Taste: Reviews: The Replacements

LESS THAN A YEAR AFTER THEY DEBUTED, WASHINGTON SQUARE AND MARIGOLD KITCHEN HAVE NEW CHEFS. IS THERE SUCCESS IN SUCCESSION?

Marcus Samuelsson is long gone from Washington Square — though to be frank, he was never really here. The hotshot Ethiopian-born Swede hired to put Stephen Starr’s 11th restaurant on the map basically drew up a menu and took the train back to New York. The results weren’t pretty. Todd Mark Miller, creator of Barclay Prime’s notorious $100 cheesesteak, followed Samuelsson, but his stewardship at Washington Square lasted a mere six months. So what did Starr do? He hired another New York chef, Franklin Becker, who wasn’t afraid of commitment: Becker moved here.

Steven Cook isn’t quite gone from Marigold Kitchen, the West Philly institution that he and business partner Jonathan Makar recast brilliantly as a BYOB with a playful, trend-tracking menu.

Cook remains a passionate partner in Marigold, though he’s turned the kitchen over to Michael Solomonov, most recently sous-chef at Vetri, as he collaborates on a second restaurant with Makar. What’s fascinating here is how well the current menus embody the eclectic spirit that Cook intended for Marigold, although the dishes are all Solomonov’s.

It’s tricky business to replace a chef when a restaurant’s identity is built around the leading man or woman in the kitchen. Starr had to move quickly to salvage Washington Square, and when he did, he shifted the focus away from the name on the kitchen door to concentrate on improving the vibe in the bar and dining room. It harks back to the formula that made Starr’s first restaurants (pre-Morimoto, pre-Striped Bass) so successful: Becker, 36, is a skilled chef, but he’s a team player, not a jet-setting diva. He earned good notices in Manhattan at Trinity, Capitale and Local, wrote a cookbook for people with diabetes (Becker has first-hand experience), then joined the Starr organization, initially to oversee three projects planned for Atlantic City. On his watch, Washington Square has transitioned from star vehicle to ensemble production, and it’s all for the better.

In revisiting the restaurant several times for this review, and seeing it hum with energy even on a drizzly weeknight, I sensed that Washington Square has finally found its niche as a neighborhood boîte that also draws a fair number of business travelers, their somber suits an amusing contrast to the fashionably scruffy regulars. Never underestimate the power of a well-made martini, servers who exude Rachael Ray perkiness, and a killer sound system.

The quirky Samuelsson signatures that the previous regime could not execute consistently have given way to crowd-pleasing dishes with a twist, such as the indulgent lump crabmeat cocktail embellished with a scoop of lemon semifreddo and a free-form rice-paper cracker; a quartet of Moroccan salads that can function as a sharable appetizer or a vegetarian meal for one; seared halibut served with locally sourced baby vegetables; and a sumptuous side option of mac and cheese enriched with truffle flour, truffle oil, truffle butter and bits of summer truffle. Becker is also man enough to retain a few dishes that came before him and proved popular, such as the spicy fried calamari. However, that appetizer is now speckled with red tobiko, a Becker touch that lets people know he’s in the house without calling a press conference. The only dish that really gave me pause was the corn and crab chowder featured at the end of summer, a soup with such an unsettling yolky-yellow color that it looked like a big bowl of hollandaise.

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