Dandelion by Starr: God save the pub

It was an impromptu tasting: Stephen Starr and his brain trust assembled at the 10-seat table in a window bay at the Dandelion on the one-week anniversary of its opening, nine days ago.

It is a welcome beacon on the corner of 18th and Sansom, a Victorian lantern over the door, wood-burning fireplaces being goaded into flame, British knickknacks aplenty, room-temperature (and chilled) beer, and sturdy, reclaimed banisters; in all, $3.5 million worth of painful, skillful rehab stuffed with two shipping containers of Anglo-paraphernalia. ("All it needs now," a wag offered, "is 100 years of cigar smoke.")

The question on the table was this: For the Sunday traditional roast on the menu, should the pub go with the Indian Ridge prime rib (represented by the slab of pink, buttery, unapologetically marbled rib-eye roast), or with the whole-roasted New York strip loin (a denser-textured, beefier-tasting, far-less-fatty cut)?

Robert Aikens, the lanky chef, who has done time in both boutique resorts in the Adirondacks and with his identical-twin brother, Tom, at Tom's Kitchen, his Michelin-starred London brasserie (the twins are from Norfolk, in the East of England), cast his vote. It was for the strip. The prime rib's visible fat, he worried, might not play on Rittenhouse Square.

Other votes went the other way. The decision (after Starr sawed off a few bites and polled the crew) was go ahead, give the juicier, indulgent prime rib a whirl; see how it flew.

Apparently, well enough, we heard Monday - with crisp, eggy puffs of Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, horseradish sauce, and a brothy beef gravy.

So it goes here, the shakedown cruise - the usual Starr search not for ways to buff a chef's ego so much as nail the customer's sweet spot, making the menu, even once settled upon, stand for repeated election.

Next on the dissection table: the burger. Did the percentage of aged beef in it make it too rich? Was Aikens' house-made relish and toe-MAH-doe, as he calls it, ketchup too sweet? (My verdict? A perfectly decent burger, though why get a burger when you can get one of the better renditions of fish and chips in town - the fish an ungreasy, thick hunk of beer-battered, line-caught Chatham cod, the fries stoutly cut, fried in beef fat, and served with house tartar sauce.)

One could easily be ungenerous about the Dandelion. You will see online Yelpers suggesting it's a Disneyfied vision of a British pub. A case can be made for clever gloss. But that's being grumpy. I prefer a different label - one that equally fits Starr's scrupulously re-created French brasserie Parc a few blocks away, at 18th and Locust: It's a masterful illusion.

It is, for sure, an escapist, transporting place - just a step off the sidewalk - though some of the tighter crannies in its two stories of rooms, nooks, and bars can be harsh on one's knees. There is also this to remember: Every timeworn pub was itself once new as a shiny penny.

The British pub, for reasons including ever-cheaper supermarket beer and tougher drunken-driving laws, has been in severe retreat. By one recent count, 52 pubs a week were closing, shades of the disappearance of the once-ubiquitous Jewish deli.

So the impressive aggregation here of estate-sale mantels (foraged by designer Shawn Hausman in England) and vintage dog photographs, hand-pumped beer engines and bar-top globe lights, could one day serve as a model, or maybe memorial, should the last pub slip beneath the waves.

Perhaps, the still-surviving real deals might also take a cue from the quality (if not yet consistency) of the Dandelion menu - bracing cocktails (including a Pimm's Deluxe of gin, lemon, and muddled cucumber), cask beers, a tasty rabbit pie informed with cipollini onions and oyster mushrooms under a puff pastry toque, Cape May Salt oysters, and thankfully, a not overly saccharine treacle apple and raisin tart.

Is the place absolutely authentic? Well, it doesn't have the smoke or the history of generally bad food. It doesn't have the cast of die-hard regulars (yet). And it doesn't have a darts league (yet).

But it is absolutely a reclaimed, reignited corner, its space made from two 1880s-vintage homes that had been reduced to hosting a shoe store and failed eatery, instantly, warmly, vibrantly alive again.

And may we add this note: The community haven that has long been the English pub has itself had to undergo desperate reinventions, in one case - at the Draft House at Tower Bridge in London - adopting the character and motif of, well, an American diner.


The Dandelion

124 S. 18th St.

(at Sansom)



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.