'Inn' back in good hands

Monkfish seems even meatier when served over short ribs. (Jonathan Wilson / Inquirer Staff Photographer)

It seems almost Joycean that the former Dickens Inn should be revived through a chance meeting after a funeral.

But it is downright Dickensian that the hero-chef, now 40, should return triumphantly to the kitchen where he began as a baker's apprentice at the age of 17.

"The old wooden baker's bench is still there," chef Ben McNamara says. "The rooms have character."

There's no doubt about it. The sprawling two-story pub, called the Dark Horse since the former Dickens Inn changed hands two years ago, still feels like a stolen slice of London.

The well-worn dining room upstairs is lit with votive candles that flicker from wooden farm tables. And amid the framed horse portraits, a wall is hung with the local Pickwick Club's clay pipes, still smoked on occasion by men dressed up like Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Winkle.

There are dartboards and TVs ablaze with the latest football match (that's soccer to you). And as if to seal the pub's status as an Anglophile's nirvana, there is a veritable shrine to the Philadelphia area's largest collection of single-malt Scotches in a glass-enclosed room.

It's stocked with rare and exquisite drams, among them the profound Springbank 21, the minty, high-voltage Mannochmore from Cadenhead, and a 1965 Aberlour. But it's an ever-shrinking collection, down to about 60 bottles from 140 a few years ago.

I'd hoped the Dickens would be in good hands when it was purchased and renamed by James Stephens, Matthew Kennedy, Paul McCloskey and Gene LeFevre, who own the Black Sheep pub near Rittenhouse Square. But my early meals a year ago were grim and greasy. My unofficial advice wasn't promising: Drink the whisky while it lasts.

But Stephens jumped at the chance to hire McNamara when they met over a buffet after a memorial service for Dickens Inn founder Michael Harwood last winter. And there is hope again at Bleak House.

If anyone can restore substance and pizzazz to this pub's fare, it is McNamara, the Philly-born, British-raised, Dickens-trained chef who transformed the New Wave Cafe from an average Queen Village bar into one of the city's best gastronomic bargains.

Those who have followed McNamara will recognize some perennial hits dating from his New Wave days and, earlier, his stint as chef-owner of Isabella's in the Northeast. His wonderful snails are here, wrapped with mushrooms in an orb of flaky puff pastry over an ivory pool of Pernod cream.

There is the crisp-skinned roast duck, the tender meat posed over a demiglace scented with rosemary and cassis. McNamara's herb-flecked gnocchi are as light as ever, glazed indulgently with Roquefort cream.

But his familiar risotto crab cake and the skillet of melted provolone recently were retired. McNamara, also charged with replicating his menu at the Black Sheep, is gradually adding some fresh ideas.

And for now, that means offering something for everyone: bar food and homey pub classics as well as more ambitious plates.

The renovated bar standards should please any pub crawler. Among the favorites, McNamara's meaty chicken wings are some of the best in town, with a chipotle sauce tingling with smoke and tangy heat. The crisp chicken quesadilla has the perfect balance of tender garlicky chicken, corn and cheddar. The cornmeal-crusted calamari are salty but addictive, with a subtle whiff of exotic seasonings and a tart streak of tomatillo salsa.

There were a couple of misses. The homemade jerk chicken skewers had the bitter aftertaste of too much ginger. Thai-style mussels were surprisingly bland.

But McNamara's gourmet chicken cheesesteak alone is worth the trip upstairs. He starts with free-range chicken braised in wine, then tucks the moist pulled meat into a crusty baguette with molten Brie and sauteed wild mushrooms.

This is one chef who knows that great ingredients and careful cooking can make any dish work, especially in a genre - pub food - that has been beaten into mediocrity by years of abuse. McNamara simply does it right.

The Cornish pastie, a crimped-edge pastry turnover that rises over the plate like the Loch Ness Monster, is filled with hearty ground-lamb stew studded with fresh peas and potatoes. The fresh cod is flaky and moist - but not disintegrated - inside a golden Guinness crust. The sausage roll wraps sage-tinged pork in buttery layers of puff pastry. And the shepherd's pie is a crock of soulful beef stew snug beneath a rich blanket of mashed potatoes.

McNamara hasn't forgotten his more sophisticated moves. Yet even his cassoulet - a bean stew topped with grilled quail and chorizo - and a succulent spiced rib-eye steak with Gorgonzola cream have a rustic heft.

A thick, tender veal chop draped with porcini mushrooms is absolutely luscious. The massive lamb shanks are braised to the moment of truth when the burnished meat falls from the bone and melts on the tongue. The braised short ribs are equally divine, but paired with seared monkfish they take on added interest, highlighting the meatiness of the fish.

A deconstructed beef Wellington, a shiitake-and-leek turnover set atop filet mignon and a potato cake, would have been brilliant had the meat not been overcooked.

For dessert, there are delicate profiteroles filled with house-made cappuccino ice cream, rum-soaked chocolate bread pudding that puffs like a souffle, and key lime pie topped with clouds of bronzed meringue. The ringingly rich Death by Chocolate, a low-rise flourless extravaganza, sets off peals of pleasure in my brain.

It's not surprising, of course, that these confections are so well made. The baker's apprentice has come home at last to give the old pub's kitchen workbench a renewed sense of purpose.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.