, this was the year, it seemed, when it finally acquired a seriously sophisticated venue in Dettera that could stamp Ambler as a dining destination at last.
Of course, it would take a deep-pocketed benefactor with a local interest to make that investment, and Dettera's owner, Frank Lutter, has indeed been that. A wine-loving Lower Gwynedd resident and a commercial builder who's done custom carpentry on projects ranging from universities to hospitals and casinos, Lutter spared little expense or craft in realizing his dream restaurant.
From across the street, the bilevel space that was once an accounting office and apartments now radiates a prosperous restaurant glow. Its pale brick facade frames wide windows that reveal swanky booths curling beneath upturned parasol lights, an acre of mahogany detailing, and a grand staircase leading up to the lofty, raftered second-floor dining room, where the mezzanine has a dramatic cello-shaped cutout that echoes the undulating granite bar downstairs and accommodates a two-story glassed-in wine cellar. Behind the entry vestibule, a handsomely bricked alley patio leads back to an outdoor fireplace.
There's a lot to like about Dettera's bones, from its high-style look to that cellar, which offers 53 choices by the glass and nearly 400 bottles, many with reasonable markups. But as with so many vanity restaurants, especially those that aspire to the false cliche of "bringing a taste of the city to the suburbs," there are some fundamental shortcomings that hold it back. Dettera suffers from such a host of serious issues, from ill-prepared servers to a kitchen that struggles to put out anything remotely worth the menu's inflated prices, I wonder whether it has the substance to give its style staying power.
The menu offers an ambitious blend of trendy and familiar, with a short list of brick-oven pizzas, outtakes on some modern faves (tuna "gravlax"; beet salad; truffled edamame dumplings), and a cover-all-bases entree selection ranging from spaghetti with Kobe meatballs to planked trout and grilled steak.
With entree prices in the mid-$30s and $40s for fish and chops, though, I can't imagine whom the target audience is. Those prices haven't been commonly seen in Center City for years, save for a few luxury steak houses and the Four Seasons Hotel. And Dettera hasn't proven itself to be even remotely in that league. Management's plans to soften the prices a bit can't happen soon enough.
Before the dissection begins, let's first acknowledge Dettera's best asset aside from its looks - a wine cellar filled with quality selections. The by-the-glass list is full of interesting choices I'd be happy to drink, from Trefethen ($14) and French Guillaume ($10) chardonnay to a crisp Italian Prelius vermentino ($12) and an exotic Cline viognier ($10), to a ripe Arrowood syrah ($12), a food-friendly Rivetto nebbiolo ($12), and a densely extracted Crusher pinot noir ($10). The California-leaning bottle list is full of big names (Peter Michael, Plumpjack, Talbott, Duckhorn) with some reasonable markups, but could use far more choices under $50.
Getting a little advice on that list is where things quickly get dicey. Our server was pleasant, but had the annoying habit of making food and drink suggestions before anyone at our table even said a peep ("How about a nice chardonnay and torn romaine salad for the lady?" was a typical approach). It was a clever preemptive strike, perhaps, to avoid an actual dialogue, during which it became clear he had absolutely no clue about the wines or pairing possibilities. A big red zin to go with my creamy lobster pasta? Why not just smash that $28 dish with a sledgehammer? Describing the usually taut and tannic Italian nebbiolo as more "fruit-forward and sweeter" than a California cab? That's like confusing Isabella Rossellini with Jessica Simpson. The wine world is already so fraught with pretense and misinformation, the least a self-described wine bar could do would be to give its servers some basic training.
Dettera's biggest issue, though, is in the kitchen. It's one thing to charge a lot of money for quality ingredients - and several of the meats here do come with a pedigree. But I'm not sure how, even with the most egregious menu markups, a 14-ounce pork chop that cost the kitchen about $6 a pound can anchor a $31 dish (those must have been some pricey red beans on the side!). Even worse, the undercooked chop had a strange cured-meat shine that didn't improve the texture. A $39 veal chop had similar texture issues - shredding beneath the knife as if overcooked, but oddly still a mid-rare pink. It was more tough than tender, and overshadowed by the simple bread pudding on the side. The New York strip steak, meanwhile, was clearly a splendid piece of meat, though I don't think any $35 steak should be served with pre-frozen fries. That prime beef, however, also suffered from a lack of basic seasoning, a low-salt preference that's been requested of the kitchen by Lutter, said veteran chef Thomas Groff, former owner of Blue Sky Cafe and the Jefferson House.
There's nothing worse than a backseat seasoner in the owner's box, especially if those taste buds don't always jibe with the accepted standards of good cooking. A lack of seasoning also dimmed the porcini-dusted black cod, at $25.
But this kitchen had other serious issues, like serving food hot. The truffled edamame dumplings, a bland variation on pea ravioli that Groff served years ago at the Jefferson House, came still cool around their doughy edges - twice. The small crab-cake appetizer, mushy with cracker meal and smashed crab inside, then drizzled with a thick house-made tartar sauce, was also lukewarm. So was the farro "risotto" beneath the seared day-boat scallop, which was otherwise one of the better dishes I ate. Even the espresso on my first visit was not hot enough to melt the sugar.
At the other extreme, the tartarelike tuna "gravlax" wasn't cold enough by the time it got to our table, compounding the issues of the raggedly chopped fish that seemed to have sat too long in its marinade.
There were a handful of highlights. The creamed onion soup came topped with a round cracker lid of melted parmesan that added crunch and saltiness to the mild soup. Ribbons of a pancettalike house-cured pork belly made a perfect base for a tangy tonnato dressing.
I can't say much positive about that $28 plate of prefab ravioli, which didn't taste much of lobster and was drowned in an artless sludge of creamed tomato sauce. I also wish that handsome cedar-planked trout, cooked in the pizza oven, had tasted less like its pungent citrus oil rub, and more like the woody plank.
Dettera's pizza oven, it turns out, serves a bit better for pizzas, which range from simple margherita to mushrooms with Gruyère, and my surprise favorite, the Crabby Tom, which tastes like pizza smeared with a decadent crab dip. Granted, these slightly underdone crusts would be crisper if the kitchen turned up that Wood Stone a couple hundred degrees (630 degrees is almost chilly for artisan pizza). Then again, I guess this promising suburban restaurant is just not yet quite as hot as it first appears.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Sampan at 13th and Sansom.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.