BLOODY GOOD: One of Dandelion chef Robert Aikens' best dishes is scallops served atop patties of black pudding, or blood sausage. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis)
[ REVIEW ]
"Right this way."
The nymph-like hostess smiled a pretty smile and started up the flowered-carpet cascade to the second-story dining room of The Dandelion. Rambling across twin 18th Street properties, this is Stephen Starr's most elaborate stage yet, a clever, kitschy British pub where taxidermed warthog heads snarl from the walls, and fireplaces spout sayings straight out of Chicken Soup for the Anglophile Soul.
"Fear knocked at the door," reads the adage emblazoned on the main-floor mantle. "Faith Answered. No one was there."
We passed that quotable cherrywood on the path to my table upstairs. Was it a long walk? Or did it just feel that way, as I ambled through The Dandelion's paisley-print alcoves, canine-themed salons, wide stairwells and narrow switchbacks? It was dark and late, and the paned windows looked blacked out between their lacy curtains, but the restaurant was bumping.
Atmosphere playing as large a role as food is a Starr constant, and for The Dandelion, designer Shawn Hausman has wrought an aura more freewheeling than his Parc — but no less finely tuned. There's a certain magic inhabiting these old buildings, residing under the creaky floorboards and behind the faded wallpaper.
The rose-scented Scotch Honeysuckle and the Beer Flip, an eyebrow-raising elixir of rum, stout, raw egg, orange marmalade and grated nutmeg ("Better than it sounds," the waitress assuaged), were rather slow to arrive. At least she was right about the Beer Flip: Served in a half-pint, it was like a gentlemanly float, with a subtle chocolate/orange flavor.
The food came quickly, though, the Berkshire pork pâté acting as a fine introduction to chef Robert Aikens, a 40-year-old Englishman with offal abilities out the bum. The pâté provided a fruitful journey, pig being a perfect backdrop to lashings of brandy, port, bay, thyme, onion and shallot, while puréed chicken livers folded into it hit the right chord of funk.
Foie gras fared even better. It came as a generous pad seared and served with crisp bacon, balsamic-shallot jus and a sunny-side-up duck egg basted in foie fat — something Aikens used to do at his twin brother Tom's Michelin-starred restaurant in London. He's convinced me ham hocks are a good idea for ultra-rich mac and cheese, and he's gotten Rittenhouse princesses to try black pudding when they'd likelier go for the ladylike (and flavorful!) butter lettuce salad dappled with honey vinaigrette. Aikens imports his blood sausage, but I'd only want it housemade if he could replicate this version's haunting clove scent. The perfume carried through the scallops that the inky sausage hid beneath, a modern surf-and-turf rising from a carpet of wilted Brussels and fruity apple purée.
Aikens has cooked either in England or New York his whole career, and before coming down to do a tasting for Starr, he'd never been to Philly. Now he rents a spot on Tasker, and judging from the crowds, he's the toast of Rittenhouse. "On a busy Saturday, we're doing 650 covers," Aikens estimates. The Dandelion seats 160.
I believe it, especially when just a few minutes after opening one weeknight, the front bar was already a mob scene of pinstripes and sensible skirts. English cask ales flowed. Two bartenders hustled, operating the draft handles like bulldozer controls. I tended bar for 10 years; I understand what this is like. Two minutes ticked by. Four more passed while I studied the Tudor chandeliers and the giant cow statue up in the rafters. I waited another two minutes before abandoning my spindle-legged stool for a window-front two-top cared for by a warm, speedy waitress. I'll never dog a bartender for being busy, but at least say hi and tell me you'll be right with me.
The evening I ate in the dining room — when I was unfortunately recognized as soon as I walked in — the staff was on top of me like moms at a shoe sale. It was a tornado of white oxfords, descending with fresh silver, clean napkins and fastidious table-crumbing. On critic alert, Dandelion's diligent crew never even allowed the water glasses to get pessimistic.
And yet knowing I was there didn't prevent the overcooking of sticky toffee pudding to a leathery consistency, or going dill overboard on the poached/smoked trout-and-salmon pâté. Other slips were more in conception than execution. Aikens might adore curry and cauliflower, but nobody at my table liked the pasty purée of the duo beneath a beautiful crisp-skinned black bass. And while I appreciate that the oatmeal crackers on the cheese board are housemade, their flavor distracted from the Quickes cheddar, Shropshire blue and Caerphilly they're supposed to silently support. (The honey, quince paste and grape chutney, meanwhile, were ideal conspirators.)
Though not locally raised, as one server informed us, the LaFrieda strip steak was worthy of Barclay Prime, seething with traces of 28-day dry-aged musk and as perfectly cooked as the flaky Chatham cod cocooned in Yards beer batter. "I was adamant about putting fish and chips on the menu," Aikens says, "and it's our top seller." The secret: He fries in beef fat. It takes 200 pounds of raw fat and New York strip trimmings four to six hours to transform into enough liquid gold to fill a deep-fryer, a process completed two to three times a week. You can taste the labor in the substantial, savory taste of cod and thick-cut chips.
Refresh with the Eton Mess, whose sloppy calling card belies a cool composition of passion fruit, coconut, mango, meringue kisses and vanilla Chantilly cream. After a dinner consisting primarily of cheese and beef fat, something this light felt invigorating. So does The Dandelion, which, beneath all the drama and plaid cloth and floral-print paper, is actually a pretty good restaurant.
The Dandelion | 124 S. 18th St., 215-558-2500, thedandelionpub.com. Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; tea daily, 3-5 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thu., 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-mid; Sun., 5-10 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Appetizers and snacks, $4-$21; entrées, $10-$28; desserts, $7-$18.