To a young actor waiting tables at the dawn of Philadelphia's eating revolution, this probably sounded like a bit of wise advice.
"If you want to be in a really good, long-running show," a fellow waiter told 24-year-old Reed Apaghian, "then you should open a restaurant."
Who could have foreseen the longevity of the groovy "show" called Astral Plane that Apaghian would soon create? At 32 years and counting, the funky townhouse dining room with the tented ceilings and time-capsule decor is practically the local restaurant equivalent of The Phantom of the Opera. (Phantom star Sarah Brightman, in fact, once serenaded Apaghian's fluffy shih tzu, Rosie, in the dining room.)
You can't help but bask in the vintage theatrics that still give Astral Plane its eccentric glow, from the nostalgic starlet photos and bouncy soundtrack (from Broadway to boy bands) to the phallic chandelier and vintage robots in the corner, where there's also a rattan throne for the Morticia Addams in your party.
So what if the tabletops wobble and the dishes don't match and the potpourri shrine in the restroom is so punchy it made me woozy? Too few restaurants light fresh tapers anymore when you take your table. And fewer still have mastered the art of corny '70s romance with the sincerity of Astral Plane. I can see why its appeal burns eternal for a certain generation.
If only Astral Plane's kitchen were as timeless. The wide-ranging menu, of course, now sports trendy items like Kobe burgers, Himalayan red rice and kurobuta pork. The strawberry soup and chicken Tropicana made famous here are a thing of Restaurant Renaissances past.
But watching this kitchen try to make something worthy of its ingredients has been like that awkward moment in a show when the dancers lose their syncopation and the aging lead strains for high notes that were lost long ago. And no creative pocus can hide it.
The eggroll stuffed with duck confit and bad blue cheese, for example, was one number that never should have left the green room, its chewy fried shell drizzled with a treacly raspberry glaze. That kurobuta pork tenderloin was certainly tender, but whatever delicate flavor it had was drowned in the flour-thickened blandness of apple brandy cream.
Astral Plane's menu, which one of its chefs described as Franco-Italian-Mexic-Asian, has always followed the Renaissance-era credo of dabbling in ethnic flavors and recasting them "our way." But as tastes have grown more sophisticated over the last three decades, and a measure of authenticity has come to be prized, those whimsies can now often seem naive.
For example, Astral is smart to use the talents of its Mexican prep chef, Tomassa Pampoja. But her marvelously genuine Puebla mole was wasted as a footnote to her colleague's misguided variation on chiles rellenos. Chewy rehydrated anchos were substituted for the more delicate snap of fresh poblanos (a mistake both in texture and redundant flavors). Then the peppers were stuffed with potatoes, hammy chorizo, and a gooey jack cheese more typical of gringo fern-bar "loaded skins."
The $14 Kobe beef burger, surprisingly, was one of the best dishes on the menu, easily one of the better Kobe burgers I've had. The big patty was flecked with herby savor and cooked to char-edged perfection. When we asked for some Dijon mustard, though, our distracted waitress returned with a dish of vinaigrette.
It was typical of the flighty and occasionally nervy service of our meals. We waited an hour for our appetizers in the sparsely filled dining room while the restaurant attended to a private party upstairs. Clean silverware was frequently missing in action. And a simple question about the modest wine list was answered with a shrug: "I don't like chardonnay, so I wouldn't know."
It wasn't exactly the warm and fuzzy feeling that emanated from so many regulars as they stepped through Astral Plane's cheery entrance into the cozy bar where Apaghian, supping with Rosie's sister Kelly on his lap, welcomed them with open arms.
There were some successes on the menu to hold onto. A special split yellow pea soup was hearty and redolent of smoked bacon. The baked brie was as retro as anything (and could have benefited from better-quality cheese), but its oozy center was undeniably tasty beneath a warm apricot compote.
Giant phyllo triangles stuffed with grilled portobellos and veggies was a satisfyingly homey twist on spinach pie. And while many of the sauces here lacked focus, a coconut Thai curry was one of the more successful, napping a thick fillet of macadamia-crusted halibut.
Too often, though, the kitchen lacked the finesse to make a dish sing. The cornmeal-crusted scallop appetizer brought some succulent shellfish, but had no sauce at all (though ginger vinaigrette was advertised) to temper the thick, deep-fried crunch. The same scallops reappeared with nice head-on shrimp over a delicious pasta al fredo, but this time the big scallops were practically raw inside. The crabcakes were dry and bready. The duck breast with cherry sauce was unpleasantly tough. The stir-fry presented such carelessly chopped veggies and watery little shrimp, anyone could have stayed home and done better.
Things smoothed out only briefly for dessert, where we enjoyed a superb rendition of Key lime pie (great graham crust) and an enormous tiramisu. Unfortunately, all the cremes brulees sitting in the bar were reserved for the party upstairs, our server informed us after a lengthy disappearance (probably taking their orders instead of ours!) She then tacked on an automatic 20-percent gratuity to our bill, though we were only a party of five and there was no warning on the menu.
"Well, that's just the way we do things here," she snapped after we questioned the overly generous tip.
I wondered about that as we left through the bar, where a lineup of custards still waited to be burned. Astral Plane's cheerful, long-running show really doesn't feel like it's ready to end. But the cast might need some work.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.