Taste: Reviews: From Walnut Street to South Street

THE RESTAURANT’S PEA-GREEN EXTERIOR is so understated that even customers who arrive with the address in hand hesitate at the entry. They squint at the unobtrusive lettering over the door; they peer in at the terra-cotta tile floor, the polished wainscoting, the framed family photographs. Can this low-key dining room in Queen Village, with fewer than 40 seats, really be Gayle, the new restaurant home of Daniel Stern, the American chef who helped Le Bec-Fin recoup its lost Mobil star, who learned his craft working alongside Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Manhattan?

They’ve come to the right place. Stern’s vision for Gayle, which borrows his wife Jennifer’s middle name, reflects where high-end fine dining, American-style, is trending today: The dining room is relaxed, customers dress comfortably, and the chef cooks dishes that don’t hail from any particular cookbook or culture. Certainly Gayle feels very different from Le Bec-Fin, where Stern reworked much of the menu in a lighter style during the 20 months that he led the kitchen. He might still be there today if Georges Perrier hadn’t fired him in January 2004 to return to a hands-on role at his Walnut Street flagship. The dismissal seemed supremely ungracious, considering that Le Bec reclaimed its fifth Mobil star on Stern’s watch, and retained it a year later.

NOW STERN, 35, presides over a restaurant with a split personality, a shrewd way to reel in young, spontaneous diners as well as the more fastidious Le Bec crowd. Mondays through Wednesdays, the handsome wood tables are bare, no reservations are taken, and an à la carte menu that groups dishes by price is in place. (Appetizers are $5, $8 and $12; main courses are $20 and $25.) Thursday, Friday and Saturday are white-­tablecloth nights, with reservations accepted and the option to order three courses for $42, or five for $62. There’s a great deal of overlap between both menus, though the superb fried chicken wings, served with a sweet-spicy butternut squash glaze, aren’t offered on white-tablecloth nights; neither are the french fries, accompanied by a silky herbed mayonnaise as they are at Le Bec’s Le Bar Lyonnais.

I like Stern’s willingness to think outside the boîte, though some of his ideas are more quirky than successful. I don’t care for the cryptic menu-writing that asks us to consider dishes like Chicken, Purple and Green, without further elaboration. Most customers end up asking for a description of every dish anyway, which is unnecessarily time-consuming. It’s obvious that the chef is winking at our expectations, as Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller did at French Laundry when he combined oysters, tapioca sabayon and caviar and called it Oysters and Pearls, which was as delicious as it was new.

At Gayle, Stern’s best effort in this regard is his positively playful Tuna, Lime and Octopus Ceviche, which is really an ode to the versatility of basmati rice. Rare seared tuna dotted with citrus-marinated octopus is set on a base of cooked rice, and the theme continues with a scoop of basmati ice cream, a crisp basmati cracker, and curry-flavored basmati rice paper as fragile as onion skin, all made in-house. He’s also on the right track with Clams, Chowder and Casino, a smooth New England clam chowder that’s garnished with the fixings for clams casino, neatly wrapped in napa cabbage and deep-fried. And the terse menu doesn’t do justice to the satisfying veal stew, with fingerling potatoes, cipollini onions and collard greens; unless a server told you, you wouldn’t know that its many components include veal shanks, veal tenderloin, veal tongue, veal foot and veal mousse.

In other instances, the compelling visual, punny title or cheeky theme isn’t enough to carry a dish. Enormous sea scallops, scored deeply before roasting, emerge from the oven slightly undercooked, resembling a weird deep-sea creature. The crab dumplings alongside had an unpleasantly gummy exterior, despite the care that went into them: The “skins” are fashioned from pureed scallops, flour and rice flour. That Chicken, Purple and Green, is half a roasted chicken, nearly buried under a forest of tiny broccoli florets and shredded thigh meat; it looks so untidy that it’s unappetizing, though it tastes fine. The surf and turf, an undercooked lobster tail piled high with short rib meat, is equally messy, and its greasy pan juices don’t flatter either key ingredient.

Texture contrast was the point in pairing buttery seared foie gras with crunchy edamame and crisp water chestnuts poached in red wine, but similar attention wasn’t paid to the panko-dusted fried risotto fingers, which, like the wee beignets served with the cheese course, could have been crisper. I enjoyed the delicacy of roasted skate prepared with orange segments, lotus seeds and an abundance of fresh herbs, but the beef tenderloin entrée absorbed an oppressive amount of smoke flavor from the wood-burning oven.

Strong flavors aren’t necessarily a bad thing. An emphatic amount of cinnamon in the sour cream apple walnut pie is pleasantly tempered by the herbal thyme ice cream alongside. Ginger-apple sorbet is better still, with a peppery bite like good ginger beer. And Stern knows when to be subtle: The endive parfait is an appealing cold custard that doesn’t taste nearly as avant-garde as it sounds.

Having seen Stern’s former employer checking out new restaurants while I make my own rounds, I asked Stern whether curiosity had brought Perrier to Gayle. The chef’s reply was as curt as his menu:


E-mail: mgallagher@phillymag.com