A bistro appealing in its simplicity

Audrey Taichman — a.k.a. Audrey Claire — commands the northwest corner of 20th and Spruce Streets with a cordless phone in one hand and a waiting list in the other. The sidewalk in front of her hip little bistro is thick with young and beautiful would-be diners, waiting alongside some older Rittenhouse Square regulars with wine bottles in hand. "Somebody's phone is ringing!" one says, sending half the crowd diving to the bottom of giant designer purses. It's just another call for Taichman, who cheerily tells the caller, "The wait's about 45 minutes." There is a hint of perky seduction in her voice that tames the hungry hordes around her. She calls herself "The Ringleader" and has the political pluck of a Middle East peace negotiator. And so they will wait — happily — until she leads them through the austere and noisy little dining room to a narrow table made of planks, or the concrete counter that looks like a sidewalk, or to one of the outdoor cafe seats that tilt on the sloping Spruce Street sidewalk. The menu here is appealing in its simplicity, with flavors borrowed from Italy to Israel adding a pomegranate spark or giant couscous kick to grilled fish, seafood or chicken. Salads are light and creative. Entrees are almost always under $20. And desserts have a homespun goodness that is impossible to resist, from the dollop of whipped cream down to the last crumb of Bubby's apple cake, made by Taichman's mom. But Audrey Claire's success is as much about timing, niche and buzz as it is about food. If there was an untapped need in Center City for stylish-but-affordable neighborhood places, as well as sidewalk dining, Audrey Claire has filled it with gusto since 1996. That's when the Toronto-born Taichman (whose middle name is Claire) used a small-business loan to completely rehab a dingy five-and-dime into this unlikely hot spot. The bare-bones 45-seat room, with an exposed kitchen at one end and inviting open windows on every side, played its minimal look to advantage. The passing street life, the tony Rittenhouse guests, the simple Mediterranean comfort food all took on an extra luster. A bucket of brilliant yellow flowers or a bowl of stacked lemons gave this reclaimed corner the look of an interactive still-life. And Audrey Claire was an instant success. Worthy competition has blossomed in Center City over the past three years, and this trend-setter is hardly alone with its sidewalk seating, its affordable neo-Med menu, even its spartan look. But as Taichman and her chef, Marcie Turney, plan a second restaurant and different concept at the former Beaujolais across the street later this fall, Audrey Claire is sustaining an overall quality and magnetic appeal that ranks it still among the city's best neighborhood spots. The little restaurant does have some shortcomings. The service is pleasant but still needs work, with a young staff that takes its casual jean and T-shirt attire a little too literally. They know the menu well, but have problems paying serious sustained attention to diners. A quick meal is a rare thing at Audrey Claire, especially at the outdoor tables, where our busy server disappeared for what seemed like endless stretches. The kitchen, too, has its ups and downs. But when it is on a roll, its bright, eclectic flavors can be incredibly satisfying. Salads are among the best in town, from the smoky romaine leaves of the odd-but-intriguing grilled Caesar to the salad with earthy hunks of warm squash and chewy parsnip slivers. The chilled fruit gazpacho was a pleasant surprise with its brisk tartness and textures, a clear broth riddled with whole berries, scallions, cilantro and refreshing dice of crunchy celery. A clear glass bowl held a mountain of tender calamari rings, sauteed and tossed in the irresistible rusty spice of ancho-cumin paste. Sauteed shrimps had a lusty flavor, pooled with stewed tomatoes, basil and chunks of feta cheese. A warm square of polenta topped with tarragon goat cheese and sauteed leeks disappeared so fast we should have ordered another. Straightforward entrees were the best bets, with simple fillets of sesame-rimmed tuna or swordfish coming out perfectly grilled. Chicken breast marinated with preserved lemon and the tingly spice of garlic was moist and full of taste. The roasted half chicken had considerably less flavor, given the long list of exotic ingredients, from fresh herbs to pomegranate molasses. A pair of seasonal soft-shell crabs were ideal, tossed in pancake batter then seared in a garlicky olive oil with cilantro and mint. And the zuppa di pesce was one of the best variations on seafood stew I've tasted in a while. The heaping bowl of herby tomato broth filled with nicely cooked shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid and fish was also a fair value at $18. The creative kitchen sometimes steps on its own good flavors with pretty but poorly conceived presentations. The whole fish was a nightmare to debone (even for a whole fish expert) amidst the morass of giant couscous and shredded vegetables that came above and below it. I was mildly disappointed that the grilled flatbreads weren't always grilled. But a bigger problem was simply trying to eat them, since the pliant lavash bread crusts were usually collapsing with heavy-handed toppings. The feta-crusted lamb chops could have done with far less feta-crusting, which overwhelmed each delicate chop with a thick and tangy breading. The cucumber in the tzatziki salad was too coarsely chopped to be considered a spread. And the Tuscan bread salad was drastically misnamed — the traditional cubes of great chewy, tomato-soaked country bread were replaced with dry strips of grilled pita that added little to the mix. The desserts have an old-fashioned draw. Intense chocolate puddings ("pot de creme"), moist apple cake, super fruit pies, risotto rice pudding, and chocolate hazelnut wedges, all have the feel of something Grandma might have produced. They come accessorized, of course, by a cloud of home-whipped cream and a great corner view.