In Collingswood, where drivers brake at crosswalks and a quarter still buys an hour at some parking meters, meatloaf is back. So is Salisbury steak, and shepherd’s pie.
[sidebar]It’s an odder development than you might think. Today, it’s hard to cruise down Haddon or Collings avenues without noting the global tone of the restaurant revival that’s taken hold. From the success of places like IndeBlue (Indian) and El Sitio (Ecuadoran), it’s evident diners here are hungry for worldly flavors.
No one knows that better than Alex Capasso, who got this renaissance going when he opened Blackbird in 2007. His contemporary French-Italian fare there won the chef fervent praise — and an invitation to cook at the James Beard Foundation. So it’s all the more notable that he’s the one trying to sell Collingswood on TV-dinner-style dishes at his second restaurant, West Side Gravy.
The airy interior has a plainspoken loveliness that’s suited to Capasso’s take on culinary -Americana — though “take” isn’t really the right word. There’s no postmodern deconstruction here, no lobster-corndog irony. The tattoo-style paintings, like a fried drumstick sprouting angel wings, have fun with the concept, but the kitchen serves this homey fare straight up.
At its best, West Side Gravy makes you wonder why we’ve exiled some of these dishes to -microwave-ready freezer trays. Shepherd’s pie is actually delightful when you use fresh peas and whip the potatoes into a downy, crisp-edged pillow. Meatloaf is voluptuous when drenched in a concentrated veal stock. Dainty sliders — pulled pork with long hots, tuna with a wasabi-spiked cucumber slaw — conceal big flavors. And one bite of the BLT, a seamless union of pancetta and marinated tomatoes, could ruin a vegetarian.
But there are disappointing surprises, too. Good hand-cut fries came with a thinner, wan version of the meatloaf gravy — and that meatloaf was framed by a roll as unfortunate as something off an airplane tray. (Capasso says they’re working on improving that.) Fried chicken is armored with a crust that would hold up well to birdshot — it’s more crunch than crisp.
Still, the pitch-perfect desserts are reason enough to come. Orange creamsicle cake jogs old memories with fresh new textures. Bourbon butterscotch banana pudding hits the tongue with the creamy coolness that used to quiet summer scrums of six-year-olds storming Mom’s kitchen.
If you’re breaking loose from your own kids, Blackbird unquestionably makes for a better date. But if they’re in tow, West Side Gravy’s a fine place for a family supper.