Striped Bass, the hushed cathedral of fine dining in a coldly elegant space, was never Stephen Starr’s kind of restaurant, though he reluctantly took over the place (and its astronomical rent) from Neil Stein in 2003, at Governor Ed Rendell’s request. “Even then, I saw it as a steakhouse,” says Starr, who recently brought that vision to life with Butcher and Singer, the newest component of his restaurant collection.
[sidebar]In the space’s reincarnation, banished are the haute-cuisine conceits, the smallish portions, the food puns (like Christopher Lee’s weirdly wonderful Philly cheese-skate). The Bass menu appealed to food writers and die-hard gourmets but, according to Starr, no one else. With Butcher and Singer, he packs the house with his trademark theatrical design and the kinds of dishes diners crave (steak, potatoes, fried shrimp). It’s another iteration of what he’s doing just four blocks away at his first steakhouse, Barclay Prime, but Starr believes there’s more than enough demand to sustain both restaurants. With the number of new steakhouses on the scene, it does seem Philly can’t get enough beef. “People want simple, recognizable, quality,” says the restaurateur.
And indeed, simple, recognizable dishes populate Butcher and Singer’s menu. Few meals are more familiar than a strip steak and a baked potato with sour cream and bacon, and Butcher and Singer’s kitchen, helmed by Shane Cash, does that kind of thing well. The crabcake appetizer is a straightforward version of the restaurant staple, a perfect blend of crabmeat, mayo and breadcrumbs. The Colorado lamb chop is double-cut and served simply, with no sauces or accompaniments to complicate things. For some of today’s more food-obsessed diners, it’s familiar bordering on boring, but these simple dishes are delicious all the same.
The quality part of Starr’s foolproof formula, however, is inconsistent at Butcher and Singer. The classic side of creamed spinach is more watery than rich, because the kitchen starts with frozen spinach that’s not thoroughly drained and dried — a cost-saving measure gone awry. My dry-aged porterhouse, a 16-ounce slab of beef with a hefty $46 price tag, was full of inedible unrendered fat, and far bloodier than the medium rare I’d asked for. A crock of French onion soup was almost pasty from an overload of bread and cheese. The bland Caesar salad lacked the bold currents of garlic and anchovy that make the dish but might scare off the flavor-shy.
Originally, Starr’s intention was to serve this salad prepared the classic way, tableside. But that plan was ditched when it proved a hassle in the crowded dining room. And that’s too bad, because the vintage vibe is what Butcher and Singer gets most right. The sexy design, complete with twinkling chandeliers and plush leather booths right out of a 1940s supper club, could bring out the Veronica Lake in anybody. Like Parc, his new bistro on Rittenhouse Square, this is grown-up Starr, free from servers in tennis shoes, photo booths or swinging chairs. It’s moody, scene-y, and unapologetically dramatic — you may actually feel underdressed. The houndstooth carpeting, the tasseled lamps, and even the kitschy dogs-at-the-bar mural help make Butcher and Singer’s dining room a splashy escape from the downers of 2009. Better execution of the many retro menu items would dovetail with the illusion, but the kitchen’s frequent missteps shatter the fantasy. We do, after all, go to restaurants to eat.