Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Culinary Fumbles at Red Owl Tavern
“No matter where you go, there you are.”
A review typically requires more than one sentence, but when it comes to describing most hotel restaurants, Buckaroo Banzai’s eight-word epigram does the trick perfectly. Whether the rooms upstairs have a view of Central Park, Biscayne Bay or east Market Street, the dining room might as well be in Cleveland. There’ll be steak and salmon, a blue-chip wine list, and barely a whiff of whatever city lies beyond the doors.
The Hotel Monaco’s Red Owl Tavern has everything it needs to conjure a more compelling sense of place: a view of Independence Hall, an in-house butcher, and an executive chef groomed by Charlie Trotter. That would be Guillermo Tellez, whose deft hand with the spice box has made Square 1682—Red Owl’s crosstown corporate cousin—a decent destination even if you don’t have a room.
So it’s a shame that the Kimpton chain’s second Philly location fumbles its advantages. Aside from the handsome zinc-topped bar, the only tables that capitalize on the view are a pair of two-tops jammed into tight crannies next to the revolving door, and maybe a couple seats on the mezzanine. Anywhere else, and you’re soaking in the same weathered-wood-plank-and-exposed-brick atmosphere that 800 other restaurants have lifted from Pottery Barn. A tidy display of mason-jarred pickles rounds out the vibe: spacious, tasteful and, ultimately, banal.
That pickle juice is sugary, which made the carrots sparkle but overwhelmed more permeable items, including petals of lamb tongue that dripped too much sweetness into roasted marrow bones. Venison struck a better balance, with a huckleberry marinade—but the meat was mealy in spots. Sirloin filet trimmings deepened the flavor of a bacon cheeseburger, but the lettuce and tomato atop it were ice-cold. For $17, I’m not looking for a McDLT.
Such was the pattern: a few things to like in a dish, and then something else that marred it. Luscious house-made pastrami sandwiched in flaccid “grilled naan” without char. Exquisitely cooked sheepshead snapper over an underseasoned cassoulet. A dynamite linguica sausage—arranged on awkwardly oversized toast bites. A deep liquor list but completely forgettable cocktails. Even the beet pasta I loved at Square 1682 was gummy here. And service was a roll of the dice: swift and candid one night, clueless and interminable another.
Only one dish was a total flop—scallops ruined by salt—but only one hit my bull’s-eye: a surprise box of apple-cider doughnuts my server packed as a parting gift at lunch.
A pity that the most resonant thing about Red Owl was walking away from it.