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Porch & Proper pushes Collingswood restaurant scene forward

This menu is full of dishes that are perfectly good but lacking the touch or two needed to rise consistently into the level of three-bell excellence.

The smoked ricotta ravioli with beet sauce, hazelnuts and tarragon at Porch & Proper in Collingswood.
The smoked ricotta ravioli with beet sauce, hazelnuts and tarragon at Porch & Proper in Collingswood.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

"Well, one day when we have our own restaurant …"

Casey Simkins recalls the days when she and husband Jason uttered that wistful phrase. And like the thousands of other food-industry couples who've toiled for years in the background of other peoples' ventures, there were limitless possibilities for that blank sheet of a dream. Would it be different from the sleek concept restaurants of the Starr organization, where these two worked for the last decade? For sure. And it just got real with Porch & Proper.

It's a testament to their imagination and determination that the elegant, low-key warmth of their new restaurant could have emerged from the daydreams of someone (Casey) who spent years making treacly cocktails with Kool-Aid and Twizzlers behind the bar at Continental Mid-Town. Or that Jason, a longtime manager at the design-forward icons Buddakan, Morimoto, and Pod, would find himself knocking down walls, gutting bathrooms, painting, and trying his hand at laying floors.

It turns out he's pretty handy. Porch & Proper, which occupies the Collingswood space of the former Indeblue, is a handsome, bi-level oasis of intimate dining, its Moroccan tile floors, recycled leather banquettes, crushed-velvet accents, and molded wood country chairs illuminated by the flickering warmth of real candles, live greens, a Johnny Cash soundtrack and a gracious front porch strung with deck lights. Not bad at all for a $100,000 investment, the couple's life savings. The BYOB format is partly a reflection of that limitation, but also a default of their choice to land in Collingswood, a dry town with plenty of dining momentum already but still in need of non-Italian contemporary options like this.

Of course, once the setting is proper and a professional service staff is in place (as it is here), the food is ultimately what will bring the crowds in or keep them away. And the Simkins got lucky with their choice of Ryan McQuillan, 31, a rising star who's cooked at other fine stops — Talula's Table, Mercato, 10Arts — that all inform his vision here for a modern American menu driven by seasonality, creative pastas, and local ingredients.

Risotto rice grown in New Jersey is cooked down and fried into bite-size fritters like grown-up rice tots that come topped with a crudo of dayboat Jersey scallops tossed in spicy Korean mayo. House-made ricotta cheese is smoked, then stuffed into saucer-shaped ravioli glazed in the crimson tang of pureed beets, tarragon, and verjus from local Amalthea Cellars. They are as delicious as they are beautiful, ringed by a green halo of charred rosemary oil.

That warm bread blooming from a ceramic crock? Talula's fans have seen that move before, but it's a timeless gesture of warmth, this loaf made of brioche-like milk bread tinged with sourdough, dusted with everything spice, and served with tangy house-cultured butter and apple jam infused with thyme. It's worth the $5 supplement. Some deeply smoked slices of short rib pastrami come over tiny blini pancakes made from rye flour with house kraut and a dab of fresh Russian dressing, an irresistible Reuben riff that touches on two earthy notes — smoke and alt-grain flours — that are recurring themes across this menu.

I wish, though, that that Russian were more than a nearly imperceptible, ornamental dab. Fresh Russian is a lifestyle choice to be indulged liberally; it should never be a mere grace note. Likewise for the black truffle zabaglione that was virtually nonexistent — and so, oversold — on the plate of gougères puffs stuffed with creamy wild mushroom ragù. Both dishes were delicious enough. But tiny details like that can be the difference between very good and sublime. McQuillan, who helped maintain a four-bell rating at Talula's Table in Kennett Square during my last tasting menu there in 2017, is capable of the latter.

This menu was full of dishes that were perfectly good but lacking the touch or two needed to rise consistently to the level of three-bell excellence that I believe is within its eventual reach. The pasta doughs made with various alternative flours are appealing. But the whole-wheat pappardelle with the otherwise soulful beef ragù were clumpy and brittle. A touch of sourdough added puffy intrigue to the tonnarelli, but the texture was too soft to stand up to the cheese-rich cacio e pepe. The quill-shaped garganelle tubes were admirably hand-rolled, but also just overcooked, so they collapsed beneath a hearty lamb neck stew aromatic with cinnamon and cumin.

There were plenty of offerings here among the snacks and small plates that were already perfect. Like the bright and crunchy kohlrabi salad shaved with green apples into a hale of minty herbs, sweet-tart white balsamic, and crushed cashews. Or the rich lobster bisque (à la 10 Arts) poured from a carafe tableside over sea beans and two pan-crisped coins of shrimp and lobster mousse. The brilliantly colorful salmon crudo shingled luscious slices of brick-orange fish over a vivid green aguachile of dill and cucumber juice. A tender arm of octopus bent across a toothsome sauté of fresh navy beans studded with savory cubes of pan-crisped pepperoni (suddenly en vogue in fancy restaurants).  More of that soft milk bread browned for an evening special in the rendered lardo of a house-smoked rib eye, then topped with braised leeks in vinaigrette, the peppery dust of leek ash and the saline pop of bowfin caviar.

