Aiming For The Middle: Cinder Reviewed
I go to Cinder on a gray afternoon, looking for comfort and distraction, and find it at the bar—two giant TVs showing football on one side, talking heads silently shouting about sports on the other. It’s quiet because I’m there between services—too late for lunch and too early for a meal to reasonably be called dinner—but I’m not alone. A two-top in the corner is occupied, as are a couple tables on the floor. At the bar, some beer nerds are taking advantage of owner Teddy Sourias’s unapologetic ode to the newest retro-fad among drinkers: cider. Sourias already has BRU, which focuses on beer and sausages, U-Bahn (his Berlin-subway-theme bar) and Uptown Beer Garden (which, obviously, is a sushi bar). In other words, he’s got beer covered and has always put together good lists of interesting brews, generally braced by the things people like to eat while drinking.
Cinder falls solidly inside that bull’s-eye. Everything about it, from the highly polished bar and hi-top tables to the orange glow coming from the mouth of the big oven in the open kitchen, speaks to this moment in Philadelphia’s edible history. It’s an efficient and highly designed concept restaurant masquerading as a neighborhood bar and aiming for that sweet spot of two-notches-better-than-you-expect—the benchmark level of acceptable quality in Philly these days.
So I drink a couple from the six-tap cider list, which, in short order, covers everything except the extremities (both cheap and funky) of cider’s possibilities. I have the baseline Wyndridge, which is as good as I expected, and then something Spanish that seems to bridge the gap between the clean crispness of cider and the wildness of farmhouse ales. I order jalapeño poppers from the menu because the bartender suggests them as a favorite and because they feel appropriate here in this spot, with its smartly-outfitted-sports-bar feel. And between the bittersweet Spanish cider (in place of watery Bud Light) and the jalapeño peppers stuffed with salty, soft Cloumage cheese and served with a smoky tomato conserva (in place of, you know, traditional jalapeño poppers), I get the gist of the place. Cinder is trying to do what it promises. It’s what you expect, only better. More considered. Deconstructed and improved. A culinary Six Million Dollar Man.
At the bar, this holds. The 32 taps really do make Cinder a destination for beer drinkers looking for a fresh thrill. The six ciders offer an excellent introduction for those just jumping aboard this fad. The additional dozen-odd wild and farmhouse beers, many of which are local, find a good home here, especially considering that many of them (including an Avery Raspberry Sour from Colorado and Loving the Alien from Round Guys in Lansdale) are being poured almost nowhere else. The rest of the taps are given over to seasonal beers and rarities. If you can tolerate the TVs (which, I understand, some people just can’t) and the overwhelming sense of waxy newness, it’s a comfortable bar to drink at.
But for eating, it stumbles.
I go to Cinder for dinner, and the kitchen seems flummoxed by what pizzas are supposed to look like. In front of the mouth of the oven, the cooks poke and shift the pies and seem unsure of how done they’re supposed to be. When my margherita version arrives, I have a suggestion for them: Stop burning the shit out of the crust. It was done the first time you thought it was done. Black is a bad color. Still, the mussels aren’t bad—simple, steamed in a cider broth with bacon and a scattering of apple.
I go back again, and the pizza (pistachio this time, with mortadella and rosemary) is better, but my french fries come with dill on them—come, actually, as big wedges of sliced potato dressed up like they’re going to some kind of fancy sorority party, topped with bacon, ranch dressing, melted disks of mozzarella, a “Wiz” sauce that comes in quotes on the menu (for good reason) and sprigs of chopped dill (for fanciness, I assume). Granted, it’s tough to go wrong with fried potatoes and melted cheese, but the dill is just so pointless. It adds nothing except some gauzy scrim of class that cheese fries served beneath giant TVs neither require or deserve. And I feel the same way about the house-made chorizo, seared black on the grill (in order, partly, to keep the very loose grind together inside the casing) and served, in a messy version of artiness, as four small chunks holding down the four corners of the plate, with some mashed avocado in the middle.
I actually like the sausage—it has a good rustic texture and a delicious sweet-hot smokiness (helped, I have to admit, by some of that char)—but there’s just something about the plate. It looks like it was put together by the guy who graduated second from last in his class at the Culinary Institute a decade ago. Like a young cook’s vision of what elevated comfort food is supposed to look like, as referenced only by blurry pictures from back issues of Gourmet.
And this is the disconnect at Cinder—the core issue that keeps me from liking it more than I do. In Philly right now, we’ve become so spoiled by excellence that we expect it from everyone. If you’re not some kind of honest dive, an ancient, sticky-floored neighborhood joint or a deliberate bastion of serious iconoclasm, you have to be better than Cinder is right now in order to compete. You can’t burn the pizza. You can’t fool anyone with the garnish on the cheese fries. You can’t do an ugly version of modernist plating because you saw it on Top Chef once and think that passes for better than average here. It doesn’t. We’ve seen that whole “neighborhood beer bar done better” thing done well too often not to recognize a place that’s aiming for it and falling short.
It’s the bar that’s the draw at Cinder—that excellent list, that long line of taps. In the kitchen, the crew has a menu that can work in this space, but right now, it isn’t being executed at the level needed to compete with Cinder’s neighbors. And the strange thing about all of this is that I can say with full confidence that Cinder is a good restaurant.
It’s just that “good” isn’t good enough these days.
Two Stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood
UPDATE: Since this review was reported, chef Jonathan Petruce has left Cinder. The review has been updated accordingly.