I took a sip of my Vaccine — the summer cocktail, that is, not the jabs I got this spring. As its candied ginger spice with honey and bourbon coursed across my palate with more verve than its classic inspiration, the Penicillin, the world suddenly seemed brighter from our picnic table perch beside North Broad Street at Clementine’s Stable Cafe.
And we had quite the lively view: Motorcycles rumbled past us in boisterous wheelie parades toward North Philly, while cyclists quietly threaded their bike shares south down the busy sidewalk in the opposite direction. Across the street, people dressed up for a big night out were leaving their cars with valets at South and Osteria, a familiar scene before the pandemic at these upscale pioneers on the west side of Broad.
But the laid-back mood we were experiencing on the east side of Broad, where dogs and their humans were chilling al fresco in the setting summer sun over cocktails, fried chicken, and crudo with George Ezra singing “Pretty Shining People” in the background — woof! — well, that was definitely something different. A breezy neighborhood vibe is now in bloom here, with people embracing the novelty of Broad Street’s sidewalk as a front patio for happy hour, dinner, and brunch.
The promise of a revitalized North Broad Street corridor, which has simmered and sputtered for decades, was finally gaining real dining energy in early 2020 with new restaurants like Gabi and Cicala at the Divine Lorraine before the coronavirus brought them to a halt. Those restaurants are thankfully back up and running — I had a fantastic meal of Neapolitan pizzas, superb pastas, and suckling pig porchetta recently on the elegant, gated patio at fancy Cicala.
But to date, most of these projects have viewed North Broad as a destination for special events, especially concerts at the revived Met, which is set to reboot in August and draw its inevitably hungry crowds.
Clementine’s Stable Cafe, an 1860s brick building that once housed the E. Hart stables and has been tastefully renovated into a 41-unit loft complex with a stylish ground floor restaurant and bar, is eagerly awaiting that Met rush, too. But it also feels like one of the first of the new venues on Broad itself geared to those who actually live nearby, engaging directly with the streetscape north of Spring Garden Avenue.
Owners Alex Greenberg and Dan Greenberg have experience in creating needed community spaces in rapidly evolving neighborhoods. In 2013, the married couple opened Tela’s, the all-day cafe and market (named for their dog) on Fairmount Avenue with chef Chad Williams (now at Friday Saturday Sunday). Clementine’s, named for their new dog, was initially conceived as Tela’s polished big sister, with cushy lounge couches in front, exposed brick walls, and pine accents hewn from salvaged original timber, an expansive bar, a small retail wine shop, and a robust takeout program to start.
Finding a rhythm
But the pandemic scrapped the “all-day cafe” aspect for now. This roomy space, with 120 indoor seats, and 40 more on the sidewalk, struggled to find a rhythm after opening late last August, only to close a few months later due to restrictions, and reopen in the spring.
I could feel some momentum take hold at my meals, which hit an engaging sweet spot between quality dining and the casual setting. The cocktail-centric drink program is fun, not fussy — a bottle of prosecco served with three different mixers is the popular brunch move. Clementine’s also has one of the most cheerful service staffs I’ve encountered in recent weeks. But what surprised me most was the level of food, which has a sit-down-and-take-notice ambition that goes far beyond the sandwich and salad market fare of Tela’s.
One moment, I’m savoring lusciously thick slices of deep purple tuna crudo glossed in olive oil, scattered with the salty crunch of fried capers. The next, I’m marveling at the delicate pasta pouches and creamy bursts of sweet corn coming from the handmade agnolotti topped with a Jersey tomato vinaigrette and roasted chanterelles.
The impressive range of this kitchen’s handcrafted flavors, which extends to excellent fried chicken on both its dinner and brunch menus, makes sense when I learn the chefs behind the scene are Leo Forneas, 45, and his longtime lieutenant, chef de cuisine Leonardo Barrios, 29. Few cooks in town bring the diversity of experiences as Forneas, a Filipino-born chef who’s been instrumental in restaurants ranging from the Southern-themed Twisted Tail to a host of Schulson kitchens including Sampan and Double Knot (Asian fusion), Via Locusta (Italian), and the boutique steakhouse sizzle of Alpen Rose.
Forneas’ approach for Clementine’s has been to present good ingredients in simple compositions, from a beautiful shrimp ceviche in green aguachile steeped with serranos and cilantro (a nod to Barrios’ Mexican roots), to a plump whole dorade for two whose briny center is deftly deboned before it’s grilled over smoky wood chips then covered with tufts of whole herbs, grilled lemon and an anchovy-zinged salsa verde. Pair that fish with the quenching minerality of a Greek assyrtiko from Clementine’s well-chosen and affordable wine-by-the-glass list, and you have a food and drink duo that almost compels you to strip that sea-flavorful dorade bare to its cheeks and tail fin.
Seafood is a strong point for this kitchen, highlighted by a plate of beautifully seared Barnegat scallops served with curried carrot ginger puree and roasted hakurei turnips. But there are meaty draws, too, like the grilled lamb chop starter with piri piri sauce, a hanger steak with truffle sauce that’s a great value at $21, and a hearty mound of toothsome cavatelli in a soulful ragù of braised beef cheeks that I plan to eat again when the weather turns cold.
Such dishes will make a fine preshow nibble once Clementine’s finalizes an abbreviated, less expensive pretheater version of its five-course chef tasting menu ($49) sometime soon.
No matter what the weather holds, I suspect it will always be brunch season at Clementine’s, where the relaxed vibe draws the weekend crowd deep into its couch cushions and bottomless cups of Rival Bros. coffee. Of course, there is also a steady flow of zesty Bloody Marys, whimsical seasonal spritzes (watermelon on our visit), and prosecco mixers to keep the mood festive.
The brunch menu, meanwhile, hits strong on comfort favorites, beginning with a basket of Tela’s breads and pastries that set us off on a proper start (especially that babka). The eggs Benedict was a perfectly rendered classic updated nicely with a tasty ham that Forneas makes at Tela’s with chef de cuisine, Daisy Fernandez. Drippy eggs served in a cast-iron crock with spicy tomato “purgatory” sauce was the popular choice on virtually every table around us.
I was digging how the brandied, caramelized apples gave added appeal to the brioche French toast. But that was also more the dessert to my savory main event: a stellar fried chicken and waffles that showcased Forneas’ three-day bird. It gets brined in buttermilk with curry powder before it’s double-fried and served over a waffle made with coconut milk batter topped with a tropical tumble of caramelized pineapple chutney.
That’s a lot of flavors to balance on one table, but like Clementine’s itself, this experience was created to please a crowd, and do it at a high level. Its charm and spacious setting exude an inviting neighborhood ease, showing how North Broad Street’s restaurant revival can finally taking deeper root.
Clementine’s Stable Cafe
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
631 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19123, 215-454-6530; .clementinescafe.com
Dinner Wednesday and Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. Brunch Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
All major cards.
Street parking only.
There is a full bar that focuses on seasonal cocktails and simple twists to the classics, and 10 affordable wines by the glass (try the Feredini assyrtiko, the tempranillo blend from Hazanas, or Sun Goddess orange wine from Friuli). The small beer selection, strongest with local draft selections (2SP, Yards, Mainstay) has plenty of room to grow.