Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Fickle Fare at Fitler Dining Room

Chef Robert Marzinsky's newest endeavor is artful one night, lukewarm the next, but living up to former tenants like Melograno and Mémé is going to take a little more than that.

Fitler Dining Room restaurant in Philadelphia. Photograph by Jason Varney for the July 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Some food corners are cursed. A property will pass from owner to owner, concept to concept, and nobody can make it work. Part of succeeding in the restaurant business is steering clear of haunted houses.

But there’s another risk with real estate: the curse of fond memories. And Fitler Dining Room ran into it the minute Dan Clark signed the lease for 2201 Spruce Street. Because this corner’s former tenants—Melograno and Mémé—have saddled the tiny space with outsize expectations.

Clark, who raised the dining bar in this neighborhood once before with Pub & Kitchen, is trying to do it here with New American cooking and prices as finely tuned to the Rittenhouse gentry as the monogrammed blazer pin in the host’s lapel.

The kitchen belongs to chef Robert Marzinsky, who has worked at P&K and Stateside. And when I paid a visit in March, he seemed well on the way to beating expectations. From the verve of a hamachi crudo tarted up with rhubarb and stung with a tingly horseradish granita, to snails and gnocchi beguiled with a Chartreuse butter conjuring herbal fairy wine, Marzinsky’s cooking was artful and even a little daring.

Indeed, overly artful plating emerged as one of FDR’s few faults. Pickled butternut squash curls towered over that gnocchi like Richard Serra sculptures: gorgeous, but smaller ribbons would have spread the deliciousness to every bite. And a stuffed skate wing looked like a balloon about to pop its buttered-leek-and-truffle filling into the vermouth nage pooled beneath it—a visual marvel, even if all the richness lacked an acidic foil. FDR seemed just a few tweaks away from terrific.

But when I returned later for a second meal, those hints of magic turned halfway black. First, dynamite buttermilk-sauced beets with crispy maitakes and onion rings—then mealy carrots with a merely fine braised beef cheek. Here were outstanding ginger-sparked oysters; there was a tagliatelle too scarcely sprinkled with peas, nettles and ramps to maintain interest. And the walnut-oiled beef tartare with pickled chanterelles I’d loved before came out this time crudely cut and faintly slimy under a slush of grated raw turnip. It tasted like a punishment.

And maybe it was. I’d called ahead to shrink my table from four to three. When we arrived, the host huffed, “You could have just grabbed someone off the street instead.” Later, I watched him pivot from smirk to smarm—with a pretty young thing nearby—while we waited ages for a check and two other servers ignored us. It’s a small room, folks. If you’re going to be rude, at least be efficient.

And if Fitler Dining Room is going to thrive at this corner, it had better know that the neighbors are accustomed to a sure thing.