Pub finally hits its mark with affordable, ambitious fare
When the big hounds start howling for their supper from the bar, that will be the first clue you are dining at the fringe of the urban frontier.
I tried to explain this phenomenon to my boy, Arthur, whom I suddenly found hiding beneath our table at N. 3rd in Northern Liberties. But he's only 31/2. He can't be expected to understand why many of the hippest spots north of Spring Garden are as pet-friendly as his local playground.
To the credit of the kind staff at N. 3rd, the noisy doggies were promptly asked to leave. But when owner Mark Bee told me over the phone that he recently decided to bar pooches from his place forever, it was as if he'd imposed an edict on a par with a citywide smoking ban.
"We want paying customers only!" quips Bee, a third-generation plumber turned restaurateur. "We're going legit."
One small step (out the door) for canine-kind is a giant step forward for this gastro-pub. But consider it just the latest sign of progress for a neighborhood bar that has steadily come into its own over the last four years.
Ever since Bee opened N. 3rd in a vacant space in November 2001, it seemed like an ideal destination for the post-9/11 diner seeking affordable yet ambitious food in the casual comfort of a neighborhood bar. The rooms have the unmistakable funkiness of a Northern Liberties taproom, from the handcrafted ironwork windows to the myriad masks, giant bird kites, Christmas lights, and illuminated blowfish hanging from the ceiling.
As for the food, well - it took Bee four chefs in three years to find the one who hit the mark. But now he has a good one, if Peter Dunmire sticks around. The restless Dunmire has, in the last seven years, opened Rouge, Blue Angel, and Magazine (not counting a long stint mixing cocktails at Bar Noir), but says his wanderlust has cooled.
Thankfully, his talent in the kitchen is as warm as ever, as he refines a gastro-pub aesthetic that he describes as "white trash meets white tablecloth," with a menu that takes its chicken wings as seriously as its seared tuna.
The task is a stretch for most kitchens, but N. 3rd has it down, with a solid repertoire of house favorites - updated comfort foods like spicy ribs, juicy burgers and big salads - supplemented daily by an entire page of considerably more ambitious specials.
Even most of the house standards, though, have taken a noticeable step up since Dunmire arrived a year ago. Fried calamari have a delicate cornmeal crunch, but also the telltale tenderness of fresh (not frozen) squid. Steamed littlenecks soak in a punchy broth perfumed with chile and cilantro. The burgers are deliciously meaty. The fish-and-chips, served with malt vinegar atop a folded newspaper, presents two beautifully battered fillets of flaky white cod.
All of it goes down delightfully with help from N. 3rd's bar, whether you indulge in the incredibly cheap but good wine list (all bottles are an unheard-of $19.95) or, as I did, one of the better beer selections in town, with such local drafts as Stoudt's and Yards, and Belgian classics like La Rulles and Triple Karmeliet.
N. 3rd's waitstaff, many of whom trained in fine-dining spots such as Brasserie Perrier and Tony Clark's, are also surprisingly polished for a neighborhood restaurant, let alone a bar. Then again, that is the beauty of this gastro-pub scene, as casual spaces such as N. 3rd expand our expectations of sophistication and value.
Even the restaurant's daily specials never rise above $19, though, judging from the day-boat scallops or the luxuriously thick slice of wild striped bass, many could easily sell for much more in Center City.
Dunmire saves on costs by shopping himself for many of his ingredients, but ultimately it is the cooking that makes the experience worthwhile. That slice of seared wild striped bass, for example, comes over meltingly soft morsels of Asian eggplant ringed by a Thai curry that is creamy but not too thick. Crispy-skinned salmon is paired with a rich risotto studded with tender shrimp.
N. 3rd also served me the first tuna burger I actually liked - the meat diced to just the right texture, blended with the hot spark of ginger and wasabi mayo, then served on a perfectly soft brioche bun from Kaplan's New Model Bakery just up the street. I also loved the restaurant's variations on pork and kraut, with lightly braised napa cabbage and sublimely tender cutlets luxuriating one night in a mustard-tinged jus, another with caramelized apples glazed in Yukon Jack.
There were a few less-inspired dishes. A plump slice of potato-crusted halibut was rubbery, not to mention drenched with too much truffle oil. The ribs were adequate, with a copious lathering of spicy sauce, but the boiled meat made me long for something more genuinely smoked. A croque monsieur sandwich, the classic French bistro ham-and-cheese, was almost inedible beneath a lava flow of overly thick Mornay.
And while the small kitchen's physical constraints might be an easy excuse for N. 3rd's limited selection of desserts - there are usually two - the simple bread pudding and pumpkin pie we tasted lacked the thoughtful spark found in the rest of the meal.
Dunmire does manage to capture that special flair, however, in nightly soup specials that are perhaps the restaurant's most distinctive course.
Served in gigantic white bowls, they are $5 meals unto themselves. More important, they've also been inspired, showing the true range and sophistication of this kitchen. A soulful Hungarian goulash was ribboned with cabbage and morsels of hanger steak. Lentil soup was flavored with bacon and the musky cumin spice of chorizo. Curried carrot soup framed the carrot's natural sweetness between the richness of coconut cream and swelling Thai spice. An intensely steeped portobello soup touched with truffle oil and chives found an elegant contrast to its earthiness in a goat cheese-smeared crouton.
Best of all, though, was Dunmire's cream of chicken. Filled with tender shreds of simmered meat, the herb-flecked broth was ever so lightly thickened with roux, then crowned with two cheddar-cheese biscuits that floated like fluffy rafts atop the soup. With bowls of comfort like this, I just might join the chorus at N. 3rd howling for more.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.