Friday, December 19, 2014

Restaurant: Rembrandt's

Vegetarian crepes, served outside at Rembrandt´s. The chef´s love of big flavors is a plus, giving dishes memorable identity and clarity.                                      (Peter Tobia/Inquirer)
Vegetarian crepes, served outside at Rembrandt's. The chef's love of big flavors is a plus, giving dishes memorable identity and clarity. (Peter Tobia/Inquirer)
About the restaurant
741 N. 23d St.
Philadelphia, PA 19130
(215) 763-2228
Rating:
Neighborhood: Art Museum - Fairmount Parking: Street parking only.
Hours: Mon-Sat (lunch) 7 days (dinner) Sun (brunch)
Payment methods:
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Cuisine type: American; Italian
Meals Served: Brunch Lunch Dinner
Style: Open nearly two decades, this Fairmount tavern/restaurant continues to mature with an expansion that has added a large kitchen, a banquet room, and a smoke-free bar/cafe. A new wood-burning oven brings fabulous thin-crust pizzas to an Italian-inflected menu that is surprisingly ambitious at less than $20 an entree, but could be more consistent.
Specialties: Wood-fired pizzas; spicy clam chowder; crabcake; cornmeal-crusted calamari; burger; spinach crepes; Parmesan-crusted pork chop; cedar-planked salmon; rack of lamb; bouillabaisse; porcini-dusted striped bass; ricotta cheesecake.
Alcohol: WINE LIST There is a small but smart selection of good wines, most under $50, including Ojai chardonnay ($48) and Seghesio zinfandel ($42). But the beer selection is weak, with good local brews conspicuously absent.
Smoking: Smoking allowed at the bar

You may catch a glimpse of your future at Rembrandt's.

And though it means eating dinner ridiculously early on a Monday or Tuesday, when customers begin signing up (as soon as 4 p.m., but no later than 6! And in person only!) for a session with tarot card reader John McDonough, the regulars don't seem to mind.

McDonough is something of a legend, judging from the tales acquaintances tell me of his predictions that have come true: reconnections with long-lost children; thyroid problems that needed to be checked out; the sudden acquisition of a summer house down the Shore.

Had someone read the future of Rembrandt's when it opened in 1985, its current ambitions might have seemed equally improbable. After all, the 12 partners who put in $10,000 apiece had little restaurant experience. Most were pharmaceutical executives at nearby SmithKline Beckman who simply wanted a watering hole of their own. The corner space had been a taproom since 1915, and it was hardly clear that the place would grow to anything more.

Nearly 20 years later, with the acquisition of three adjacent buildings and a five-year expansion nearly completed, Rembrandt's seems poised to become an all-purpose neighborhood megalith. A large new kitchen is making fabulous wood-fired pizzas, a new upstairs banquet room offers a stunning view of Center City, and there's even a smoke-free bar/cafe next door.

Rembrandt's has always played its primary role of friendly neighborhood tavern well, with Quizzomania contests on Tuesdays, live jazz on Thursdays, and char-grilled burgers in the bar that are among the city's best. In fact, managing partner Jan Zarkin says most of his locals would never eat in the white-tablecloth confines of the dining room, which caters more to crowds visiting the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art.

That's understandable. The dining room is pleasant enough, with ornate lights made in Holland hanging from the exposed wood rafters and faux windows fitted with elegant Belgian stained glass. But Zarkin and chef Peter McAndrews, whom Zarkin affectionately describes as "a kitchen tyrant," have imposed some seemingly arbitrary rules to distinguish it from the bar.

These mandate the kind of pizza you may order (only the clam pie and with no substitutions, please) and when you can order a burger (at lunch only). Such rigidity isn't reflected in the service, which is friendly, well-informed and outgoing. But it does betray a restaurant trying hard to puff up its more upscale efforts, which, in the minds of many, have always come in a notch below its neighbor and rival, London Grill.

Judging from three recent enjoyable meals at Rembrandt's, however, McAndrews has no reason to feel insecure. And the lag behind London (judging from a recent meal there) isn't as great as I'd thought.

The food could be more consistent, no doubt. But I was constantly surprised by the creativity and quality delivered for less than $20 an entree.

McAndrews, who studied at the Italian Culinary Institute in Turin, brings a decidedly Italian bent to Rembrandt's wide-ranging menu. Delicate crepes stuffed with mascarpone and spinach come folded over an indulgent froth of truffled cream seasoned with salty pecorino cheese. A porcini-dusted cod fillet played against the sweet tang of its accompanying risotto darkened with balsamic vinegar.

The kitchen's authentic pizzas are already, after five months, among the best in town. The thin-crust, free-form ovals bake so quickly in the 650-degree oven that they must be lightly dressed. My favorite was a lunch special called the fresca, which brought fresh, peppery tangles of arugula and tomato salad over a cracker-thin crust topped with salty cheese.

McAndrews has a penchant for salty flavors. He tends to overdo it with the white clam pie, a takeoff on the famous Frank Pepe's pizza in New Haven, Conn. A lighter touch with the pecorino and pancetta would serve the already briny clams better.

Overseasoning also dimmed the tuna steak, which was encrusted with so much pepper and fennel that biting into it was like eating a slice of fishy rye toast.

For the most part, though, McAndrews' love of big flavors was a plus, giving dishes an identity and a clarity that made even some mundane items memorable.

The creamy clam chowder, for example, was pixie-dusted with homemade Old Bay-style seasoning that tickled the nose with spice. Cornmeal added a shade of earthiness to the tender fried calamari.

Richly sauced escargots tumbled over a zesty pedestal of provolone-cheesy bruschetta. And a straightforward but satisfying crabcake found the perfect contrast for its gentle sweetness in a citrusy butter sauce and a lively apple-fennel slaw.

A good seafood broth infused with fennel was the backbone of a fine bouillabaisse brimming with nicely cooked scallops, shrimp, striped bass, clams and mussels. Five little chops of perfectly cooked rack of lamb, not a bad value for $19.95, were also delightful beneath a dark reduction of sweet figs.

This kitchen isn't afraid to experiment. Sometimes it worked, as in the cedar-planked salmon that exuded just the right hint of cinnamon. Sometimes it didn't: The cedar-planked soy-brined filet mignon with grilled pineapple was, for all the fuss, chewy and bland.

In a few cases, success was just one small stroke away. A Parmesan-crusted pork chop was tender but slightly overcooked, and the polenta that came with it was lumpy. McAndrews' gnocchi were so light and airy that they were overwhelmed by a hearty ragout made with duck that was less than tender.

Pastry chef Melissa King's desserts had their own ups and downs. Skip the overly dense chocolate tart and the chocolate raspberry roulade. But jump at the clever maple rice pudding, the apple tarte Tatin with cinnamon ice cream, or the delightfully light ricotta cheesecake.

Of course, John the tarot card reader probably could have told me all this before I went to the trouble of eating all that food. But sometimes it's more fun to just be pleasantly surprised.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.

 

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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