"Namu Amida Butsu ... Namu Amida Butsu ... "
My friend John the Scholar intoned this chant of Buddha's name. It was, he assured me, a Japanese invocation "to allow even the most simple practitioners to attain salvation."
I can say for certain that John was the only member of our table devoting more consideration to the svelte slope of Buddha's golden belly than to the spring rolls and plump chicken dumplings before us. We were most simple practitioners, indeed, but the appetizers were disappearing quickly.
His fascination was understandable, though. Despite the beautiful and rich young throngs of diners who gathered in Buddha's aura — clustered over the glowing runway slab of Buddakan's onyx community table; sharing food; scoping each other with the hippest glances Old City could muster — the Deity remained a 10-foot tower of seated serenity, bathed in the radiance of a blood-red light. Even the swelling consumer din of dinner at Philly's hottest new scene restaurant could not rattle his meditative cool.
It says a lot that Buddakan owner Stephen Starr could pull this off, given that the nightlife visionary has a relationship with the Buddha that reminds me of Ally McBeal and her hallucinations of a dancing baby: dubious, yet deep.
"The Buddha just popped into my head," said Starr, who once considered a Cuban-themed restaurant for this airy space on Chestnut Street. "People, no matter what their religion, get a warm feeling when they see the Buddha."
The Zen of spontaneous instinct has often paid off for Starr, the music promoter turned nightclub owner turned serious restaurateur. So it is not surprising that he has magnificently transformed the giant box of this former post office into a grand temple of sleek design.
Behind the heavy wood front doors, with stacked circle handles recalling the reels of a movie projector, a fantasy of cinematic dimensions unfolds on a scale of grandeur uncommon in Philadelphia. The quiet rush of a falling water wall marks your entrance to this new world, opening onto a soaring room wrapped in twinkling gauzy walls and a floaty Kitaro sound track. Extremely tall hostesses take your coat and hand you off to servers clad in white pajamas, who move among furniture and tables that seem to have their own auras.
We were seated, on two visits, at a Siberian table next to the open kitchen, which is one poorly conceived aspect (the noise level is another) of an otherwise stellar design. The square vastness of this room has been broken into multiple levels, with intimate nooks and moody lights. But the hustle and glare of the kitchen were as distracting to nearby tables as an open door at the back of a movie theater.
Ironically, it is what the kitchen produced that offered the biggest surprise, since it was far better than might be expected from your typical trend emporium. Chef Scott Swiderski, formerly of China Grill in Miami, has engineered a contemporary menu with Asian twists that may not be groundbreaking, but consistently delivers well-prepared, large-portioned dishes nipped with just enough creativity.
And pastry chef Jonathan Thomas, master of "crying" chocolate that oozes across the plate and coconut rings suspended in spun sugar, dangles enough drama over dessert to lay off the extra serving of duck fried rice. My mouth still puckers with joy at the tart memory of his passion-fruit-and-coconut confection.
Swiderski has left enough elements of familiar Asian cooking to ease unadventurous customers along, and most of these standards are done quite well. The cigar-shaped crispy spring rolls, filled with shrimp and scallops, were delicious with mustard and plum sauce dips. Nicely stuffed ginger chicken dumplings were ideal over a pool of soy, rice wine vinegar, and sesame. And "eel dice," Buddakan's version of barbecued eel over avocado and rice, was as fine as any respectable sushi bar might produce.
Ginger-cured salmon, curled like a rose on the plate, was cleverly presented with a delicious wasabi-spiked Bavarian cream, a sweetened horseradish spread that became addictive over inventively fried sheets of nori seaweed. Mashed potatoes also get a Japanese jolt of wasabi in a side order worth requesting, permeating the buttery puree with an almost eucalyptus spice.
There were dishes that could be improved. The soft-wrapper Vietnamese spring rolls should have been more tightly wrapped to give their fresh ingredients a better snap. The addition of vanilla to duck and foie gras dumplings, a staple dim sum at Susanna Foo (where one of Swiderski's sous-chefs recently worked), was one ingredient too many, with a garish flair that negated the rich foie gras. And the lobster crepes were fine, but not good enough to merit $5 more than the other interesting appetizers.
Buddakan, to be sure, is not for those on monastic budgets. I'd be an "angry" lobster, too, if I cost $48. However, the sumo-sized portions intended for sharing bolster a sense of fair value. And despite the wait staff's casual white jammies (one waiter's polka-dot underwear proved ill-advised), I found the staff to be highly skilled, organized, well-informed and courteous.
Of the entrees, which begin at $17, several were outstanding. The crispy skinned five-spice duck was moist yet lean, with a dynamic pineapple salad marinated in sake and anise spice that gave it the flavor of honeyed tea. Perfectly rare slices of wasabi-drizzled filet mignon were shingled around a mound of deliciously sweet mashed potatoes. And a lusciously thick white fillet of black cod (also known as sablefish) melted in the mouth beneath a reddish sheen of smoky miso glaze. The two-pound portion of ginger chicken, its skin stuffed with scallions and cilantro, may not have been a revelation, but we happily ate the entire thing.
The hot-cold contrast of freshly grilled lamb chops over cool eggplant salad left us a little flat (the meat could have been more tender, too). But the kitchen's only true flop, Dragon salmon, was simply incinerated by the heavy-handed spice of its sambal chile sauce.
My biggest wish for this kitchen, though, as it skillfully lures its audience in, would be to become a little more daring. For example, the one even remotely racy item, sizzling whole fish, was not even served whole. The ginger-rubbed fillets of our striped bass were removed and cooked separately, then served atop a decorative deep-fried carcass for dainty eating. No mess for the beautiful people posing at the community table, perhaps, but a disappointment to diners who relish picking over bones in public with the knowledge that these are what infuse the meat with truly enlightened flavor.
But then again, I nitpick. For Buddakan has already done well in striking that rare balance between those seeking fine dining and those in search of a scene. It can be a real asset to a city ripe for dramatic dining when Zen masters and "simple practitioners" alike can feast in the golden glow of a giant Buddha's belly. Even if they don't find salvation ... Namu Amida Butsu ... they can at least savor a tasty meal.
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Update: LaBan removed a bell from Buddakan on Sept. 2, 2014, saying ""This perennial “most popular” champ in the annual Zagat guide has apparently not lost its crowd appeal – but, in the many years since my last visit, it has lost its luster for me as a culinary icon. And so, it’s time for a demotion to 2 bells from the 3 bells it has held since it debuted in 1998 as one of the sparks for Old City’s restaurant revolution (and Stephen Starr’s ascendancy.) This is actually something I’ve commented on for quite a while – ever since Starr opened a far more dynamic, interesting and up-to-date version of Buddakan in New York several years ago. Any attempt to apply similar updates to the Old City original, though, he told me, was always met with too much resistance from the restaurant’s faithful. I understand the concept of “if it ain’t broke” (and it’s printing money) don’t fix it. But the quality and originality of what's being served here has been neglected too long."