Saturday, December 27, 2014

Starr goes retro with comfort food

About the restaurant
700 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 223-5663
Rating:
Neighborhood: Old City Parking: Valet parking ($14)
Hours: 7 days (brunch lunch and dinner)
Prices: $$
Payment methods:
Discover
MasterCard
Visa
Cuisine type: American
Meals Served: Brunch - Sat., Sun. Lunch - Mon., Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri. Dinner - Mon. thru Sun. Late Night
Style: Stephen Starr re-envisions American comfort food in a handsome, '70s-style living room with cultured stone columns, a fireplace, and servers in Izod shirts. The kitchen hits some high points (especially at dessert), but the no-reservations policy brings hourlong waits in one of the city's loudest dining rooms.
Specialties: Chicken
Alcohol: The small list of inexpensive, decent wines (also sold by the glass) tops out at $34 a bottle. But the focus seems to be on beers and froufrou cocktails.
Smoking: Smoking at the bar only

For much of my '70s childhood, I refused to wear Izod shirts for fear of being typecast as a follower of The Official Preppy Handbook, the bible of suburbanites aspiring to prep-school high society.

More than two decades later at Jones, however, that little gator has been transformed through the nostalgic lens of Stephen Starr's imagination into yet another cool relic of American retro. It's sewn onto every server's shirt. Never mind that many in this young crew also wear the antiestablishment affects of their post-grunge generation - blond-hair dreads and nose studs, tattoos peaking out through the gap between their corduroys and midriff-baring shirts. Lacoste is happenin' here, in a handsome space modeled after Dick Van Dyke's living room, complete with fireplace and layered stone columns.

I already knew that wizard Starr could make any theme look hip, whether it be a giant Buddha, a French bistro, or a Cuban tobacco field. Turning his focus to American comfort food, though, would be a much tougher challenge. But he's done it again, creating an engrossing inverse world in which deviled eggs and fried chicken with waffles are suddenly trendy and where the "safe" eaters go for the seared tuna with gnocchi.

Starr and his chefs - Tangerine's Chris Painter developed the menu while Jones is already on its second day-to-day chef de cuisine - are hardly the first to serve updated comfort food around here. But the no-reservations Jones may be the first venue to consistently command hour-plus weekend waits for meat loaf and turkey potpie.

Some of the menu - though not all - is worth the wait. I had a perfect grilled cheese with tomato soup for lunch that coated my lips with the flavor of salty butter, and I could savor it for the rest of the day. The cobb salad also was surprisingly wonderful, a deep glass bowl filled with chopped lettuce, bacon and blue cheese ? all of it so perfectly mixed that each forkful brought a bite with crunch, smoke, creaminess and chew.

The fried chicken alone was monumental, easily one of the best birds in town. Cooked in a pressurized deep-fryer, the greaseless crust sparkled with seasoning and sealed in flesh so moist it gushed when I took a bite.

I preferred it plain rather than with waffles, which also came topped with chicken stew gravy that had congealed by the time it arrived.

It wasn't for lack of speedy service, though. In fact, we were still eating our appetizers when a team of servers descended upon our table unapologetically to deliver the entrees. Someone actually yanked a plate out from under my guest's fork.

I did have one good server here. She had the '70s theme so practiced that she'd groovily say "All-riiiiiiiight" after everything we ordered. Otherwise, Jones had uncharacteristically raw servers for a Starr restaurant - poorly paced, sporadically attentive, and prone to jamming order pads inside the rear waistbands of their cords. But nothing would be as infuriating as being rushed into a 45-minute dinner after waiting an hour to sit down.

Service wasn't Jones' only flaw. The restaurant is a beautiful, sunny corner space with cozy booths that ring a fireplace in a split-level room. There also is a handsomely stained teak ceiling ringed by a corona of blue light. But the wood amplifies the din to almost unprecedented heights. In the quiet regions of the outer booths, my noise meter registered a scream-worthy 86 decibels, far above the mellow 70-decibel baseline. Sitting up in the mezzanine nook, though, is like eating in a subway tunnel. I saw my meter flash 100 for the first time - the sonic equivalent of Barry Bonds hitting 70 home runs.

A little ear-itation with your comfort food. It's tolerable when you choose your dinner well. But there were some less-inspired items, too - at least under the direction of Jones' first chef de cuisine, who left in early December.

The meat loaf - actually a giant meatball - had a great garlicky flavor and a caramelized, sweet ketchup glaze. But inside it was too dry, as was the slow-cooked, orange-tinged brisket. The mac and cheese was indulgently creamy, but lacked a sharp, cheesy bite. The Denny's-like onion rings were unimpressive. The turkey potpie had too much gravy and not enough meat and veggies. The turkey burger had a nice sage flavor, but the meat was chopped so finely that the patty was as dense as rubber.

As for the seared tuna and gnocchi, the latter were gummy, and the fish, while pristine, was boring compared to the meal's other flavors.

Much of the kitchen's efforts are directed toward making juiced-up versions of mass-produced foods, from pastry chef Sonjia Spector's sublime rendition of Duncan Hines chocolate cake to the wonderful Russian dressing (modeled after the bottled Ken's brand), Campbell's-style tomato soup (with a basil-oil swirl), and the house-fried taco shells, which are a dead ringer for Ortega's - except that these tacos are really good, especially when stuffed with diced sushi tuna tossed with spicy mayonnaise, cilantro and avocado.

The tuna tacos are the only brilliantly creative savory item on the menu - a surprising stroke of Tex-Mex-Asian fusion that replaces the seaweed chew of a Japanese hand-roll with the crunch of a corn shell.

Everything else works on more familiar comforts, and, for the large part, they succeed. Homemade pierogi, stuffed with silky mashed potatoes and three cheeses, came topped with sweet ribbons of caramelized onions. The crabcakes were impressively meaty, and served with a spicy Old Bay aioli on the side. The chicken noodle soup had a satisfyingly rich broth stocked with egg noodles, meat and freshly cut veggies.

I especially liked my inch-thick pork chop, which was well-cooked but juicy, completely infused with the smoky tang of barbecue sauce and complemented by excellent sides - celery-scented coleslaw and sweet corn tossed with okra. Only the polenta was an off note - an awkward substitute for corn bread.

I even loved the high-class take on Buffalo wings, which opted for meaty drumstick "lollipops" and a killer sauce with vinegar and spice. A four-napkin dish if there ever was one.

Few aspects of Jones capture the spirit of refining comfort as well as Spector's desserts. That may be a bottle of Stewart's root beer used in the old-fashioned float, but the rich vanilla-bean ice cream is homemade.

So is the chocolate chip ice cream that comes stuffed inside her superb ice cream sandwich, a frozen bar stuffed between two thin sheets of flourless chocolate cake. The warm banana bread pudding is a paragon of custard-soaked brioche - addictively moist and full of fruit.

And that tall wedge of layer cake may in fact be Duncan Hines, but the homemade buttercream that gilds it is pure French chocolate luxury. I followed each dark forkful with a cold sip of the whole milk that comes on the side in a tall glass. Suddenly I felt as if I were on the set of Happy Days, which is how I know Jones was finally having its way with me, turning back the clock.

Remember? We watched '50s nostalgia shows in the 1970s.

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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