[ review ]
First jobs can be rough. First jobs in the restaurant industry, even rougher. For a 16-year-old Daniela D'Ambrosio, that meant slinging French toast for screaming tykes at the character brunch at the Radisson near Sesame Place, the first restaurant to employ the Buxco native. "There was syrup everywhere," she remembers.
Fourteen years later, D'Ambrosio is still working Sunday brunch, but instead of Elmo pancakes, she's doing eggs Benedict on housemade English muffins, and instead of a suburban strip-mall hotel, she's at Pickled Heron, the France-by-way-of-Fishtown BYOB she opened with co-chef Todd Braley in December. Sunday brunch is an all-day affair there, 11 a.m. till 9 p.m., with a mixed menu of morning and evening recipes that changes every week. To bake the bread — it's all made in-house, and so is the butter — D'Ambrosio and Braley get in extra-early on Sundays, sometimes only a few hours after closing out Saturday-night service.
I've got to admire that kind of commitment, even more than I admire the ability to serve breakfast to several hundred Snuffleupagus groupies. D'Ambrosio and Braley, who met while working together at the Ritz-Carlton under Terence Feury, are the epitome of the young, DIY chef/owners who infuse our dining landscape with vitality, grit and spunk.
Except for the exhaust hood and the plumbing, these semiprofessional carpenters did all the work for Pickled Heron themselves, transforming a vacant Frankford Avenue walk-up into a warm salon with persimmon walls, tiled mosaics and an open kitchen. So what if it took three years? D'Ambrosio and Braley have Fishtown's best-looking restaurant to show for it.
Vintage details decorate the 50-seat dining room. The long church pew running along one side is more than 100 years old and made from extinct white chestnut. Discovered in D'Ambrosio's grandmom's basement and lovingly rewired, a 1942 compressor-top fridge hums by the service station. A globe light arcs over an intimate two-top set at a cozy antique loveseat, a perch tailor-made for wedding proposals. Just don't order the charcuterie plate on the same visit; you'll be too engrossed in the breaded puck of head cheese, crispy outside and scrapple-creamy inside, to remember the ring.
From bread and pastry to pasta and charcuterie, D'Ambrosio and Braley are cooks-of-all-trades at Pickled Heron, though they're not without their specialties. Braley, who's cooked at Bliss and the old Copper in Northern Liberties, has been guiding the charcuterie, producing silky duck liver-and-foie mousse and duck pâté alluringly scented with quatre épices, a classic French blend of ginger, cloves, nutmeg and pepper.
Both accompanied the head cheese on that charcuterie plate, and while the selection changes almost daily, I'd be elated to meet this threesome again — albeit with thinner slices of the house-baked country loaf and condiments less shackled to tradition than whole-grain mustard and cornichons. The juicy port-stewed figs (served with seared foie) and boldly peppered golden raisin jam (accompanying a beautiful wedge of bleu d'Auvergne) prove D'Ambrosio and Braley possess the creativity required.
Perhaps I'm nitpicking. Because unfortunately, Pickled Heron has bigger issues. Does the virtue of the foie's fig preserves matter, for example, when the same plate features an acrid slice of bread pudding that should have gone to the burn unit instead of my table? The pan-seared liver was nicely cooked, but the burnt backdrop blunted the flavor, and the lack of a bright, acidic element — pan drippings deglazed with Banyuls vinegar didn't cut it — left the foie feeling dull and uncomfortably indulgent. Brown on brown on brown, it was as unpleasant to behold as it was to eat, a misappropriation of a luxury ingredient.
Cries for acid echoed throughout the meal. Most dishes needed some, except for the lovely lentil/sunchoke ravioli floating like an exotic lily pad in a tangy, subtly fruity Meyer lemon broth. Most, including that pasta dish, also needed salt. Improvement in both departments would have sharpened up all the slow-cooked richness in an otherwise excellent beef Bourguignon. D'Ambrosio and Braley do this classic with red-wine-marinated beef cheeks and roasted fingerlings, the kind of smart update that could be Pickled Heron's calling card.
Though I loved the blue cheese (and love the idea of serving it as an appetizer), I don't think the delicate sable cookie is the best vehicle for it, and the accompanying frisee-and-herb salad (which left the kitchen undressed) didn't feel like it belonged. For dessert, D'Ambrosio and Braley "hard bake" their profiterole shells before filling them with dreamy diplomat cream speckled with candied orange. This is the traditional European way, they say, scant comfort when the cream squirts out the sides and pâte à choux shards go everywhere.
Panisse, the thick-cut polenta fries beloved in southern France, seemed to have no seasoning at all, but at least they chaperoned a beautiful, medium-rare sirloin of lamb. Pomegranate molasses glazed the meat, an ingredient not traditionally found in the French pantry but used to masterful sweet-and-sour effect here. D'Ambrosio and Braley delivered a perfectly cooked piece of fish, too: buttery, mild skate draped over roasted beets and caramelized Gala apples, anointed with ice wine vinegar. Dishes like these, and the charcuterie spread, prove Pickled Heron's potential.
As do the other desserts. While I wasn't crazy about the profiteroles, I couldn't stop eating the dense, steamy Meyer lemon upside-down cake glazed in fragrant lemon thyme syrup. And Pickled Heron may bake the best apple galette on earth. The chefs churn any unsweetened Armagnac whipped cream left over each night into butter, which subtly informs the flaky crust for this otherworldly tart layered with sliced apples and expert almond frangipane. That alone may have been worth the three-year wait.
Pickled Heron | 2218 Frankford Ave., 215-634-5666, thepickledheron.com. Dinner served Tue.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; all-day brunch Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Mon. Appetizers, $7-$18; entrées, $15-$25; dessert, $6. BYOB. Cash only.