Sorry, what's that?
Hey, Louie! Louie!!
Ah, thank you for saying it twice, I could hardly hear you. No, really. This new University City restaurant with the convenient double name — Louie Louie — is so ear-splittingly noisy I couldn't even complain properly to the well-meaning manager standing right beside me.
"How do you like the Smoking Sazerac?" he asked, so cheerful he could burst.
"Want to know the truth?" I said. "It's terrible."
"That's great! Isn't it wonderful? It's an American twist on a classic!"
Let's set aside for just a moment the fact that the Sazerac is an American classic — indeed, regarded by many as America's first cocktail. Let's also look past my belief that it's already a perfect drink whose complex blend of absinthe, bitters and whiskey with a citrus twist should never be bullied by the smoldering campfire reek of a burning anise pod that makes it smell like bad incense.
There is a deeper truth to this exchange at Louie Louie: This restaurant is struggling to connect on some of the most elementary levels, especially considering the upscale prices. This sprawling new brasserie at the Inn at Penn in University City comes from Fearless Restaurants & Hospitality, the team behind the White Dog Cafes, the Moshulu, and Wayne's Autograph Brasserie. And it has all the designer bells and whistles for success: a handsome bistro-style space, a large French-influenced menu with something for everyone, a bar with baroque craft-cocktail ambitions.
As a concept, it's a smart bet. University City needs all the stylish food destinations it can muster for its built-in crowd of Penn profs and students who need a convenient place to splurge with their parents. And this 175-seat destination, the brainchild of managing partner Sydney Grims, daughter of restaurant mogul Marty Grims, has the right idea with a brasserie vibe that evokes a soupçon of Parc Lite with a whimsical American twist — with '70s bubble lettering for the name perched above its candy-striped black-and-white sidewalk awnings, also inlaid in brass across the rainbow mosaic sprays of colorful floor tiles; Boston's "More Than a Feeling" blasting from the speakers, and the nouveau riche glint of 24-karat gold flecks mixed into the grout between its subway-tile walls.
I would have spent more on soundproofing than grout bling considering the decibel abuse here. But that's a fixable problem for a restaurant that looks as good as Louie Louie, with its cane chairs, potted palms, pearl-drop floor lamps, and wall of cafe windows that open onto a Walnut Street view of prime Penn campus real estate. It likely will thrive with college town business no matter what I say.
But improving Louie Louie's mediocre takes on French bistro food and American comforts is going to take considerably more work. This is familiar fare, from onion soup to braised short ribs, and it's intended to create an air of accessibility. But when most of the entrées hover between $28 and $33, the soulless execution I tasted here isn't going to fly for long.
Consider the $27 breast of chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, which should be Cooking School 101. Clark Gilbert, executive chef of the Fearless Restaurant group, concedes that his crew at Louie Louie struggled early on to consistently cook a chicken breast the old-fashioned way by pan-roasting from start to finish. They've resorted to a foolproof sous-vide method, which precooks the bird in a sealed plastic bag and which is reliably juicy. It just needs to be finished in a hot pan to order. Unfortunately for this set-it-and-forget-it generation, a sous-vide bag won't season the chicken for them, too. Ours was juicy for sure, but also virtually tasteless.
The lamb stew meat was tender but so lacking in sauce that wasn't reduced to a sticky shine that it also was terribly dry. The big braised short rib was also cooked to proper softness. But it, too, lacked any gravy that was properly thickened, so it sat like a naked beef tower over mashed celery root.
The $17 shrimp cocktail was watery. The plate of smoked salmon was clumsily topped with a hockey puck-shaped scoop of fingerling potato salad that had more mayo than an Acme deli case. Ditto for the signature crab Louie salad. Gilbert says it is deliberately moist with Louie dressing. But considering all the ingredients that are supposedly in that mayo-based sauce (chili sauce, lemon, capers, horseradish, Tabasco), the batch that drenched our pile of lump crabmeat was shockingly bland. The green petals of lifeless Bibb lettuce plastered flat against the plate (how long before it was ordered, I wonder?) didn't help perk it up.
It wasn't all misery on the food front. The tuna tartare was bright with zippy Dijon vinaigrette, capers, and crunchy microgreens. The Spanish octopus was also excellent, a big, tender arm curling around a deconstructed Niçoise salad over zingy smoked paprika aioli and a green halo of basil oil. The rich orange lobster bisque, poured tableside over a salad of tarragon-kissed shrimp, had a depth of flavor the perfunctory French onion soup was missing. I loved the taste of the arancini fried risotto balls enriched with goat cheese, and their dry centers would have been perfect if they'd been creamier.
