Philadelphia Restaurant Review: NoBL

Borough councilman Stephen Wagner's mediterranean comfort food joint brings some heat to Lansdowne.

It was Saturday night in Lansdowne, and Sam Jacobson was fighting fire with fire. The chef’s wide-open kitchen at NoBL had been blistering burrata-and-guanciale flatbreads for several hours now—and for the past few minutes, they’d been cooking to the squealing peals of a smoke alarm.

Did anyone know how to turn it off? No. Were order tickets still streaming in? Yes. So all hands stayed on deck. There were jumbo prawns wrapped in Serrano ham, and fork-tender beef tongues half-buried under a walnut-and-caper agrodolce. A plate of moussaka, with its deceptively fluffy freight of meat and eggplant, emerged from the confusion like a small miracle.

Owner Stephen Wagner eventually wrestled the false alarm to submission. Applause rose up from the bar-height four-tops bordering the kitchen and the pillow-strewn wood benches of “the cage”—a pair of broad tables enclosed by giant old black-mullioned warehouse windows.

I know what you’re thinking: Applause in Lansdowne? At the dinner hour? The first time I ever ventured north of Baltimore and Lansdowne avenues (get NoBL’s acronym now?), my friend and I searched so utterly in vain for a hangout spot that we ended up in a laundromat.

But Wagner, a borough councilman, is driving a change in this dry suburb. In 2009, he and his then-wife took a risk with Sycamore, a BYO whose cocktail setups and New American menu quickly gained a following. This summer they branched out in a more casual direction, opening NoBL in an old hardware store just down the street. Jacobson, who took over the reins at Sycamore when opening chef Meg Votta passed away, is now running both kitchens.

It’s still a risk. Even with Lansdowne’s newish farmers’ market and the recent debut of Argana Moroccan Cuisine nearby, it’s an open question whether there are enough local foodies to support this miniature culinary renaissance. Indeed, NoBL’s opening week saw empty tables at Sycamore, as regulars sniffed out the new kid on the block.

NoBL offers Mediterranean comfort food with a compelling edge. From raw oysters with s­riracha-lime cocktail sauce to ultra-tender octopus arms glistening with oil, the cooking is both sharp and as down-home as NoBL’s hodgepodge of grandmotherly dinner china. The flatbread toppings come off better than their dry-ish crusts, but against that were winning surprises like raw dinosaur kale dressed with tahini, and sumptuous fontina-stuffed turkey meatballs that could have jumped right out of Marc Vetri’s new cookbook. The prices are right (how about four banging blueberry doughnuts for three bucks?), and on weekend late nights, Jacobson dishes out wild-card “staff meals” like grilled duck hearts and brandied rabbit kidneys.

Never thought I’d say it, but I’ll be seeing you in Lansdowne.