Restaurant M

07_27_10-06-2006-10_07_27_477-laban270
Succulent scallops, seared to a salt-speckled crisp, pose around artful swirls of pureed beet and a salad of roasted beets.

'I've had 28 different restaurants as tenants over the years," says real estate developer Michael DiPaolo, "and each one of them has gone out of business."

A record like that could sour even the most eager optimist fresh out of culinary school. And it surely kept a mogul like DiPaolo from ever considering the folly of opening his own place. But then along came M.

Actually, first came the Morris House Hotel, the 1787 colonial manor near Washington Square that he and partner Gene Lefevre refurbished into an elegant boutique inn two years ago. But the lush English gardens out back, and the old townhouse turned office space that bordered its opposite wall, simply begged to be transformed.

The 40-seat rectangular dining room they've created in the former office building is nice enough in a contemporary way, with comfy saddle leather banquettes, well-lit modern art, and an art deco bar up front. But M's true ringer is the garden beyond its beveled French doors - a grassy, flower-traced yard ringed by dogwoods and magnolias. When the torches are ablaze, it appears through an iron gate off Eighth Street to glow like a lost oasis of Philadelphia past. And when you step inside, the brick terrace and candlelit gravel walk exude an outdoor elegance that reminds me of a cross between the old Opus 251 and the Garden, though with better iron furniture.

Without a decent chef, though, this space would be little more than a wedding factory (and yes, they already do plenty). And after an early false start with another chef, M has landed an impressive young talent in David Katz. After a brief stint at Lula, another restaurant owned by Lefevre (who also owns the Black Sheep and Dark Horse), Katz has taken the opportunity to make his debut statement here.

Like the restaurant's name, his approach is minimalist but very effective. Katz, 29, a veteran of such local kitchens as Salt, Avenue B and Pollo Rosso, presents a New American menu with only five appetizers and five entrees. It changes with the seasons. The flavors aren't overly exotic, the compositions aren't contrived. But Katz's food shows the value of focus, distilling a pair of good ideas on each plate into vivid flavors that put the spotlight on good ingredients.

A risotto is the essence of English pea, a creamy green froth that sets the pop of fresh little orbs against the slip of toothsome rice. The mid-September harvest is captured in a tableau of heirloom tomatoes, whose multihued sweetness - tiny toy box yellows, deep purple moons, luscious green zebras - is graced with salty shavings of ricotta salata, tangy streaks of aged balsamic, and an herbaceous scoop of bracing basil sorbet.

Gigantic lumps of sweet crab tangle with sheets of salty serrano ham, juicy rounds of cantaloupe, and freshly torn mint. Succulent scallops, seared to a salt-speckled crisp, pose around artful swirls of pureed beet and a salad of roasted beets tossed with snappy rounds of fresh hearts of palm.

Such appetizers made for a stunning start as the dusk settled in the garden and illuminated crystals draped over the pergola began to glow. As the meal progressed, however, it became clear there were a number of small nuances still holding back this promising newcomer from reaching its full potential.

M has a nice little starter list of international wines, with a good price range of interesting reds - including great pinot noirs from Archery Summit and Robert Sinskey, and more affordable (but delicious) syrahs from Sonoma's Artesa and MJ. But there isn't much to choose from in whites, considering the menu's seafood leanings. And on both visits, M's beautiful crystal stemware reeked of detergent - a flaw that was corrected upon request.

The servers, overseen by manager Joe Conti, were pleasant and formal without being stiff. But there weren't nearly enough of them once a large party showed up, leaving us to wait out long pauses between courses.

It will also be intriguing to see how well the Morris House's historic dining rooms accommodate the main restaurant's overflow once the 57-seat garden closes in winter. I suspect M is going to need to learn to deal with some major crowds if Katz keeps cooking like this.

The entrees were every bit as good as his starters. Two gorgeous pieces of halibut were stacked over a milky ragout of corn and chanterelles edged by a smoky aurora of orange paprika oil. Crispy red snapper fillets played a Mediterranean tune against piquant olive tapenade, a nest of zucchini strings, and a cool salad of cherry tomatoes.

A roasted chicken breast was one of my few disappointments, a bit dry over its vibrant green basil orzo. At our first meal, a strip steak was also off the mark, seriously undercooked and served with polenta so loose it could have been soup. On a second visit, though, that steak was perfection, a top-notch slab of prime meat speckled with fleur de sel. The side of white grits, perfumed with summer truffles, was impossible to stop eating.

If possible, the free-range veal chop was even better, an enormous slice of butter-tender New Zealand meat that came with roasted grapes and earthy maitake mushrooms.

Dessert is even more limited than the rest of the menu, and needs more attention before M can step up to the next tier. Katz actually makes a superbly silky creme brulee, a rich flourless chocolate torte, and some very competent tartlettes of pecan and pear. But too many awkward pairings with sorbet and ice cream - jarringly sour passion fruit on the chocolate, cloying cinnamon over the tartlettes - overshadow Katz's work.

A real pastry chef might be the key to unlocking M's considerable potential. It's already a solid bet to improve Michael DiPaolo's restaurant luck.


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