The plump Rohan duck entrée was everything you'd expect from a $32 showstopper, the tender pads of cinnamon-scented breast fanned over butternut squash puree with a sweet dark puddle of duck-port glaze. The pan-seared hunk of cod with roasted tomatoes was a frumpy mess on the plate over those workhorse garlic mashed potatoes, but with its dark red wine butter sauce, it was among the more flavorful offerings. The steak-frites was also solid, even if $39 was a steep price to pay for a 10-ounce cut of good (but hardly next-level) beef that was on the overcooked side of requested medium-rare.
On too many other occasions, though, good ideas simply lacked the careful touch to succeed. I like the idea of serving escargot in something other than garlic butter. But the red wine mushroom sauce with pancetta and hazelnuts was more like loose soup on the plate, and the snails themselves were bland and chewy.
And how do you mess up lasagna? Louie Louie tries its best by getting cute and rolling up its hearty pasta sheets with vegetables and ricotta into canneloni-like roulades. But instead of the complex layers of a proper vertical casserole, this one ate like a jumbled tube of mushy noodles and pasty cheese. I'd yet to meet a lamb meatball I didn't love. But there was too much pork sausage blended into these, and I could hardly taste the lamb. They also weren't fully reheated.
I have a consistent soft spot for any restaurant that serves rabbit, and it's a regular Tuesday fixture on the restaurant's rotating plats du jour. But the problems with the basics of braising here persist. It's not that the meat wasn't tender. There simply was far too little flavor steeped into the shreds of rabbit that came piled over a massive, artless tangle of pappardelle, and the lack of a properly finished gravy wasted an opportunity to focus the personality of a potentially soulful dish. A skilled saucier, for example, would greatly benefit this kitchen. That I wasted $28 on it only made it more frustrating.
A giant brownie sundae and a proper crème brûlée were modest consolations, and the best of the small selection of desserts, made off-site in Fearless' suburban pastry commissary.
There's still plenty of potential in this restaurant if only more attention is paid to the basics. You won't find such measured simplicity on the cocktail list, which overreaches with so many unnecessary flourishes and odd combos that the cocktails I sampled didn't work, like the Dancing on Stardust margarita so overfoamed in the glass it was like drinking fruity alcoholic air. I had better luck with the wine list, which had solid offerings from Spain (CVNE crianza), Burgundy (Creusserome Viré Clessé), and Austria (Huber zweigelt) by the glass.
The friendly service staff, despite the unnaturally long pauses before the entrées at all my meals, was a plus. And our tuned-in server even noticed without my telling him what the chatty manager had not — that I was not touching that Smoking Sazerac. He insisted on removing that cocktail from our bill.
The biggest relief, though, was stepping outside into the fall night and letting my ears, bludgeoned with the din for more than two hours of mediocre dining, enjoy the cool comfort of the relative Walnut Street quiet. I don't care how many times you say a restaurant's name. The goal for any beautiful restaurant crafted with true hospitality in mind should be to lure your customers to stay and linger, not eagerly run the other way.
3611 Walnut St., 267-805-8585; louielouie.restaurant
An American brasserie with a French twist and a retro '70s vibe is how the Grims family, which owns the White Dog Cafes and Moshulu, describes its sprawling and boisterous new restaurant and bar at the Inn at Penn. It's a handsome space with vintage touches of intricate tilework, teardrop lights, palms, and gracious sidewalk cafe seating that looks out onto Penn's campus. Unfortunately, it's so insanely noisy it made my head hurt. And the big menu of familiar bistro-plus dishes (steak-frites and precooked chicken, dry stews and mayo-heavy salads) lacked the finesse and flavor required to make it a compelling draw with upscale entrée prices that hover in the low $30s.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Goat cheese arancini; tuna tartare; lamb meatballs; octopus; lobster bisque; duck breast; steak-frites; cod; sundae.
DRINKS The more elaborate the cocktail, the worse it is, and this bar tends toward overwrought ambition. The Smoking Sazerac is like bad liquid incense. The white Cosmo and Negroni variation are passable. The Dancing on Stardust margarita is all boozy foam. Stick with some of the solid craft beers from Dogfish Head, Conshohocken Brewery and Two Roads. The wines by the glass are also adequate but pricey for the best pours, like the $15 Viré Clessé from Creusserome, or an $18 Willamette pinot from Illahe. A Spanish CVNE crianza for $12 was one of the better values.
WEEKEND NOISE It's often so horrifically noisy it can be hard to complain to a server standing next to you and be heard. Less money on golden grout and more on soundproofing would have been wise.
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 4:30-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner entrées, $19-$39.
All major cards.
Valet parking at Inn at Penn, accessed through Sansom Street, costs $20. Street parking free after 8 p.m. weeknights and weekends.