The Saint James

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Seared scallops with risotto. The seeming sure bet for a decent Main Line bistro is now a case study of why the prize is so elusive.

Smash!

A plate shattered behind us just as we were settling into our hunter-plaid booth, and the burst was loud enough to somehow cut through the ear-busting din. But it was the sight of the crockery exploding that caught my eye, the pretty white china traced with a border and name, "The Saint James," in shards across the floor.

Smash!

It happened again - and we'd only just placed our order. On this bustling Friday night at Ardmore's newest hot spot, the butterfingered servers were giving me flashbacks to my days living above a Greek restaurant in Paris' Latin Quarter, where plates were thrown on the floor nightly as a curious habit of celebration.

If only the symbolism here were so happy.

My expectations were as high as ever that the Main Line was about to acquire a winning neighborhood restaurant, especially considering the experience of this team: partners Michael Schulson (Sampan and Izakaya) and Rob Wasserman (Rouge), plus chef Matthew Moon, who cooked some of my most memorable tasting meals at tiny Talula's Table.

But nearly everything about my meals at the Saint James, the stylish American bistro that replaced Victoria's Secret in Suburban Square, arrived in a jumbled, rush-job mess.

Cocktails were given to the wrong people, but they were forgettable either way. The signature port-infused Manhattan lacked any finesse (good thing I'm OK with a stiff pour of bourbon). The sangria tasted of little more than alcoholic fizz (with hardly a trace of wine or fruit). The French onion soup was served without a spoon. But when it arrived we discovered a veal-stock broth, which should have been deep brown from caramelized onion, as blond as chicken soup.

They were out of the "famous" chicken wings, although we did find a few other small starter highlights. The "franks in a blanket" brought puff pastry-ringed chunks of plump, smoky sausage that made me want to go buy a link at L. Halteman's in the Reading Terminal Market, where it's made. The Asian-seasoned tuna tartare on crackers was familiar (circa 1998) but tasty nonetheless. The flatbread pizza sogged in the middle, but I enjoyed the topping concept of a bacony, creamy clam chowder.

The huge kale salad, though, was virtually undressed, a shrub of rough raw greens that was a chore to munch through. The relatively juicy roast chicken was served with mashed potatoes that were almost inedibly salty, then topped with thick strips of even more salty preserved lemon. The so-called tender brisket that topped the gnocchi wasn't actually very tender. The cheeseburger had a wonderful flavor, thanks to its blend of short rib and sirloin, ingeniously plucked up a notch with shavings of schmaltz. Too bad it was way overcooked.

The patty disappointment, though, paled in comparison with my prime rib, which came a vaguely pink shade of gray despite being ordered medium-rare. Considering the $38 for this regular Friday special, I asked for a replacement, and the same steak was returned, this time sliced, with apologies: "We don't have anything rarer."

I settled for the pork chop over creamy polenta instead, which was fine until the kitchen topped it with apples so cloyingly sweet they should have been in pie.

But I couldn't stop thinking about that rib, which gets slow-cooked in a single 10-pound rack to rare (125 degrees) then finished to order. If it all looked like mine did, that means someone goofed on Friday night - big time.

At least the debacle was short-lived. Hardly an hour passed between the first course and dessert, as if the staff thought it would sting less if the night were mercifully swift. But for closure, it was not without one last smash! to accompany our giant chocolate chip cookie.

I was stunned by such ineptitude, considering the multi-belled track record of this management team, and the resources that went into crafting the Saint James, which I'd find handsomely clubby if the tile walls and retro hardwood trim didn't seem almost designed to stoke noise.

But what seemed on paper to be a sure bet to break the Main Line's jinx - for at least a decent grown-up bistro - has turned into a case study of why the prize is so elusive.

Finding skilled restaurant workers in the burbs is "painful," says Schulson, whose Saint James kitchen had an 85 percent turnover in the first three months. But the problem is as much economic as geographic, he concedes, with line-cook wages only barely above what some say they'd receive in unemployment compensation. The culinary passion that drives many young chefs through that rite of passage is especially scarce outside the city. But given that Moon told me "only the sous-chef and a dishwasher" remained in his kitchen since my final visit, just a week before our conversation, I'd suggest that a pay increase is in order. Or perhaps these owners just aren't cut out for multiple restaurants.

That final visit was barely better than the first.

The hearty cream of mushroom soup was adequate, and the seared scallops with butternut squash with hazelnuts were a rare success - great combination, executed with finesse. But the crab cake's delicate meat had been manhandled into a dense puck of fishy threads. The octopus was sliced into paper-thin coins that soaked in an overly sour marinade alongside strangely cold cubes of roasted potatoes. I might have loved the branzino with cauliflower and couscous had my fish not been clumsily over-seared into a rigid plank.

But it was a weekly special again, this time lobster pot pie, that sank the night. For $34, I was given what appeared to be a cereal bowl topped with lattice pastry spattered with creamy broth that had burnt in the baking. An arugula side salad was so sparse it looked as if it had already been eaten.

Just under the surface of that petite bowl, I hopefully fished for nuggets of lobster and found a handful. But there were too few to save this dish, or this meal, or this restaurant as it stands, having debuted with such obvious promise. I can only hope this proven team of competent restaurant veterans figures out a fix, and fast - before they run out of plates.

 


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Fette Sau in Fishtown. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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