(Note: This location closed Jan. 1 , 2012)
A platter of pristine sushi, surely, could make us forget the Greatest Restaurant That Never Happened. The sizzle of a few good robata skewers, no doubt, could ease the pain of the Show Kitchen That Wasn't.
But is Tony Rim's Raw Sushi & Sake Lounge up to the task? It has a tall shadow to fill.
That sad tale, of course, would be Speck, the most pre-hyped dining project to date in Bart Blatstein-land, which frustratingly crashed one molecular-gastronomic inch shy of its debut this spring. It was an ill-fated opening that would have crossed two biggies off my list of urban legends: (1) that celebrated private chef Shola Olunloyo will someday run his own restaurant in Philadelphia, and (2) that destination dining is a sustainable concept in the developer's Piazza at Schmidts.
Whether Speck and its big-draw chef would have proven No. 2 a possibility we'll never know. But the early months of Raw, a branch of Tony Rim's budding sushi empire that was chosen to fill Speck's sleek dark box of a space this summer, are not encouraging.
"It's not turning out the way I expected," concedes Rim, whose first Raw remains a sultry, ever-popular hideaway lounge at 13th and Sansom Streets, and whose second has been happily tiding over exhausted Ferragamo shoppers on the mezzanine at Boyds. "It's mostly hipsters here. And sushi is not on their menu."
That could be true given the absolute dearth of good sashimi slingers in Northern Liberties, where the price-conscious demographic limits the potential for a certain grade of fish. Then again, Raw and its flamboyantly outsized makis - many in the $20 range - may simply not be the wise sushi prophet this neighborhood really needs.
It's a gripe I've registered with Old Original Raw: It's not merely that the rolls are pricey; they're also clumsily huge, with sauce-spattered pile-it-on berms of rice, spicy fish paste, and tempura-fried filler that offer a weak stand-in for an actual sushi craftsman's art. Ratcheting your jaws wide enough to approach one of these three-inch-high contraptions is like living an episode of Man v. Food.
"They look like the sand worms from Dune!" said my guest Robert, in an aptly haute-cinematic reference to the exotic creatures that snaked across our giant white plate.
There is a divalike drama to a roll like the White Tiger, a spicy white tuna roll draped with white tuna sashimi, topped with creamy white tuna, then lightly torched before being slathered in three sauces. But except for the light smokiness of that torched crown, it tasted essentially like the other overwrought rolls on Raw's menu.
With work like that, it's no wonder that hardly a soul could be found sitting at one of the sushi-bar stools lining the mouth of the open kitchen. Then again, it could be the harsh fluorescent glow of the kitchen itself, which intrudes on the dark moodiness of the room like an open door that was meant to be shut.
The shame of this is that Raw uses quite decent fish, from melt-in-your mouth o-toro tuna belly to buttery yellowtail and sea-sweet scallops that came in the "lemon scallop," in one of Raw's few composed sushi-bar hits, layered with citrus wedges and a mortared smear of spicy minced scallops.
The good news is that Raw does a number of things well on the cooked side of the menu - in particular, the robata-grilled meat skewers and soulful noodle soups - which Rim is smartly planning to promote with a soon-to-debut food tent outside his restaurant. It's an odd stroke of trendy turnabout that a touch of the Night Market/pop-up craze could somehow save a big-ticket restaurant. But "Occupy Piazza" just might work.
The robata skewers were fun, cheap, and flavorful, the mostly $2 sticks threaded with spicy pork, sweet and tangy kalbi short rib, oniony bulgogi, or morsels of crab stick wrapped in crisp bands of salty bacon. When it's open, 20 seats will be able to cook their own skewers at a Korean-style table grill. There will also be soups available - a ramen noodle bowl that's been in the works (which I didn't taste), as well as some udon (which I did), the rope-thick chewy noodles basking in a pristine broth with plump shrimp and mushrooms. The scallop soup was another winner, its clear fish broth enriched by the scallop's light tempura crust, and the smokiness of bonito and roasted scallions.
If only the tempura cook were as successful with the menu's many other fried items, Raw might be looking at a higher rating. Instead, the many snacky morsels (ideal to nibble while lounging with the many sakes and Hitachino Nest beers on this menu) brought a litany of problems. There was the overcooked: a flounder appetizer that was fishy, and a soft-shell crab that tasted burnt and chewy with a lack of sweetness and juicy stuffing that betrayed its frozen pedigree. The tempura-fried skewers of shiso-wrapped sea urchin, instead of harboring a soft and creamy sea-flavored custard, were overcooked to a firm and fishy pudding. The other flops were simply soggy - the victims of undercooking, or possibly a hinky batter. The ubiquitous rock shrimp were mush. The tempura veggies could have been wrapped in oily tan socks.
Surprisingly, given the kitchen's shortcomings in the finesse department, it managed to hit a few tricky dishes. A fillet of yellowtail was beautifully seared for a delicate appetizer over a puddle of spicy soy dressing. The beef teriyaki brought a beautifully seared New York strip (perfectly medium rare) beneath a mahogany glaze of gravy that lent complexity and depth without too much sweetness - a bargain steak for $19.
Raw also served up some nice homemade renditions of dumplings that are typically store-bought - a wasabi-tinged pork shumai and a crispy gyoza - as well as a shrimp and lobster spring roll that actually had visible chunks of lobster meat.
Add Rim's proposed concept changes and the restaurant's friendly young servers - reasonably well-versed in the sakes, not to mention the encyclopedic list of ingredients in each sushi roll - and I don't think it's unreasonable to hope. One day, this space could evolve into one of the reliable dining anchors that the Piazza at Schmidts seems to be incapable of keeping. These elaborate sushi rolls may not really be the principal draw. And there will certainly be no star chef to stoke a frenzy of prepaid online reservations for multicourse tastings. But if the grill fires and ramen soup pots of Raw's faux-market stall burn brightly enough, the history of Speck will finally fade to just that.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @CraigLaBan on Twitter.