Restaurant Review: Aldine
Everyone knows that opening a restaurant is the surest path to an empty checking account, but George and Jennifer Sabatino know better. For truly shredding your bankroll, nothing beats not opening a restaurant — as the couple spent an agonizing year doing before the first customers finally came to Aldine in October.
When the successor to Rittenhouse’s NoChe lounge finally opened, it was already a grizzled veteran of construction delays, landlord disputes and court proceedings, with a two-month stop-work order thrown in for good measure. George’s breakout stint as the debut chef at Stateside, where a free hand in the kitchen came without the irritations of ownership, must have seemed more rose-tinted than ever. Aldine took so long to launch that he had to dismiss his first kitchen crew to temporarily find new jobs, before anyone fired a single ticket. The Sabatinos were already resigned by then to opening a restaurant that doesn’t serve bread, since the choice came down to buying a combi oven or making payroll.
But bread service is coming, George says. And so are the promised herbivore/omnivore tasting menus that were another casualty of Aldine’s belabored gestation. As December rolled around, the restaurant was finally starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.
My first meal had only reflected a few twinkles — after starting out in full darkness. It’s hard to think of a more disorienting introduction to a restaurant than my first amuse here: an austere thimble-sized cylinder of kohlrabi in a duet of herb and lemon sauces as sharp as thumbtacks. Then came octopus arms with squirts of black-garlic barbecue sauce that muddied the otherwise bright profile of a minted arugula-and-preserved-kumquat salad, and, in a sudden detour through fat city, a salty bowl of ricotta-stuffed cappelletti tossed with pickled butternut and duck sausage.
Even if it hadn’t ended with vegan fennel fritters flecked with micro-celery and tamarind drizzles (a dessert for people who don’t want one), and a prodigiously buttered hot rye that filled a hefty goblet to the rim (a serving size for people with no sense of a proper one), this would have been a hard dinner to wrap your head around.
Because there were flashes of brilliance in it, too. Sabatino’s poached-then-seared baby carrots with beet-cooked barley was vegetable cooking at its brawny best. And pork belly never had better company than his pickled-squid salad haunted by ginger and chili.
Happily, my second meal was squarely in the vein of those triumphs.
Sabatino started it with another question mark — this time nestling cara cara orange, grilled scallion and pickled ginger into a milk custard scattered with candied ginger and pink peppercorns. But the ensuing dinner provided a reassuring answer to a question he’d been begging on Twitter and Instagram. Namely: When you’re teasing dishes like “caramelized parsley root : blue basil : crispy oats : mustard seed,” is anyone short of a poet laureate or haiku master going to understand what the hell’s for dinner?
They will if they start with the oysters, diced, set in a gel of their own liquor, and served on the half shell with sherry mignonette and sea-green drifts of tarragon granita. Raw beef subverted expectations just as gracefully. Radishes, raw mushrooms and crunchy quinoa topped thick slices of fork-tender filet tails slicked with a gribiche that might have overwhelmed a traditional minced tartare, but played perfect second fiddle to the strapping tenderloin.
Sabatino’s command of acids gave structure to Aldine’s most compelling feature: cooking that energizes rather than enervates. Blood orange rinds cured in truffle salt galvanized cauliflower florets crunched up with hazelnuts. Compressed skate wing sparkled in brown-butter vinaigrette. Cabbage two ways enlivened duck breast slices spangled with rye crumble.
Textural contrast (another hallmark of Sabatino’s unmistakable style) also elevated two dynamite desserts: a coffee-rich chocolate mousse with peanuts and caramelized white-chocolate flakes, and spongy chunks of torn ginger cake pelted with millet-pepita granola and fried apple skins.
Challenges remain — most notably in getting people who maybe want a slice of cheesecake at the end of the meal to get behind millet-pepita granola and fried apple skins. But George’s knack for turning constraints into creative catalysts bodes well, as does the warm tone Jennifer has set out front. The Sabatinos’ first joint production was a long time coming, and it’s still catching up to their ambitions, but it shows encouraging signs of being worth the wait.
Two-and-a-half-stars – Good to Excellent
Originally published in the February, 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.