But the pairing of hot sugared doughnuts with fois gras made the already creamy mousse a little runny. Too much raw egg yolk mixed into the lamb tartare overwhelmed the spicy zing of fresh harissa. At $15 or less for the menu's small plates and pastas, the occasional imperfections are easily forgiven. A dish of airy gnudi orbs of house ricotta and local wheat flour hovering over the creaminess of a mushroom sauce enriched with wine and buttery whey can cure any measure of regret about the less-than-snappy tonnarelli.

When the menu steps up to $30-plus entrées, though, there is less room for error. So the kitchen turns a shade more conservative, but with largely satisfying results. A gorgeous N.Y. strip steak came fanned over an excellent mushroom risotto beneath the root geek bonus surprise of a poblano-pickled sunchoke relish. The poached halibut was solid white fish luxury paired with earthy farro, braised leeks, and salmon caviar that added a briny pop of ocean. I'd say $39 is pushing it, value-wise, for the cioppino. But at least McQuillan delivered a bowl of perfectly poached Jersey seafood — sweet scallops, tender squid, briny clams, chunks of tuna and black bass — in a tomato broth brisk with fennel and Jimmy Nardello peppers that was almost big enough to share.

A pan-seared skate special was the one true flub, the fish terribly overcooked beside a miso squash puree that clashed with an otherwise brilliant clam scampi sauce. The requisite roast chicken, meanwhile, got a personality upgrade with a bright orange glaze of zingy piri-piri sauce made from house-fermented local peppers. Vegetarians get a well-meaning large-plate nod, too, with a massive sweet potato that's been roasted black directly over the coals. It's a beauty of a Beaumont, served over a bed of curried yogurt lentils. But I can't imagine the joy in eating this football-size briquette of a sweet potato as the centerpiece my supper. It's really a grand side starch disguised as a $21 entrée.

When it comes to dessert, McQuillan turns to classics with a twist. A Paris-Brest ring of choux pastry stuffed with chocolate-hazelnut buttercream. A swaying soft vanilla panna cotta topped with the lacy crunch of a caramelized honey tuile and soft fall chunks of Asian pears in ginger jam.

And then there are the apple cider beignets, raised with a touch of sourdough, and served hot and sugar-dusted from the fryer with a caramel cruet of maple syrup milk jam. Have we had hot doughnuts before quite recently for dessert? Oh, yes: from Jason Simkins' old stomping grounds at Buddakan, at Zeppoli just across the street, not to mention Hearthside's apple fritters nearby on the other side of Haddon Avenue, where Collingswood's non-Italian dining scene got its most recent major boost.

Porch & Proper is already a worthy new player riding comfortably in its wake. And there's nothing wrong with serving fresh beignets. I'm sure "hot doughnuts" has at some point been on the must-serve list of many who dreamed of one day opening their own restaurant. Nothing could be more homey and inviting. But the key here to discovering this restaurant's considerable true potential is simply a matter of time, as Porch & Proper continues to settle into its space, refine its own voice, and becomes the unique place that Casey and Jason Simkins, and their chef Ryan McQuillan, have the ability to create.

Porch & Proper

619 W. Collings Ave., Collingswood. 856-477-2105;

Collingswood scores again with this charming BYOB debut from longtime former Starr veterans Jason and Casey Simkins, a husband-wife duo who've teamed with chef Ryan McQuillan (ex-Talula's Table, Mercato) for a sophisticated setting and a modern American menu infused with seasonality, creative pastas and local ingredients. The professional service, prettily tiled dining room, and light-strung porch — along with a very ambitious scratch kitchen — have laid the foundation for yet another worthy special-occasion dining option in this rising restaurant town. Some more consistency and finesse would benefit entrees that rise into the high $30s. But with time, a step up to a more elite rating is within its reach.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS House bread; pastrami pancakes; wild mushroom gougères; crispy rice cakes; lardo toast special; kohlrabi salad; lobster bisque; octopus; salmon crudo; smoked ricotta ravioli; ricotta gnudi with mushrooms; N.Y. strip steak; N.J. cioppino; panna cotta; apple cider beignets with maple milk jam.

BYOB Some bigger American reds can handle the smoky accents that pervade some of the menu; but food-friendly wines without too much oak are also good matches. The restaurant also sells bottles from Atco's Amalthea Cellars, which is regarded as one of New Jersey's best winemakers, with a specialty in Bordeaux-style red blends like Europa I ($39. 99).

WEEKEND NOISE A lot of tile and hard surfaces mean this restaurant is pretty, but moderately noisy, even when half full. But considering how early South Jerseyans eat dinner, anytime after 8 p.m. is usually manageable.

IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday, until 9 p.m.
Entrees, $21-$29.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially weekends. Seasonal porch seating available on first-come basis.
Wheelchair accessible, with ramp access at rear of building beside handicapped parking spot.
Free parking for three cars in front of restaurant, and one handicapped spot at rear. Additional free city parking in lot behind businesses directly across Collings Avenue.