SHARP AND STEELY BY DAY, twinkling like a rhinestone monolith by night, the 29-story Cira Centre demands attention, 24/7. I’m no fan of it, yet I can never drive by without returning its glassy stare. This angular office tower next to 30th Street Station stands with cold shoulders turned in every direction — hardly a welcoming presence, if you’re a restaurant customer headed that way.
Inside, the architects reserved 13,000 square feet for restaurant and banquet dining, dimensions that seem tailor-made for a concept guy like Stephen Starr, or a supersized chain like the Cheesecake Factory. Instead, landlord Brandywine Realty Trust recruited former Le Bec-Fin chef Daniel Stern, who at the time had no prior experience as a restaurant operator; he hadn’t yet opened Gayle, his miniature Queen Village spot. Two years after the Cira deal was done, Stern has pulled off a remarkable feat, bringing a warm and inviting modern restaurant called Rae to the lobby level.
The brash building and the soft-spoken chef are a brilliant mismatch. Who could have guessed that the Cira, with its off-putting armor of mirrors, would become a destination for playful upscale snacks like smoked rabbit nachos, a pile of fried meat pies flattered by the gentle heat of a jalapeño/crème fraîche dipping sauce? Or that a Cira happy hour could groove like a hip hotel’s bar, as soon as the blood-orange martinis come out to play? Or that a restaurant in a big-box space could produce awe-inspiring comfort food, specifically the sumptuous wine-braised short ribs?
Stern named Rae after his maternal grandmother. But the name also references the light that pours through the wall of windows at lunchtime on all but the dreariest days. It isn’t oppressively bright, but I prefer the after-dark ambience, when the lounge and dining rooms feel less exposed and more intimate. As the business day ebbs, office workers jam the bar and feast on a lavish hors d’oeuvres spread, while the dinner-minded settle into wide booths separated by dividers that keep conversations private. The 45-seat mezzanine feels like Siberia when empty, but on Saturday nights, the Main Line descends, dressed up and down simultaneously, in jeans, cashmere and statement jewelry.
What I like best about Rae is its seamless merger of fine-dining atmosphere and service with the flexibility of eating inexpensively or lavishly. Yes, there’s a $65 dry-aged rib chop and a $52 veal chop-plus-stew, prices that would make a CEO blanch. But for $28, a middle manager can dine royally on those exquisite short ribs, and an administrative assistant can order an $18 venison cheesesteak that combines seared flank meat with wild mushrooms, cipollini onions and truffle-flecked sottocenere cheese. It’s certainly possible to make a meal of two or three of the affordable, fun-to-eat bar-menu items, such as potato skins, fried onion rings tossed with fresh herbs, or those divine smoked rabbit nachos. It’s a much broader menu than the one Stern offers at Gayle, with many more choices for the conservative diner.
The veal kreplach appetizer of dumplings with artichokes is so rich, thanks to a gloss of stock-enhanced sauce, that it would be an entirely satisfying main course. Deconstructed onion soup is a luscious, lighter take on the classic, with a shot of cheese fondue on the side, rather than the usual leathery lid of gruyère. A dish described curtly — most of the dishes are — as “Rabbit, brussels sprouts and white beans” was a petite portion of the best cassoulet I have ever tasted, served with roasted rabbit tenderloin and rack, and a smooth puree that elevated the humble baby cabbages to elegance. The snapper/snapper soup entrée isn’t Philadelphia’s rich turtle version, but rather one of the lighter dishes on the menu, pairing grilled red snapper fillets with celery root puree, julienned crisp apples and snapper broth. Ask about wine, and a manager appears in an instant with good advice. The range of the list is impressive, but choices are slim under $40, and markups on the lower end can be triple-plus.
There are other issues, too. A bowl of mushroom-barley soup was barely tepid, while the chopped salad incorporated so much ice-cold iceberg lettuce that it seemed to be defrosting. I loved the lemon vinaigrette and spring roll filled with horseradish butter that accompanied the seared tuna, but the tuna was so underdone that its steak-like texture was lost. A scoop of lavender ice cream, part of a sampler of three different house-made varieties, tasted like bath soap. Service can be inexplicably sluggish at times, and vacant tables aren’t always tidied promptly. On the plus side, the valet parking is cheaper than in the Amtrak garage, and the bill arrives with a small plate of cookies.
The dessert menu has orange-vanilla pound cake for the conservative and cheesecake tweaked with celery for the adventurous, but I’m still partial to the caramel walnut apple pie, a Stern family recipe carried over from the Gayle menu. It’s more like a coffee cake than a pie, a homey touch in a soaring glass house.