Not to bring up ancient history, but in 2008 I had, and wrote about, two very strange, very bad meals at Time on Sansom Street. Crushed shells speckled the lobster roll like black pepper. Mako shark smelled like it was sourced from the deep end of a YMCA pool. My waiter did accents — accents! — among them an Elmer Fudd (“Can I get you a tasty be-ve-wedge?”) that I mistakenly attributed to Yosemite Sam. For which, after all these years, I sincerely apologize.
The problem with this job is that bad first impressions rarely get a chance at redemption. Particularly in this town, where we’re blessed with such a healthy, prolific restaurant industry, there just isn’t time to re-review the golden girls when the mill is churning out pretty little liars by the baker’s dozen. Which is a shame. Because things can change.
Owners Jason and Delphine Evenchik parted ways with their first chef shortly after opening, and word is that chef Josh McCollough turned the restaurant around right quick. I can’t attest to that; McCollough left last spring, ceding the kitchen to his second in command, Sean Magee.
The week of the autumn equinox proved a prescient time to visit. Magee and his new sous chef Craig Russell were slowly phasing in items from their new fall menu. A mellow breeze rode into the 60-seat dining room through the wide-open windows, carrying the riffs of the live jazz duo into the cozy back corners of the candlelit, caramel-colored space. Drops of ice water from a tall glass apothecary jar plink-plink-plinked in tune, melting the sugar cube positioned on a slotted absinthe spoon over my cup of Vieux Carré.
Absinthe is kind of a thing at Time. They stock five varieties of the viscous anise elixir and give the quintet due respect with the peculiar water-and-sugar ritual, the preferred method of France’s Belle Epoque era. Servers seem well-versed in the following three-point spiel: “One: Yes, it is legal. Two: Yes, it contains wormwood. Three: No, it won’t make you hallucinate.” Fortunately, my server didn’t channel any Looney Toons characters during her recitation as the sweetened water turned the pale-green absinthe as cloudy and opaque as a sky about to storm.
Absinthe ain’t for everybody, but if you don’t like it in a glass, try it in a bowl of mussels. Magee adds Pernod to his bivalve bath of cream-and-vegetable stock, the rich new prep for fall. Ribs of soft fennel reinforced the anise flavor, while big leaves of parsley brought a grassier green note. The actual mussels were on the puny side, cowering in their shells like shriveled beige raisins. (What would Tom Peters, Magee’s former boss at mussel mecca Monk’s, think?) Fortunately, the accompanying mountain of hand-cut fries — thick, stubby and tossed with salt, pepper, parsley, chives and shallots — waited on standby. If not the best frites in town, they’re at least the best seasoned.
The texturally tough mussels found a counterpart in the octopus. You’d think a slow sous-vide poach and quick visit to the grill would turn it tender, but the tentacles I received, crawling through a froth of house-made hickory-infused almond milk, chewed like a scuba snorkel, while fresh grapefruit riding horseback brought a jarring bitterness. None of it worked for me, but I can still appreciate the creativity it represented: a reinterpreting of Spain’s classic almond-octo pairing, the smokiness of the hickory meant to align with the flame-touched flavor of the meat’s charred ends. It’s a good idea, one that could be realized in a better way.
Magee takes risks, both on the nightly menu and in the five-course ($45) and seven-course ($65) tastings of on-the-fly caprices and percolating experiments. The risks don’t always pay off, but I’ll take one dud for every four inspired successes. That creative spirit is what makes Time more relevant as a dining destination than it ought to be, best exemplified by the Kung Pao bone marrow, a long canoe of jellied beef fat brushed, while roasting, with soy sauce and brown sugar and fortified with Szechuan peppercorns and Chinese chilies. Crushed peanuts, chopped scallions and shards of crystallized ginger released their essential oils over the hot marrow’s surface, creating another layer of flavor that drew me in bite after bite after bite. I loved the ginger in particular, sneaky little grenades of sugarcoated fire.
Sorry to say, that marrow was on the summer menu, but its replacement, furnished with bacon-onion jam and salt-and-vinegar chips, sounds just as ridiculous. The falling-apart pork ribs, slathered in a rusty-red barbecue sauce spiced with ancho and vanilla, have also been retired for the fall. But the quail, stuffed with foie and brioche, has a new look to show off for Thanksgiving. The crisp-skinned chubby bird arrived wearing puffed wild rice, cinnamon-laced sweet-potato puree and sharp cherry gastrique flowing beneath it in swirls of orange and burgundy. Quail is a finicky thing to cook, but Magee matched his technical skill to his creativity with this bird’s glistening medium-rare meat.
For dessert, the peach cobbler has become the apple cobbler, really simple and really good with brown-sugar ice cream, and as long as squash hangs around, there’ll be slabs of custardy toasted zucchini bread (recipe courtesy of sous chef Russell’s mama) drizzled with salted caramel.
That Magee and his crew manage to do all this at prices so reasonable — think $50 a head with booze and tip — means you can sip something nice after dinner at the adjacent whiskey bar without taking out a second mortgage. Chew the bourbon, savor the jazz, toast the fall. Time, it would seem, is no longer worth wasting.
TIME | 1315 Sansom St., 215-985-4800, timerestaurant.net. Dinner served Sun.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Appetizers, $9-$12; entrees, $13-$25; desserts, $5-$7.