RATING |

Only the son of a rabbi could dare to envision chopped chicken livers as a showpiece of gourmet dreams. But Steven Cook has done just that at his striking new Marigold Kitchen in West Philadelphia.

Crisply fried into rail-shaped croquettes, the warm livers become sublimely creamy inside their Japanese panko crusts, then mingle with the sweet snap of grapes and roasted hazelnuts and an exotic streak of curried mayonnaise on the side. Quite an homage to Bubby's foie gras.

But with similarly great riffs on the fish also known as sable (here called black cod with sea urchin emulsion) and pumpernickel rye (soaked with chocolate for an outrageous bread pudding), it would be tempting to label Marigold as my first encounter with haute-deli cuisine. Even the golden beet risotto - a New American stunner of sunshine-colored rice topped with diced crimson beets and a mist of foamed walnut milk - stirs echoes of an amazing fusion borscht.

The associations are no doubt subconscious because Cook's palette goes far beyond Jewish soul food, from the vegetarian fantasy of cauliflower lasagna with almond bechamel to one of the best pork chops I've ever tasted. Crusted with mustard seeds, it comes with an exquisite terrine of shaved potatoes layered with crisp Serrano ham. I was thrilled to discover in the Dijon-infused pork jus the sour crunch of tiny cornichon pickle chips. The deconstructed Cuban sandwich had come full circle.

And the message here is clear: Cook is one of those rare young chefs who knows how to surprise and still make sense.

I wasn't always so completely charmed by the food at Salt, the now-closed Rittenhouse jewelbox where Cook and his Marigold colleagues once worked the line, and shock value was often the primary ingredient in each cutting-edge dish. The experience nonetheless left a deep and positive impression on Marigold's aesthetic. It's obvious from the contemporary crispness and offbeat accents of these artful plates - from the carefully poised piquillo peppers striping the rainbow trout to the shimmer of curry that sneaks into the molten core of chocolate croquettes for dessert.

But beyond the sheer polish and flights of culinary wit, Cook, the 31-year-old son of a Reform rabbi (now in Denver), and a former investment banker who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, never forgets to anchor his eccentric ideas with a dose of familiarity. And the results are bewitching, giving Marigold a sophisticated leg up on the rest of the BYO scene without the conceit of inflated prices.

The most expensive entree is $22, and it's worth every penny, a hunk of lamb shoulder slowly braised with coffee to a deep ebony shine. The java's roasty bitterness lends a nice edge to the tender meat as it settles into a sweet puree of chestnuts ringed by brussels sprouts.

I'm not sure the lamb quite answers the meatloaf yen for blue-plate comfort on which longtime denizens of the old Marigold used to rely. But an essential spirit of homeyness has remained since Cook this fall revamped the Victorian townhouse in the heart of gentrifying Spruce Hill.

There are still residents, of course, who occasionally schlep home through the dining rooms to the six-room boardinghouse upstairs - a curious quirk that is the legacy of Marigold's antiquated boardinghouse license. But those two dining rooms have been spruced up nicely. The oak-trimmed bay windows with stained glass still have the feel of a converted home, but a banquette, modern art, and a fireplace wrapped in blue steel lend it a chic modern touch. Seating on the enclosed porch could be lovely in spring.

Manager Jonathan Makar has to be one of the suavest new maitre d's in town, leading a service staff that is low-key but smooth. Ultimately, though, it will be Cook's food that should turn Marigold into one of the city's hottest new tables.

I found just two dishes that were less than stellar. The butternut squash soup was simply boring compared with the rest of the menu. The bag-poached chicken breast had potential, but the sombrero-shaped raviolis on the side were filled with dry leg meat overpowered by the pungence of preserved lemon.

The rest of the menu was impressive. Venison carpaccio was one of the best, a fan of paper-thin rounds whose ruby-rare meat had a seared rosemary-and-juniper crust that sparkled when swabbed in the bittersweet chocolate vinaigrette.

Cook goes to great lengths for vegetarians with dishes such as his cauliflower lasagna, which wafts the earthy perfume of hot truffled cheese, and a luscious salad of blood oranges and shaved fennel surrounding a fried pastilla pastry filled with sweet potatoes and mushrooms scented with smoked paprika.

Cook's greatest talent, though, is fish. A thick slice of lemony butterfish (a.k.a. escolar) comes over celery root puree with a cute shrimp "tamale" steamed in a banana leaf. His roasted black cod is superb, the rich oily fish posed over a square of cabbage beneath a tumble of earthy hedgehog mushrooms and a sea froth of urchin cream.

It was the rainbow trout, however, that was his most memorable, and not only because the silvery fillets are nattily dressed in alternating stripes of scarlet sweet peppers and pink bursts of sour grapefruit. No, the stroke of genius here is a silky white mound of apple-smoked mashed potatoes. They gave the fish a hauntingly familiar smokehouse tang without sacrificing the texture of its most delicate flesh.

Marigold serves one of the better cheese plates in town, judging from the ripe Epoisses I savored alongside ivory shavings of pecorino in chamomile honey and a pungent wedge of Cabrales blue.

But Cook has found a worthy match in pastry chef Julia Kovacs, another Salt alum, and her sweets are not to be missed. There is a divinely creamy butterscotch creme brulee, unmolded on the plate next to a mosaic of chocolate and blood oranges, that has been caramelized to a delicate crunch. Her deep-fried croquettes of curried chocolate were as notable for the cinnamon-scented horchata ice cream as for the surprising burst of hot ganache when you took a bite. The deconstructed mascarpone cheesecake, scented with orange foam and layered with spiced cranberries, was like holiday in a glass.

I was most partial, though, to the unusual bread pudding, which soaked pumpernickel bread and prunes in a flood of dark chocolate that somehow tapped rye bread's unlikely potential as dessert. Really. From a place that is turning chicken livers into gold, you can believe it.

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