'I'm sorry," the server informed me, "but we're out of Gummi Worms tonight."
It was not looking good for Red Sky.
It would seem bad enough that a father-son team of restaurateurs actually thought this neighborhood needed another martini bar/restaurant. (It doesn't.) And in the $1 million process of converting a former pet shop into their dream of downtown hip-dom, Scott Stein and dad David managed to distill into one stark white box of a modern room virtually every Old City cliche, from the long list of insipid cocktails (chocolate peanut butter martini, anyone?) to a second-floor mezzanine that doubles as a late-night DJ's lair.
Running out of "authentic Gummi Worms" for the carafe of the tequila-laced El Mexico struck me as a major transgression. Especially for a nightspot that wants to be taken seriously near the Second Street Lounge Zone.
Meanwhile, peering out from the bright kitchen - behind the door that keeps flopping open to squelch the amber- and red-lit ambiance of the dining area - chef Michael Salvitti has been doing his best to make sure that this newcomer isn't overlooked.
Salvitti has imported some of the Mediterranean ideas he cooked for more than three years at Audrey Claire near Rittenhouse Square, but added some French and Asian accents. There are enough skewers, spring rolls and ancho rubs to qualify the menu as trendy, but there's plenty of skill and good ingredients to carry it off, and at reasonable prices - save for the overcooked $12 burger.
Audrey Claire fans will recognize the smoked Caesar salad. Salvitti here embellishes the quickly grilled leaves with crisp pancetta chips and wonderful croutons made of polenta. His tartare of pristine tuna gets a clever jolt from spicy Korean kimchee. An excellent bowl of tender steamed mussels is shell-deep in a buttery pool of wine broth scented with cuminy chorizo.
The trio of seafood spring rolls was well made, but the individual fillings of crawfish, octopus and crab were indistinguishable from one another. The lobster empanadas were another dim-flavored letdown.
The foie gras appetizer, though, was superb, especially for $10 - a beautifully crisped lobe of liver, still melty inside, posed over a delicate crepe stuffed with mushrooms, then streaked with a sweet-tart port glaze. The deftly fried calamari came with an intriguingly tart mint-yogurt dip to counter the sweetness of their almond-flour crust. Salvitti's thin-crusted pizza accomplished the perfect balance of ingredients: fresh mozzarella laced with peppery arugula, salty nuggets of pancetta, and the sweet pop of roasted corn kernels.
At $24, the rib-eye was this menu's most expensive entree. But it was exceptional, with a melted sheet of smoked mozzarella sandwiching sauteed mushrooms against the earthy, ancho chile-rubbed Black Angus meat. Garlicky Boursin cheese enlivened the side of mashed potatoes.
I was less impressed by the crab cake "osso bucco," which set a trompe l'oeil scallop "bone" in the middle of an otherwise uneventful patty of mashed crab. The sesame-crusted red snapper was overcooked, set over an Israeli couscous that was oddly soured by a tart chiffonade of sorrel.
Salvitti seemed to have a better hand with heartier entrees. The grilled filet of ostrich was great - a lean, mignon-type cut fanned over a puree of sweet potatoes and asparagus. The pan-seared duck breast was good, but possibly even upstaged by its garnish, a hash of root vegetables and a funky, sour Asian barbecue sauce ripe with tamarind and pomegranate molasses.
The seared tuna was just right, an excellent cut of steaky fish served over a nest of twirled long beans beside a dark bean sauce that bounces with the deep tang of Chinese black vinegar. Perfectly tender pork loin wore the measured sweetness of caramelized peaches, paired with gamey links of boar sausage and the creaminess of fries made from mascarpone-whipped polenta.
With its wall of front windows opening onto a 25-foot-tall white room colored only by a few ambient lights, curtains, and the lime green hue of the floor tiles, Red Sky has an austere look (designed by Adam Zangrilli) that is a hard one to warm.
But Salvitti's desserts will do the trick. His answer to the restaurant's monochrome is to ply the diners unwaveringly with chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate.
His elaborately tiered chocolate almond crunch was too complicated for its own good - no crunch was apparent, and the layers of ganache were too hard. The more straightforward confections, though, incited hard-core cocoa love: rich chocolate truffle torte, red velvet dome filled with chocolate lady fingers and indulgent mousse, delicate chocolate creme brulee, and a dense but silky chocolate pot de creme infused with espresso beneath a sheen of vanilla creme anglaise.
In a neighborhood that has begun emphasizing lounge scenes and tired tapas over any pursuit of fine dining, it is intriguing to find an affordable newcomer that takes its kitchen seriously. If they keep it up, who knows? Maybe the Gummi Worms will show up, too.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.