Philadelphia Restaurant Review: The Suburban Sins of the Saint James

If there's one thing Rob Wasserman and Michael Schulson's new Ardmore bistro knows how to do, it's disappoint.

The appetizer plates were 45 minutes gone from our table when the manager of the Saint James restaurant leaned over our banquette. His gray suit struck an odd note against the family-dinner feedlot vibe, but his timing was exquisite. Our entrées were still MIA, but our wineglasses were full. What better moment to simper an apology, then ask us if there was something we wanted?

“Dinner” is what one longs to say in the face of such fraudulent servility. But that would’ve been wrong. And anyway, the fullness of time would reveal better responses.

“Properly tenderized food” was one that came to mind, as a roasted-looking carrot cube stopped my fork cold a few millimeters below the surface with its hard, raw core. That was a shocker amidst the runny prune-and-apricot compote pooling into soggy couscous beneath my slow-cooked shank of lamb. Is this what I’d been waiting for, after the severely underdressed kale roughage I’d picked at an hour before?

The Saint James is a leverage play on the Center City bona fides of owners Rob Wasserman (Rouge) and Michael Schulson (Sampan)—hence the hopeful Main Line buzz. But its only downtown resemblance is the high-decibel clatter of the dining room. Still, I wouldn’t have wasted my answer on “Earplugs.”

Gnocchi with braised brisket featured the meat in puzzlingly large hunks, too dry to shred apart. The “juice” of a flat-iron steak had all the umami of water squeezed from cardboard. There was a properly cooked salmon fillet (sauced, in December, with pesto), and I liked a crispy clam-and-bacon flatbread. But not enough to offset the watery mushroom soup.

Lunch brought a giant hamburger—whose “pink, and cool in the center” patty (as my server defined medium rare) had been revised by the kitchen to stiff and gray. And the Caesar salad was best described by chef Matt Moon, who confides that the goal here is to make the anchovies “nondescript.”

Mission accomplished, Chef.

When a server descended on our table with a decent bread pudding and bland chocolate chip cookies (presented as the manager’s compensation for the time we’d spent waiting and wallowing in disappointment), it briefly seemed that “A couple free desserts” might’ve been a fairer answer to his hour-old query than “My money back.” But when those desserts showed up on our check, necessitating the further hassle of negotiating for their removal, all I could think was: “And reimbursement for babysitting, too.”

Hindsight, though, suggests a more fitting alternative: “Directions to the nearest Applebee’s.”