The turreted rowhouse at the corner of 19th and Callowhill must have one of the ugliest paint jobs of any restaurant in town, its bay-windowed brick facade darkened to a forboding black and its shutters trimmed the color of antacid pink.
Still, the ominous look hasn't stopped the Rose Tattoo Cafe from becoming one of Philadelphia's most popular date destinations over the last 20 years. That's because the grim exterior gives way to a happy warren of lively, rambling rooms with giant bouquets of fresh flowers and the viny tendrils of nearly 300 exotic plants.
A wrought-iron arcade on the second floor encircles the bar below with a romantic balcony reminiscent of New Orleans. But there is so much chlorophyll and oxygen charging the rooms that you might as well bring a plant mister when you come.
Yet the Rose Tattoo is no ordinary leftover '80s fern bar. It's got fiddle-leaf figs, crotons, bromeliads, fishtail palms and grapevines, among other botanical specimens, all meticulously tended by owner Michael Weinberg, who bought the restaurant with his wife, Helene, in 1989.
Weinberg does his best to keep the foliage fresh, even if the rest of the dated decor could use revamping. Helene still handles the office. It's left to their son, Sean, 28, to keep the kitchen up-to-date. And unlike many places from the same era that are basically running on Restaurant Renaissance fumes, the Rose Tattoo has eclectic fare that is still vibrant, creative and carefully cooked.
There are some tried-and-true classics, such as the cream of mushroom soup, which is steeped with intense forest flavors and filled with great, chunky morsels of shiitakes, porcinis, and the occasional black trumpet. The fried calamari are perfectly done, paired with large grilled shrimp and a tomatoey puttanesca sauce piquant with olives and anchovy.
Then there are some newer ideas. Tender shrimp dumplings, sealed inside four-cornered wontons, bask in smoky miso-ginger broth with a spicy mound of hijiki seaweed and lotus-root salad. Airy wedges of grilled Cuban flat bread come with a dollop of creamy goat cheese and delicious homemade fig jam. Wonderful agnolotti made from house-crafted pasta are filled with sweet butternut squash and crushed amaretto cookies, then served with wild mushrooms and brown butter — an indulgent ode to winter.
As one might expect, Sean Weinberg worked as a teen in his parents' restaurant. But his experiences elsewhere before becoming chef a few years ago — study at the Culinary Institute of America and travel in Italy and Mexico, as well as stints at local spots including Restaurant Taquet in Wayne and Passerelle in Radnor — have polished his wide-ranging repertoire.
An elaborate preparation involving a 24-hour Thai brine, smoked plum sauce, and a peanut butter-chile glaze produced some of the most delicious ribs I've tasted recently. The jambalaya that helps lend the restaurant a New Orleans theme, however tenuous, is one of the more credible renditions around, filled with fistfuls of fresh seafood, andouille sausage, smoky ham, and flavorful brothy rice.
Weinberg's enthusiasm for complex dishes didn't always translate into success. The veal involtini, a cutlet wrapped around a stuffing of mushrooms and cheese, had the texture of odd sausage and was overwhelmed by its intense, dark jus.
The Indian fry bread turnover, which looked like a lumpy biscuit filled with ground meat, had the off tang and half-mashed texture of about five too many ingredients, all clashing with the sweet lemongrass cream dip. A free-form lasagna special might have worked had the shredded osso buco meat inside been more tender.
But far more often than not, the kitchen was right on target. The lobster quesadillas were delicious, each light tortilla wedge crisped around the edges and filled with lobster meat and cheese, with a chipotle-sour cream dip on the side. The sweetness of tender pork medallions served with maple-glazed yams and a reduced cider sauce found a nice contrast in a garnish of gingery black beans.
The tuna steak with mushrooms and wasabi-onion puree was beautiful — the rich, ruby meat enhanced by a sesame-soy marinade. The salmon fillet was another big production, sandwiched between a pancake-like horseradish crust on top, and lentil-potato cake below. There also was a notable garnish of creamed pearl onions on this busy plate, but each flavor was clear and complementary.
Even dishes that needed tweaking had some memorable high points. The very strange addition of chorizo-filled tomato sauce — so thick it could have been sloppy joe mix — could not dull the excellent crabcakes on top, bursting with beautiful lump meat and cilantro-scented homemade mayo. The duck was overcooked, but the dried fruit sauce was excellent, a multicolored medley of sherry-plumped blueberries, currants, and gold and black raisins.
Ironically, while the Rose Tattoo has long been known for its sweets, the dessert tray dated the restaurant far more than the savory menu.
Some items needed a little more attention: the ice-cold pecan pie, the dry panettone bread pudding, and the creme brulee that had been caramelized too much and too far in advance. But many of the gussied-up bake-sale confections — the flourless chocolate cake filled with moist cherries, the banana-caramel cream pie, and the brownies topped with caramelized macadamias (if there ever was a trendy '80s nut, that was it) — communicated a casual, homey comfort.
It's an appeal that has rightfully secured the Rose Tattoo a spot in the hearts of Philadelphia diners, paint job and all.
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com