On another night, as I puzzled over a tasteless, fridge-bitten tomato on the way to a dry pork chop dressed with underwhelming pickled ramps, when the relentless pulse of techno music vied for domination with the chatter of a tableful of dead ringers for The Real Housewives of Philadelphia, I had another.
Bianchini is shooting for a place that’s conducive to everyday eating, and Cunningham’s wholesome plates suit that aim. (So does a varied, inexpensive wine list.) Some of the chef’s most enjoyable items are his most plainspoken: a squash-heavy zucchini gratin, or scalloped potatoes perked up with savory boiled ham from Newtown’s Ely Farm, both cooked in miniature cast-iron casseroles that grant their contents a crisp you can’t get any other way. His roasted chicken has some of the crunchiest skin I’ve ever encountered—the dark meat could almost fool you into thinking it’s fried—and its mustard-carrot sauce is intense but not overwhelming.
But the menu is all over the map. There’s spaghetti and (too tough) meatballs; hiramasa sashimi flanked by splendidly spicy chipotle sauce, dreadfully dull curry sauce, perky wasabi sauce and crème fraîche; a flat-tasting duck burger outshone by cherry chutney. The quality of the produce is arbitrary, too. The cold beefsteak tomato in my “heirloom” salad was so pale a reflection of this outstanding tomato season that I thought it must be a fluke, but a reorder two weeks later brought an encore. The sad, flavorless kernels anchoring a creamed-corn succotash had gone entirely from sugar to starch.
Inconsistency runs both ways, of course. Oven-roasted tomatoes, spiked with capers and olives, gave just the right intensity to a meaty hunk of mahimahi. Smoked salmon came with an uncommonly vivid horseradish cream. And the raspberries crowning a sheep’s-milk panna cotta—desserts and breads are made in-house—were what summer’s all about. But there’s nothing original or evocative enough, in the cooking or the space, to make for a meal that inspires more than relief from cooking at home.
And that is where the staircase fanatics are on to something. Les Bon Temps was far from perfect, but the creaky, wood-stained depth of its setting seemed to seep into Cajun martinis so dirty that oil floated on their shrimp-punctured surface. The very discomfort of the place forced your body to adjust, driving that inimitable ambience into your bones. Tweed, handsome and comfortable, is a blank slate. Its atmosphere is whatever the variable music, smorgasbord menu and unpredictable crowd impose on it. Shouldn’t a restaurant be more?