The past 18 months have been brutal for the restaurant business. I’m weary of burgers, barbecue and pizza dumbing down our scene. We’ve seen upscale versions of every down-market food trend take the form of slick restaurant-slash-bars. I’ve wondered if the gloomy economy would slay the very possibility of fine dining venues for a decade to come.
While other restaurateurs have been consciously keeping it small for right now, Daniel Stern, onetime wunderkind of Le Bec-Fin, has been dreaming big, his head in the clouds — literally. After shuttering his petite Gayle and sprawling Rae, he’s forged ahead with two major restaurants: MidAtlantic in West Philly, and R2L, perched on the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place.
Neither venue is a shrinking violet, especially not R2L, whose pastiche of Art Deco, mod and ’80s design elements is splashy enough to be noticed even within the sparkling, panoramic views of the city that frame it. Unfortunately, the food itself fades into the background.
Stern says his inspiration was twofold: to pay homage to classic American cooking, and to create a kind of public cocktail party. (“Isn’t the cocktail hour the best part of any party?” he asked me.) These goals play out loud and clear on the menu: There’s a version of pigs in a blanket (beef and lobster franks swaddled in puff pastry) and a straightforward shrimp cocktail, while the classics include no-brainers like surf-and-turf and roast chicken.
But other dishes have simply been resurrected from Stern’s past menus. There’s the lobster roll, a lavender-scented, mayo-rich crustacean salad on a split-top bun that I enjoyed just as much when I ate it at Gayle in 2005, when lavender anything was forward-thinking food. There’s the veal dish, another Gayle menu hit, that combines trotters, sweetbreads, a terrine-like meatloaf and loin in a way that was at one time as original as it is delicious.
Plate composition was a recurring stumbling block: A beet salad, cleverly accented with croutons made from savory pound cake, seemed to be missing a crucial flavor until goat cheese was unearthed beneath a nest of greens. Cocktail reubens — house-made corned beef nestled inside rye dough — were a shadow of themselves before I discovered the spicy mustard, also concealed under lettuce.
Hide-and-seek presentation aside, most of the food I sampled at R2L was skillfully executed. That surf-and-turf paired perfectly cooked lobster tail with meltingly tender short ribs over sauces that captured the pure essences of those components. But both the chicken daube and the hamachi — which was served with an off-putting fishy egg custard — were disappointingly overcooked, a frustration when you know the kind of talent that’s present in the kitchen.
Service was just as erratic. On one visit, an approachable wine whiz steered me to a $9 glass of Furmint, an unusual dry Hungarian white. Where was he on another trip, when my glass sat empty during long intervals? From my first visit, when I arrived on time for my reservation yet was shunted to the bar for 10 minutes, to my last meal there, when general inattention left me with copious time to take in the view, it was apparent that the friendly servers have yet to find their groove.
With entrées in the mid-$20s, R2L’s menu is reasonably priced, considering the quality. Stern says the prices aren’t set to be recession-friendly, but rather to give diners a good value regardless of the economic climate. That’s a successful strategy; though one of my visits was on the deadest night of the week — Monday — the bar and dining room were well populated by silver-haired empty nesters and briefcase-wielding professionals hungry for a little more pizzazz than the beer bars deliver. Everyone seems happy to believe the recession is over while taking in the glittering sunset in this sophisticated space.