[ review ]
A long moment passed between the blondes, one a fresh-faced waiter, the other a jeweled flamingo in a green pashmina. They regarded each other, not uneasily, across the table.
"Unctuous?" the leggy lady laughed. "I have no idea what that word means."
"Unctuous" is how the server had described the short-rib ravioli topped with shaved asparagus, one of the mid-courses on the three-part menu at Mica, Chip Roman's sophisticated Chestnut Hill sequel to his Conshohocken smash, Blackfish. A week earlier, I'd had a similar ravioli, filled with braised veal breast, floating on porcini bubbles. I wouldn't characterize those ravs as unctuous; in texture and flavor, the wavy-skirted pasta saucers were downright diaphanous.
I couldn't discern the rest of the server-patron exchange — at 37 seats spread between two moss-green dining rooms, miniature Mica can get noisy. But mostly it was because I was in deep study of the best-looking (and best-tasting) potato salad I'd ever seen: sous-vide spheres of new, sweet and purple potatoes, looking like a multicolored collection of mini-golf balls driven down a fairway of cumin mayo, grilled ramp stalks, dried cranberries and crumbles of truffle powder.
I'm sorry to report the conclusion of ramp season has taken the potatoes? off the menu. One wonders what else will change at Mica now that chef Jason Cichonski is making a retreat from Chestnut Hill to begin readying the restaurant he and Roman, longtime friends, are opening together in the old Ansill space.
This was always the plan for Mica, that it would be a placeholder for Cichonski, previously the chef at Lacroix following Matt Levin's departure. Glimmers of the young bol's talent flash across the menu: tuna with banana! Mozzarella marinated in kimchi! Strawberries macerated in cola syrup, hidden beneath a cloud of aerated elderflower yogurt freckled with black sesame seeds! It's exciting stuff, but there's not enough of it to make Mica completely compelling just yet.
Some dishes were almost there. Seared scallops sparkled over twangy gooseberry pulp, but other complementary ingredients could have worked harder than hearts of palm and white chocolate powder. Classic carnaroli and nontraditional sushi rice have been alternated for the nutty brown butter risotto with clams, but a lack of brightness was the more pressing issue. More basil, perhaps a spark of lemon zest, would sharpen up the dish's richness.
Now Roman is taking the reins, and his style is admittedly "much more traditional" compared to Cichonski's. "Jason is more push the edge, push the edge, push the edge," says Roman. "I keep him in check, and he keeps me constantly thinking."
Not that Roman lacks creativity. His steaky blocks of Earl Grey-brined magret duck breast blew me away, the plate wired with explosive pickled sour cherries. More cherries (in a purée), soft morels, charred white asparagus and a riveting duck jus — Roman worked the sauce station at Le Bec-Fin for five years — orbited the fowl, coming together to create something special.
This is what I'd like to see more of at Mica. More pretty pea soup with yuzu, hamachi and crispy couscous. More lush halibut brandade piped down seeded lovash crackers. But less of the joyless wilted pea-leaf-and-shaved-carrot salad tossed in loose, briny black olive vinaigrette — a throwaway side to local, line-caught tuna (Ocean City represent!) seated on a fun stripe of sous-vide banana purée. There's also a perfectly tasty, perfectly safe poularde with green-market veggies and not enough crispy skin, and a blackberry clafoutis bore for dessert.
There are location constraints to be considered, Roman admits, and like Mica's well-heeled clientele, the surgically precise cuisine feels very mature. Roman and Cichonski are 32 and 26, respectively; the menu should shake with swagger and verve. Instead, it too often tiptoes up, asks for your number and darts away before you can give an answer.
"Not everyone wants to do a tasting menu," Roman says. "Sometimes people want a salad and a piece of roasted chicken, and that's fine. Three years ago, that would have made me mad. Now I'm a little more in check." So he puts out a salad — I didn't have it but I saw it, greens and blueberries and feta loaded into a gorgeous glass globe — and that poularde, whose saving grace was a dreamy, dashi-cooked polenta bianca.
Everyone might not want a tasting, but Mica still offers them: five to seven courses, or more if you book the chef's table in the back. On Wednesdays, four-course prix-fixes rally around a thematic protein, like soft-shell crabs one night I visited. These were among the most vibrant plates at Mica: tempura legs angling up from a cool tomato gazpacho (home to the kimchi mozzarella); yellow polenta-stuffed bodies on rafts of tangy fried green tomatillos; and a crispy whole crab streaked with ?sweet-and-sour tamarind cocktail sauce Cichonski charges with a "shitload of fresh grated horseradish."
Including dessert, the soft-shell crab prix-fixe was just $45, and generally, the prices at Mica are less expensive than you might think. You get a lot for your money here: amuse bouches, fancy bread-and-butter service, a laced-up staff as polished as tumbled stone and a top-flight wine program that's pending city approval.
Much of the foundation is laid for Mica to become one of the area's most exciting restaurants. All tastings all the time is Roman's eventual goal, two-and-a-half-hour, 10-course orchestras with views of the storybook train station. Is Chestnut Hill ready for that? Is it ready for unctuous?
Perhaps the blonde two tables over had the answer. She ordered the short rib ravioli and ate the whole thing.
Mica | 8609 Germantown Ave., ?267-335-3912, micarestaurant.com. Dinner Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.; closed Mon. Appetizers, $9-$14; mid-courses, $12-$17; entrées, $25-$33; desserts, $9. Currently BYOB. Reservations recommended.