The Mid-town: Best-of memories

Calamari salad: An Asian-scented berm of produce with crisp squid. (Photos: Michael S. Wirtz/Inquirer)

Every Top 40 star who was dipped in the spun sugar of '70s nostalgia eventually put one out. So it was probably inevitable that Philly restaurant idol Stephen Starr would bow to his own success and make one, too: that dubious collection of Greatest Hits.

But the new Continental Mid-town is no mere anthology. It is the edible equivalent of a K-tel classic, a collection of chart-busting flavors borrowed from the oeuvre of Starr's restaurant empire and wrapped for mass consumption in a package of retro-splashed cheeseball fun - all for $19.99 or less! (OK, the menu tops out at an even $20.)

There's the conversation pit a la Jones, with curved booths sunk into the floor of the main dining room. The decor is dappled with hot pinks and teals reminiscent of El Vez. And the menu nods to virtually every Starr restaurant, from Buddakan (miso-glazed bass) and El Vez (fish tacos) to Alma de Cuba (black beans and rice).

Most of the food, of course, is a direct homage to Starr's original Continental in Old City, as are all the corny cocktails and that giant green martini olive hanging over the front door.

But this new edition has none of the organically evolved hipness that marked the Continental as Starr's first surprise restaurant success in 1995. The corner space at 18th and Chestnut was clearly engineered for maximum corporate profit: a massive three-story complex with 275 seats, crowned by a spectacular roof-deck bar, already on target to gross $13 million a year.

There's still an understated intimacy to the Old City original, but eating at the new Continental is more like dining in a mosh pit of sensory overload, from the champagne-bubble chandelier dripping over the main dining room to the swirl of striped-polo-shirted servers and the Applebee's-style beepers that blink like Christmas lights when you're lucky enough to actually get a table.

I'd decline a table upstairs, where the smoke is as thick as smog, the padded benches feel like patio furniture, and the hanging-basket seats are suitable only for small-shouldered women who have mastered the art of eating without using their elbows. And there are plenty of them here, burrowing their way through mountains of chopped salad between sips of martinis flavored with Tang and raspberry vodka.

The sea-foam car-seat booths downstairs are considerably more comfy. But you'll have to deal with the jackhammer noise level no matter where you sit. I lost my voice for a week after my first dinner.

With so many distractions, the whole experience - like those dreaded music anthologies - often feels like less than the sum of its parts. But on a slightly quieter, weekday evening, many of Mid-town's real qualities can better shine through. At its core, it's an affordable, flavor-filled place to eat and a powerful magnet for the emerging restaurant zone just north of Rittenhouse Square.

The servers are young, but the girls (dressed like preppy vixens) and the boys (tousle-haired Harry Potter-ites) were on the ball, thoroughly versed in everything from the tuna tartare's Asian love sauce (that's ponzu-infused mayonnaise to you) to the standard Starr spiel about the family-style service.

The food, meanwhile, is really quite good. Executive chef Michael Hazen, an alum of New York's La Caravelle who owned two restaurants in Chicago (Rushmore and Phil & Lou's), nicely builds on the original Continental's stock fare.

There are those enormous salads, their multitudinous ingredients perfectly tossed. My favorite is the calamari salad, an Asian-scented berm of produce laced with crisp, fried rings of squid.

The calamari reappear, minus the healthy greens, alongside yummy fried shrimp that tumble from a cone of folded newspaper. It's one of the better appetizers, though the jumbled menu makes no distinction between starters and entrees, since most portions are fairly small. All the better to mix and match.

The kitchen produces a wide variety of good dumplings: tricorners stuffed with tangy chive and pureed tofu; fried wontons plumped with crab-scented Brie; a traditional shrimp spring roll with spicy mustard sauce. But there's no better vehicle for that zippy mustard than a haystack of Sichuan shoestring fries, which are a carb-loader's dream.

The health-conscious, though, get their due. Hazen works the tofu genre with aplomb, from his garlicky nondairy "ranch" dip to the grilled rails of soy-marinated tofu that come with cuminy Thai peanut sauce. There are even skinless chicken dumplings for the Atkins set, surprisingly moist meatballs steamed over sliced gingerroot.

Mid-town has cooked some duds. Two Continental standards - the pad thai and the wide-noodle rad na Thai chicken - were awful, both undercooked and sticky from a lack of sauce. The open-faced grilled-grouper tacos tasted fishy, a far cry from the deep-fried winners at El Vez. And the much-touted lobster mac 'n' cheese (a less successful copy of Napa Valley's French Laundry original, made with orzo and mascarpone) was nearly devoid of lobster, which for $13 is not fair.

Value here, though, is usually well served. The lamb chops, a trio served with Middle Eastern sides, were ample, lean and tender - a deal at $18. Likewise the excellent tenderloin with teriyaki ($20) and the grilled shoulder of chimichurri-marinated beef ($18). The seared tuna steak with soy-tinged mushroom risotto was also fine. But, honestly, I've had my fill of seared tuna and those omnipresent crabcakes, decent as they may have been.

I have never eaten anything quite like pastry chef Kate Honeyman's "fruit loops," a bowl of coconut-lemongrass soup with cherry-flavored tapioca pearls. When you close your eyes, by golly, it actually tastes like the cereal!

Her desserts were the highlight of my Mid-town experience - inventive and fun and miniaturized down to a few sly bites. The Mid-town Monkey is a deep-fried wonton filled with banana. The Caramello is a hot chocolate cupcake with a heart of dulce de leche. The chocolate peanut-butter cup is pure indulgence, its rich ganache and peanut butter sparked by a surprising crunch.

But how can anyone resist the cotton candy du jour? One night recently, it was a purple billow of grape-flavored spun-sugar fluff. Corny but delicious - that's a K-tel dessert if there ever was one.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or Read his recent work at