Sunday, November 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Django

One of the joys of our BYOs - their ability to clearly reflect the efforts of a few talented individuals - is also one of their greatest perils.

What happens when that talent hits the road?

Ironically it is Django, the celebrated little bistro off South Street that inspired the BYO boom, that will be the most visible test of such growing pains.

Aside from new wineglasses, there have been few obvious changes since chef Bryan Sikora and his wife, Aimee Olexy, sold Django in October to Greg Salisbury and chef Ross Essner, who opened West Philly's Rx several years ago.

Dinners in the pleasant yellow dining room still begin with a warm loaf of flower-pot bread. And the servers, most of whom were Olexy's staff, orchestrate the meal with a graceful skill uncommon in a storefront bistro. (Manager Christina McKeough even sounds like Olexy when she sidles up to describe the famous cheese plate.)

But the old Django didn't earn four bells because of its cozy setting, or because it was the iconic BYO. Sikora's cooking was simply that good - intensely seasonal, uniquely inventive and flawlessly done.

Essner's no slouch, either. But the execution of his early menus has been notably less elegant than the Django norm.

There are some holdovers, like the goat-cheese gnocchi, but they're chewy and incidental beneath a barrage of ingredients, from mushrooms to squash to greens and more cheese.

That cluttered feeling weighs down many of Essner's best ideas, which might be three-bell-worthy. But basic technical goofs hold them back. Venison would have been great with chestnut spaetzle if it hadn't been totally overcooked. The veal sirloin was served lukewarm. And so were the tasty octopus and Pernod escargots.

A few true winners - oysters in horseradish gelee; duck with mulled jus; scallops with blood-orange vinaigrette - hint at the rosy horizons the new Django can hope for.

But in the minimalist setting of the BYO, the chef behind the menu has to lead it there every night.

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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