[ review ]
Aug. 20, 2008. That was the last time I reviewed a steak house: Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio's steak house, Table 31, to be exact. Since then, other high-end meat markets have opened — Del Frisco's, Butcher & Singer, Union Trust — but their presences seemed as out of touch with the world as whichever publicist suggested an armored car deliver a $32,000 bottle of cognac to the lattermost's opening gala.
For three years, the city's dining populace has upheld an embargo on creamed spinach and béarnaise-sauced beef. It ended in February, when tony chophouse Reserve began feeding carnivores beneath the frescoed ceilings of the sumptuous Corn Exchange Bank Building, last home to Cebu after a long run in the '90s as glitzy Rococo.
Reserve has succeeded in two major ways. First, as the first proper steak house to open in Philly in three years, a feat in itself when pickles and pizza characterize the prevailing restaurant zeitgeist. Second, as the first restaurant to serve me a steak — from Reserve's list of five, I chose the economically trendy tri-tip, the joint's "Signature Cut" — with a combination of Old Bay, crabmeat and hair.
A single blond thread had snagged on the attendant vinegar-doused French fries, so pale and fine I didn't even notice it until I was halfway through my steak. It wasn't so bad, really. I didn't eat the hair, and it was long and straight enough to blessedly eliminate below-belt provenance. My server, poor guy, reacted as if I'd called him up for the Hunger Games, seeing, but not really processing, the rogue strand through a vacant expression of shock. Stammering apologies, he sped away with the offending plate.
Do I think Reserve intentionally laced my steak with hair? Of course not. Humans shed. The bigger whiffs transpired in the recovery phase. Though there appeared to be a few managers patrolling the grand dining room, none came to my table to address the situation, and when the bill came, the steak was still on it.
Three desserts (silky crème brûlée, a berries-and-cream martini, apple pie) had been comped, a nice gesture, but they go for about $7 each. Once supplemented with the "Chesapeake" accessories of Old Bay and crab (fishy, flaked crab at that), the tri-tip cost $36. I'm no math whiz, but those numbers don't exactly equate. Removing the steak from the bill says, "We're sorry." Free dessert says, "We hope you'll give us another chance."
This is Restaurant 101, and Reserve's managing partner, Didier LaFontant, a longtime front-of-the-house veteran of Cuba Libre, should know better.
Sadly, elementary knowledge is not Reserve's forte. Stale "soft" breadsticks were in a poppy-seed sweat, weirdly damp outside, hard and dry inside. They make Olive Garden's breadsticks look like Bouchon Bakery's. Webbed in provolone and Swiss, the French onion soup also boasted expired carbs in a floating crouton — and it's hard to make a crouton taste stale. The soup itself would have been praiseworthy were it not so intensely smoky. Perhaps the barely bacon-y bacon bourbon, one of three house infusions from the bar, could borrow some of the broth's woodsy essence? But I guess that's about what's to be expected from a cocktail list headlined by the Old City Dude, a mix of Pinnacle Whipped vodka, caramel apple liqueur, Kahlua, cream and coffee beans. Dude sounds like a 16-year-old girl to me.
The striped bass' ring of chimichurri came across muddy and metallic instead of herbaceous and bright. Raspberries added a chemical savor to each dish they kissed. Lyonnaise potatoes were burned. The mushrooms supporting a Jenga tower of dry, under-seasoned polenta bars were burned. I was burned.
Fortunately, the steaks were not. Chef Kenneth Deiner, while lacking in other areas, can cook a piece of beef (and fish, evidenced by the crispy bass) very nicely. Both the tri-tip and 10-ounce New York strip, sourced from cult butcher Pat LaFrieda, came correct with their internal temps and salt-and-peppered, Vulcan-broiled crusts. For $10 to $18, you can transform any steak into a "Reserve Steak," furnished with geographically thematic toppings a la the Chesapeake. I'd vote for the French; though it comes with the aforementioned nasty Lyonnaise potatoes, the roasted shallot-and-parsley butter added fresh, zesty dimension to the New York strip. I'd be pleased with that, a bowl of the sweet, creamy lobster bisque and a slice of cinnamon-y apple pie.
Reserve deserves some credit for shaking the dust out of the timeworn steak-house formula, much the way Barclay Prime did. The beef sourcing shows more effort than other steak houses, and the prices, by comparison, are merely in the troposphere. Small-batch bourbons replace bigheaded Cabs as the house poison, and Reserve's list is stocked with the usual suspects (Jim Beam, Bulleit) and rarities (16-year-old Black Maple Hill, High West Bourye) alike. Enthusiasts can sip in Reserve's mezzanine lounge, overlooking Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce wannabes at the poured-metal bar downstairs.
Also in the bourbon vein, I really liked the booze-laced butter. It deserves better than those breadsticks. And Philly deserves better than what Reserve is putting out right now. You want us to believe in YOLO steak-house spending and new life for the storied old Corn Exchange? Put your money where our mouths are, Reserve. Just not your hair.
Reserve | 123 Chestnut St., 215-964-6262, reservephilly.com. Dinner served Mon.-Thu., 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. and Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; late-night menu Sun.-Thu. till midnight and Fri.-Sat. till 1:30 a.m.; brunch served Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Appetizers, $9-$38; entrées, $22-$58; desserts, $6-$7.