With the coal-roasted savor of a Vampiro taco still lingering on my lips, I went in search of the music.
We found it pulsing away in a hidden room with a whiskey bar, a wall of albums and a low-riding console of turntables where world-class DJs have been coming to spin vinyl. This sultry chill-out lair, which most guests access through ticketed online reservations, is tucked inside the bowels of LMNO, entered through a secret entrance behind a red toilet. And the Listening Room, where vintage La Scala speakers were pouring classic Bill Withers into the air as I settled into one of the leather couches ringing the 45-seat room modeled after the record bars of Tokyo, offers the kind of intimate high-fidelity embrace that has been a thrill for local audio pros like my friend, Aaron, a Grammy Award-winning music producer: “It’s f-ing badass.”
Yes, LMNO is the sprawling new indoor-outdoor destination from Stephen Starr serving Baja-inspired food beneath the El in Fishtown. But the Listening Room has nothing to do with Mexican cuisine (in fact, no dining is allowed there). Neither does the artsy book store located behind this restaurant’s host stand where the rare coffee table photography books for sale are curated by New York’s Dashwood. The restaurant also doubles (or is that quadruples?) as an art gallery with rotating photography exhibitions (none Mexican, to date) curated by David Strettell. The sleek wooden dining room chairs, among Starr’s particular obsessions, along with a tin foil wall near the bar installed by designer Serge Becker, are vintage 1970s seats from Danish artist Rainer Daumiller.
The name LMNO has nothing whatsoever to do with Mexican culture, either. That catchy snippet from the kindergarten ditty — “the letters kids always confuse and jumble when they say the alphabet” — has always fascinated Starr as a potential restaurant name for its familiarity and whiff of mystery.
One might consider LMNO to be a mysterious jumble in its own right. You likely thought you were coming to Starr’s first new Philadelphia restaurant since he opened the Love in 2017 to feast on tacos, seafood aguachiles and margaritas. And you can certainly get some fine renditions here. The Vampiro is among the most distinctive bites. Its handmade blue tortilla buckles from the grill’s heat until its shape resembles bat wings, and is then lined with a toasted splotch of crispy Chihuahua-Jack cheese topped with smoky carne asada scented with meco chiles. It’s essentially chef Francisco “Frankie” Ramirez’s version of a Tijuana cheesesteak. And it’s a knockout.
But the cooking here, which was generally good enough to be more than an afterthought but, overall, well shy of amazing, is just one aspect of what this ambitious project is about. There are more curators here than a small museum, including creative director, Jason Carroll, who oversees the music among other things, including styling the staff’s apparel (“a street style...[that infuses] their own personal style into the look.”)
So, is LMNO is just a random collection of multiple trendy ideas under one roof? Or an organic new multi-use expression for what restaurants can be as community spaces? The potential is there for the latter, if this 200-seat behemoth scattered over 6,000 square feet of walled outdoor verandas, landscaped indoor alcoves and live fire open kitchen can ever capture the momentum it might have had if LMNO had opened as planned nearly two years ago, just before COVID.
That long pause has not sapped the can-do spirit from this group of eager young staffers, who exude genuine enthusiasm, if not always a mastery of details, as they guide diners through the menu and clever drink list, which allows one to pair the spirit and brand of their choice with a series of signature veg-forward cocktail bases. I loved the smoothie green Our Daily Veg spiked with a smoky hit of Banhez mezcal. The gingery green tea brew of Nice & Easy with a shot of Casa Noble Blanco was dangerously slurpable. I would have appreciated the Next Level Michelada, too, had its habanero-infused lager not been fired-up with an almost painful runaway spice.
I don’t normally shy away from heat. And that was hardly ever even an issue with on the food menu, which was consulted on by the staff of Baja star Javier Plascencia. It features the bright fresh herbal flavors of that coastal region where the tiny but potent chiltepin chile is frequently used in focused bursts to accent the refreshing array of aguachile seafood starters of lime-cured shrimp and other shellfish served in tangy red or green variations. The feisty little pepper could not help the coal-roasted oysters, though, whose topping of bubbling brown mayonnaise gave the mollusks an unpleasantly viscous slide going down.
