AW, SHUCKS: Pristine bivalves at a.bar
It was like sailing onto the private beach of a tourist-jammed island. A.bar, the two-and-a-half-month-old candlelit cocktail cove at the AKA Hotel, had just opened for the day, and I had the place to myself as shoppers streamed around 18th and Walnut. I drank in the views of the Square, resplendent in its autumn best, and drank away a golden Rittenhouse afternoon at the languid pace of a first-class Titanic passenger.
Backlit by late sun pouring through the picture windows of the former Kiehl’s, my Haitian Wedding cocktail looked camera-ready. The tall cooler’s Campari float gleamed, swirls of red bleeding down into a lower layer of aged rum, fino sherry and cantaloupe juice.
I lifted the drink and took a long pull on the straw: fruity, boozy; a high-octane punch I could see being served at island nuptials, or causing them. Crushed ice rattled in the tumbler like diamond chips in a velvet pouch. Condensation curled down the glass. A server appeared to change my coaster. Life at a.bar sure is sweet. And so is the seafood.
Literally. Chef Waldemar “Val” Stryjewski sweetened octopus and tuna as if they were nuts to be candied. The former, nicely al dente from a two-hour bath with lemongrass, garlic and ginger, wore a creamy miso-honey glaze that tasted like something from the pantry of P.F. Chang’s. Piled on leaves of shiso, cleanly cubed raw tuna would have been the gold standard for tartare were it not tossed in cloying chili sauce.
With his resume of restaurants remembered fondly (Django, Pasion, Le Bec Fin) and not so fondly (Brasserie Perrier, Le Bec Fin), 39-year-old North Jersey native Stryjewski is a local industry lifer whose creative streak, when focused, can produce brilliant things. Squid-ink crackers, for example. The wheat-sensitive chef makes these gluten-free crisps by combining cooked rice, rice flour, tapioca starch and pureed squid with its ink. Baked, broken and deep-fried, the long, jagged crackers come arranged upright in a glass, looking like a quiver of black lightning bolts.
The former sous chef to Bryan Sikora, Stryjewski has been with AKA since a.kitchen opened in 2011. When Sikora decamped to Delaware, Stryjewski was promoted to the executive position and asked to head up the culinary offerings at the forthcoming a.bar as well. Together, it’s a tall order, with more than 40 plates between them.
There’s no way Stryjewski can taste every dish that leaves his line, leading to failures like the octopus and tuna. The Spanish mackerel dish, meanwhile, had the opposite problem. The assertive fish can handle flavor, so why accessorize the four dominoes of it so stingily, with dots of marinated tomatillo and a trickle of chorizo oil?
At least the mackerel was cooked nicely, its medium-rare flesh glistening beneath crackling blowtorched skin that looked like silver leaf. That can be said of most of the seafood at a.bar, but prices consistently soured my opinions. Shrimp cocktail starred jumbo U-12s to dunk in yuzu-splashed cocktail sauce, six for $21. Coated with an uni sauce made grainy by grated hard-boiled egg, the housemade soba spaghetti was an $18 misappropriation of precious urchin. And let’s not forget that single $16 scallop, prepared as a gorgeous crudo accented with yuzu, olive oil, furikake and restraint.
Were prices lower, the average diner would have extra cash to throw at the unbelievable wine list curated by beverage manager Tim Kweeder. His cellar overflows with interesting bottles, a dozen of which are available by the five- and three-ounce glass. The smaller pour is perfect if you want to hop around the list, sampling a new-school boxed red from the Rhone, an unfiltered Roussanne, an organic frizzante rosé. Twenty-five cocktails, a collaboration between GM Todd Rodgers and the team of six bartenders, also beg to be explored. A mix of honeydew-infused gin, Lillet and St. Germain was an ass-kicker in disguise. In another drink, a coupe brimmed with a better-than-you’d-think blend of bourbon and Scotch, amaretto and port, apricot liqueur and red wine. It’s called Without a Trace, and it was as if all the bottles from my grandmother’s liquor cabinet disappeared as such.
A.bar shucks half a dozen different oysters daily, and if you slip in at happy hour (3 p.m. to 6 p.m.), they’re a buck and a half each with a minimum order of six. That’s a great deal, especially since a.bar offers Cooke’s Creeks, Stellar Bays and East Beach Blondes, not the grotesque bargain bivalves many raw bars pass off for buck-a-shuck.
Stryjewski promises more bargains like this. He plans to jettison many of the effete Asian trinkets — I’ll only be sad to see the gem lettuce with miso-ginger vinaigrette, a worthy upgrade of the sushi-joint cliche, go — and replace them with bar-friendlier snacks like roasted mixed nuts, lobster clubs and his housemade charcuterie.
Meanwhile, the menu on a.bar’s website still advertises $85-an-ounce caviar service.
I can’t say it any better than Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, did in his recent review of Armani Ristorante, one of “a few opulent restaurants [that] opened right after the economy fell apart in 2008, like guests who pound on the door long after the lights have been turned out and the hosts have gone to bed.”
A.bar is a much younger restaurant, but our response is the same. In Wells’ words, “The rest of the city looked up from a collective hangover at their flashy outfits and expectant smiles and said, ‘Um, the party’s kind of over, dude.’”
A.BAR | 135 S. 18th St., 215-825-7030, stayaka.com. Hours: Daily from 3 p.m.-midnight. Dishes, $2-$28.
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