Raw Sushi & Saki Bar
This city is clearly hitting its hipster groove when a red velvet rope for the latest million-dollar lounge goes up on humble little Sansom Street.
There was a time when we needed the glitz of Restaurant Row, or an obvious Old City address to strut our stuff. But Sansom Street is real Philadelphia - a historic streetscape of quirky shops, jazz clubs, oyster bars (and parking garages) that is one of the closest things Center City has to an out-of-the-way alley street.
And when our back alleys become cooler than our boulevards, that is when you know we've made it to the next level.
The five-month-old Raw Sushi & Sake Lounge, slipped onto Sansom behind Capogiro, isn't quite good enough yet to be the clarion of that new era. But there's so much to like about this high-style venture from Tony Rim and Binh Diep, it is a worthy work in progress. It's nice to see the storefront of the old Stetson factory - vacant for more than half a century - finally brimming with new life. If Raw can resolve some kitchen glitches, it will be a perfect addition to the entertainment crossroads at 13th and Sansom that is finally sustaining buzz.
We've had a boomlet in sushi venues recently, but Raw angles for an untapped niche - a sleek lounge with a contemporary Japanese twist for a number of trends, from the small-plate wine-bar craze (this one built to sake) to the New American push for local ingredients that has Lancaster produce flowing through the kitchen door.
Raw's role as a posh sake lounge is currently its strongest suit. There are more than 40 good sakes to choose from, most available by the glass. And while many diners don't know the difference between hot swill and cold junmai daiginjo, we had a stellar server in charming Leslie Brown, who ably guided us to memorable carafes of Hana No Mai, Katana, and Okunomatsu.
The 33-year-old Rim has an impressive knack for design. A former cell-phone store mogul who is a relatively new restaurateur, Rim outfitted his long, slender room with a sleek, exotic look. Lanterns dangle over the long granite bar that stems from the front sushi counter along the wall. An arching bamboo ceiling leads to a raised dining space in back, where a banquette rises up behind diners like a cresting velvet wave the color of pickled ginger.
Even the downstairs bathrooms are stunning, with a clever slate-table unisex sink and, in the men's room, a mural of a sword-wielding samurai woman that is sure to make the guys gulp.
The space effectively conjures a Stephen Starr mood, but is considerably more intimate - like Morimoto's bar without the restaurant.
Sushi mavens probably won't mistake Raw's food for Morimoto's elegant quality, even if it isn't without effort.
Raw's kitchen is divided between sushi from master Sam Yoon and the cooked fare from executive chef Gregory Ling. Yoon's work has been reasonably solid, rooted in good firm rice with a sweetish tinge, admirably fresh fish (buttery o-toro and creamy uni from Japan), and wildly colorful and complicated sushi rolls.
I have mixed feelings about the rolls. Some of them are tasty, like the Bellacucina that pairs eel and avocado with creamy lobster, and the spicy yellowtail that is broiled beneath a bamboo leaf in the Raw Bamboo, and the White Tiger roll with white tuna, torched smelt roe and scallions.
But Yoon splashes his gigantic white plates with so many swirling sauces - spicy red, tangy brown, sweet white - that the flavors become indistinct. It's like eating sushi candy. The architecture of overwrought rolls like the Sanderina place style over function. The butterflied shrimp add a flourish to the spicy tuna rolls, but also make them unwieldy to eat.
Still, the sushi bar has been far more successful than the hot kitchen, which recently moved from a traditional format to smaller sharing plates. Ling brings an appealing New American approach, bolstering the Japanese fusion with good local produce, exotic ingredients and a smart seasonal bent.
His kobe beef carpaccio, for example, is outstanding, the strips of marbled raw meat sparked with fresh-grated wasabi and a zippy, chile-flared aioli sauce. A traditional cutlet of fried pork katsu gets a worthy upgrade with trendy kurabota pig. Delicate Lancaster micro-greens, heirloom beets, and deep-fried onion blossoms are liberally used. A sweet corn risotto adds a taste of summer to succulent day-boat scallops. And minted watermelon salad adds a fresh twist to a decent curried crabcake.
But poor execution undermined the kitchen's good instincts. The tempura menu is beautifully presented, with shiitakes, soft-shell crabs, and shiso mint leaves cradling sea urchins sealed inside webs of leaping crust. But uniformly, the pale tempura lacked a decisively sharp crunch. A shrimp tempura encrusted with slivered almonds was so underfried there was still wet batter beneath the crannies of nuts.
Dungeness crab salad was generous, but so underdressed it was boring. Grilled octopus had a fabulous papaya salad, but was chewy. The citrus butter-poached lobster was ragged. The Vietnamese-flavored pork chop over broken rice was a fine cut of meat - but needed a tenderizing brine.
Another dish of clams topped with shreds of pork was so odd - the sloppy fistfuls of blandly stewed meat were riddled with inedible bits of cartilage - that Ling later conceded on the phone the dish was a mistake never meant to leave the kitchen. Even if it was on the printed menu.
I suppose when you're cooking in a formerly vacant building on modest Sansom Street it's easy to forget that folks are paying attention - even if this out-of-the-way stretch is on the way up. But Raw is far too intriguing to ignore, and much too promising not to fix.