The theater and orchestra world may be thriving there, but the Avenue of the Arts is where local restaurateurs' egos go to die.
Those nine blocks along Broad Street just south of City Hall - a magnet for highbrow culture offering a rare Philadelphia stage for grand-boulevard glitz - seem a natural spot for dining. Yet only chains such as the Palm and Capital Grille have managed to survive there. Except for Upstares at Varalli, the mid-priced pasta house on the corner of Locust, Broad Street has swallowed more than its share of big local names.
Remember Tony Clark, whose considerable talent wasn't enough to keep his self-named restaurant afloat? Or Joseph Tucker, who fizzled not once, but twice, at Joseph's on the Avenue and then at Pompeii? Or Bruce Lim, who has bounced around ever since Ciboulette closed three years ago? And who can forget the waterloo known as Avenue B, which triggered the unraveling of Neil Stein's dining empire?
Certainly not Francesco Martorella. He was one of Avenue B's last chefs.
But that hasn't stopped Martorella, 45, from pursuing his own boulevard dreams, leaping in to refashion the space that housed the old Chinese stalwart Noodle Heaven into a contemporary fusion boutique called Bliss.
Yet whether he can buck history remains in question. If anyone can do it, Martorella would seem the prime candidate. Long one of the city's top chefs-for-hire, he has manned the stoves at hot spots Brasserie Perrier, Pod and the Blue Angel.
After years of working for others - and running the Philly trifecta of Georges Perrier, Stephen Starr and Stein - Bliss seemed the ideal showcase for Martorella to reveal his own vision.
But after three meals there, I'm still waiting to see what that vision is.
Will Martorella rely on his well-worn repertoire of Euro-Asian hits? Or will his menu follow the spark I saw in some recent specials?
I hope it's the latter. His pan-seared turbot was easily up to snuff. Two beautiful fillets were posed over shrimp-studded polenta with spicy saffron sauce and fava beans, a tableau of great ingredients set in sharp Mediterranean relief.
An appetizer special of plump lobster dumplings with creamy Thai curry sauce and baby shiitake caps offered a contrast of sweet crustacean, gentle spice and earthy mushroom. Another special, miso-glazed scallops topped with barbecued eel on a nest of shaved cucumber noodles, highlighted the subtle but vivid differences of sweetness and texture between those two seafoods.
Yet much of the menu lacks spunk and is more memorable for its minimalist (read: skimpy) portions than for any particular flavors. The aesthetic here is clearly intended to be modern and clean, and there's nothing wrong with smart simplicity. But if Bliss plays its food too safe, it will see its early buzz dissolve into a ho-hum.
With entree prices in the high $20s and a hype befitting one of the year's most anticipated openings, diners expect something special.
Martorella and partner Roseanne Martin (companion of Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider) have poured $1 million into rehabbing the balconied nook, transforming it into a contemporary glass box wrapped in sleek blond wood with pale-blue velvet chairs, indigo floor tiles, and gold chiffon curtains billowing beside the stainless-steel open kitchen.
The effect is cold and sterile rather than serene. But I prefer the main dining room to the claustrophobic Siberia of the restaurant's mezzanine, which feels like an upholstered crawl space.
The servers are friendly but surprisingly unpolished, stumbling over menu details, weak on wine list advice ("That one's a big seller!"), and frequently slow or absent.
But it's Martorella's usually reliable kitchen that seems most off-kilter. My balsamic-glazed baby back ribs were chewy and inexplicably bland. A braised lamb shank arrived lukewarm with an oddly sticky parsnip puree that was clashingly sweet. The lobster-miso soup was oversalted.
I loved the duck leg confit with sweet-potato puree, but the seared duck breast on the side had a livery off-taste. Even a surefire standard like the homemade gnocchi flopped. They were shined with orange-tomato butter, but were rubbery and as unsatisfyingly small as pebbles.
Some of Bliss' best dishes are ones that Martorella has practiced for years. The thick slice of goat cheese terrine wrapped in sheets of potato has been a standby since his days at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the early '90s.
The rock shrimp tempura with spicy mayonnaise is almost a carbon copy of a dish at Morimoto. And I have no qualms about revisiting a good idea like five-spice-dusted lobster, which I last tasted at Brasserie Perrier. But served as an entree at Bliss, it needed more than two thin tablespoons of risotto to carry its weight.
Sometimes Martorella's spare presentations effectively highlight the plain virtues of good ingredients. The gingery seared red snapper over snow peas, for example, is a starchless Atkins diet dream. A neat stack of large, crisp prawns with candied walnuts has a sweet-and-sour chile sauce with a lively personality that eludes many of the restaurant's other dishes.
But when you're eating around the corner from four big chain steak houses and are presented with an inch-wide sliver of sirloin naked and juiceless on a big white plate beside a carafe of tepid sauce and a tuft of spinach - for $32 - you can't help but think that something's missing. (A dish of potato puree on the side, however, was delicious.)
If there's one thing Bliss needs, it's a dose of warmth and comfort. How about replacing those massive photos of calm water with good art?
The dessert list does its part, with rich creme brulee, moist almond cake studded with raspberries, a deconstructed pina colada disguised as a coconut panna cotta, and a dark exclamation point of Manjari chocolate mousse.
But Martorella needs to polish his opening act before Bliss can fulfill its potential as a big-time local star with the style and staying power to survive on the Avenue of the Arts.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.