The seafood cocktail options were fine but seemed vaguely redundant. I found more exciting options in the seafood-driven array of tostadas, from the calamari tostada scattered with tangy house red chorizo to the beautiful Vietnamita, a crispy tortilla round draped with tuna sashimi then topped with an herbal Southeast Asian slaw splashed with nuoc cham, an homage to Mexico’s Asian immigration. Next time, I’ll have to try Starr’s favorite: the giant saltine cracker topped with dorade ceviche.
Little about this menu, though, comes off as revelatory in the way that, say, El Vez did in 2004 when Starr and a fresh young talent named Jose Garces wowed the city with perfect mahi-mahi tacos, a roving guacamole cart and other modern Mex wonders. Philly’s Mexican options have since deepened exponentially with waves of new Mexican immigration.
There are dishes this kitchen does as well as anyone, such as the meltingly tender suadero brisket, whose earthiness is deepened by pasilla Oaxaca, or the adobado, whose stack of marinated pork layered on a vertical spit benefits from the live fire that sears its sides.
Birria tacos? Who isn’t making birria tacos now? The rendition at LMNO is respectable enough, if not particularly special compared to the many excellent variations I‘ve enjoyed in South Philly and beyond to date. I was more intrigued by the veggie taco filled with smoky kale, poblanos, crunchy quinoa and epazote-scented Oaxaca cheese.
The camarón enchilado is another distinctive winner, inspired by Starr executive chef Steven Menter’s trip to Baja, which piles tender shrimp over a sheer flour tortilla layered with molten cheese basted in an orange puddle of chile de arbol butter. But I was less impressed with the cucaracha shrimp starter because they were fried inside a somewhat hard corn starch crust, an indelicate white batter also used unfortunately on the otherwise potentially spectacular whole snapper that was cut into chunks for a massive feast of chicharrón.
I was more concerned, though, at the inconsistency of something as elemental as the fresh tortillas made from house-nixtamalized corn which, at my first visit, were so thick they were almost leathery. Ramirez is cooking to recapture the flavors of his youth in Mexico City. However, his mother-in-law owns a molino in Puebla’s San Mateo Ozolco, and has been trying to school him on the subtleties of the tortilla craft. It’s harder than it looks.
I noticed the tortilla issue less at my subsequent visit. And if this kitchen can get it right on a regular basis, better tortillas could help elevate some of LMNO’s table-sharing entrees into the showstoppers they promise to be, beginning with the tenderly braised adobo lamb shank, a Mexicanized nod to the North African-influenced version Ramirez once cooked at Parc.
The pescado Zarandeado, a whole two-pound butterflied sea bass roasted beneath a deep orange achiote glaze, is already a worthy build-your-own-taco centerpiece, although it has the benefit of the outsourced flour tortillas.
When it came time for dessert, though, the dissonance lingered. First with a moist corn cake ringed with blueberry sauce that would have been a lovely finale... in summer, when corn and berries are in season. Not December. Then came a tres leches so parchingly dry I suspected someone had forgotten the crucial final step of dousing the cake in dairy. Ours appeared to be a zero leches.
It was an oddly flat finale to a final meal that had otherwise been full of dynamic flavors, not to mention the great expectations that come from Stephen Starr’s first new hometown restaurant in four years. Usually, his concepts are fully formed out of the gate. The long COVID delay in this case has been a challenge on every level for this project with diverseambitions. Even the Listening Room can still use some fine tuning, says my friend the music producer. But the beautiful music room is already pulsing inside LMNO’s hidden heart. Finding the magic in its kitchen might just take a little more searching.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1739-1749 N Front St., 215-770-7001; lmnophilly.com
Dinner Monday through Thursday, Sunday 5-10p.m; Friday and Saturday, until 11pm.
Reservations for dinner highly suggested. Reservations for limited seating at the Listening Room also available on Resy.
Street parking only.