When you ask a server what a beer is like, “I don’t really drink beer, but ...” is not how you want the answer to start. “It’s dark” is not the way you want it to finish.
The brew in question: Brekle’s Brown from Anchor Steam, one of the interesting beers flowing from the well-stocked — is that a bottle of Pappy I spy? — bar at Red Owl Tavern. The two-month-old, bustling American brasserie sits a musket’s shot from Independence Hall on the ground floor of the Kimpton’s boho-glam Hotel Monaco. Unlike the hotel lobby, whose teal armoires, peacock statues, velvet sofas and print wallpaper suggest an eccentric European aunt, Red Owl wears a more dignified uniform of worn barn wood, old brick, loft windows and lamps rigged to an industrial pulley system that snakes across the two-story ceiling, fitting for a restaurant hoping to dovetail with the current obsession with all things vintage and artisanal.
With bookcases of pickles, a full-time butcher and chocolate bitters and juniper-syrup cocktails, Red Owl appears to back up its talk with its walk. But when the staff can’t describe a beer or accurately articulate which part of the cow the unusual Denver steak is cut from or pronounces “linguica” so it rhymes with “chicken tikka,” you’ve got to wonder if it’s all window dressing.
“Part of the chuck,” the Denver steak hides “near the belly,” by the way, before it hits the grill and then a plate dressed with crispy zucchini chips and grainy, brick-red romesco that gets its edge from a three-week-fermented Worcestershire sauce. That info comes courtesy of Kimpton ace Guillermo Tellez, who moved from Starr Restaurants to the boutique-hotel brand in 2009 to open Square 1682 at the Palomar. I ate there once and can’t say I liked it very much; the food had that party-pleasing hotel stink.
Red Owl showed better — much better. The urban-homesteading theme might be laid on as thick as the pomade on the locks of the bar’s beer-swilling stockbrokers, and the Denver steak might be about as tough as you’d expect grilled chuck to be — it should be sliced like a flank instead of presented whole — but mostly this noisy barn blends seamlessly into the local dining landscape. In Philly, where the hotel restaurant is treated either like a golden calf (Lacroix, Prime Rib) or an unwanted stepchild (everywhere else), that’s impressive.
“I’m going back to basics,” Tellez says, and if basics means magenta fettuccine tinted with pickled beet juice, I’m down. Flipped with beet cream, greens, royal trumpet mushrooms and specks of pork belly, the al dente pink pasta resonated with an earthy sweetness more subtle than its electric hue would suggest. More beets graced the house pickle plate, a jar of sweet, cold, cider-brined veggies (rutabaga, carrots, green and wax beans among them) paired with savory, room-temp eggplant spread and brittle fennel-and-cumin lavash crackers. Also pickled: lamb’s tongue. Tellez slices the muscle into meltingly tender petals, then drapes them over trenches of jellied beef marrow glistening in seared and roasted canoe-cut bones, the MVP of Red Owl’s menu.
The linguica, Tellez’s sausage of the week, delivered a concerto of fragrant spices (coriander, cumin, fennel, chile) against a Merlot-washed backdrop of house-ground pork. The plump link sat on a plank of smoky grilled sourdough, topped with sticky fennel marmalade and zippy arugula tossed in mustard vinaigrette, an open-faced sausage sandwich. Pot pie struck another homey chord, with roasted tender white- and dark-meat chicken and veggies cooked in its drippings beneath a flaky puff-pastry cap.
Moving from chicken to sour cherry, pies also inform Red Owl’s dessert menu, recipes courtesy of Tellez’s pastry-chef wife, Leslie. The secret to her buttery, golden dough encasing those sweet, tangy West Chester cherries from summer’s harvest: vodka, promoter of moister, more tender crusts. Pumpkin pie lacked the support of that crust and tasted like a Thanksgiving leftover forgotten in the back of the fridge. And I’d have preferred a toasted slice of freshly baked banana bread to Red Owl’s banana bread made into bread pudding, pressed, cut into a thick square and deep-fried. Save that for boardwalks and county fairs.
Those desserts weren’t the only things Red Owl could improve. Wild inconsistencies in portions swept across the meal; the Denver steak was the size of an iPhone, while the plate of beet pasta was so confusingly huge I had to look around to see if I was at Maggiano’s. Attention to plating would help, too. The pot pie needed a dish underneath to catch the drippy gravy and flyaway pastry flakes. The marrow needed a spoon. From the bar, the excellent New Amsterdam Sour recast the gin sour with genever, egg white and red wine to frothy, bracing effect, but Amontillado sherry and chocolate bitters took the Buffalo Trace-based Spanish Old Fashioned to the candy shop.
Red Owl’s bartenders also mix a Scottish Old Fashioned with Famous Grouse Scotch, as well as a classic with Wild Turkey 101, while the “Pick Your Poison” lets whiskey aficionados choose their favorite from the bar’s thoughtfully curated selection of brown booze. Go ahead and order another round. There’s a room waiting for you upstairs.
RED OWL TAVERN | 433 Chestnut St., 215-923-2267, redowltavern.com. Breakfast served Mon.-Sun., 7 a.m.-10:30 a.m.; lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m. Breakfast, $5-$16; lunch, $7-$21; dinner, $7-$24.
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