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In search of the Love but finding mostly 'like' at latest Starr-Olexy collaboration

The Love is too pricey to be the "neighborhood restaurant" it aspires to be, but with a little more consistency in its updated American comforts, Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy's latest collaboration could become a worthy Rittenhouse Square destination.

Server Maris Garden explains a cheese plate at The Love in Rittenhouse Square.
Server Maris Garden explains a cheese plate at The Love in Rittenhouse Square.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Man seeking deeper relationship with neighborhood restaurant: Like a lot of hungry souls, I admit I've eaten around, chasing the latest trendy dish. But now I'm in search of a spot to call my own — especially near Rittenhouse Square, where quality often comes at a steep price, with plenty of attitude.

Rittenhouse place that gets you: Hi, we want to be your neighborhood bistro! You can eat here three times a week! We aspire to exist for you in this sort of enrichment/present moment genre I can't think of a word for. But we're friendly, can double as a destination restaurant, and feel like an almost-secret experiment in progress. Plus, we've got stiff drinks and cookies!

Hmmm … now that does sound like a restaurant I really want to get to know. The sometimes-partners who own it — Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy — have a gazillion-bell portfolio of some personal favorites between them, like their Talula's Garden across town and Starr's own Parc nearby. They also get extra credit for putting the imported New York disaster of Serafina definitively in the past. I'm willing to give it a few tries. The restaurant is even called  "The Love." How could it be wrong?

The Ice Breaker: Uh-oh. We haven't even gotten inside yet and already there's trouble: a couple having a heated argument directly in front of the Love's front door. As I gingerly step around them and head in, I wonder if this is a bad omen? No, the staff is, indeed, over-the-top friendly when we get inside. But miscommunication is in the air.

"Drinks are on me!" I sportingly tell my guests as we sit down. "As long as you don't order the $20 Manhattan."

"I'll have the $20 Manhattan!" my pal Dave says to the server, right on cue.

Hey, it's noisy in here, despite the fact the ceiling has been lined with cork. I'm sure it was a mistake. And I'll admit that the over-proofed Dad's Hat rye bottled just for the Love and the resulting suavely crafted drink (actually called the "$20 Manhattan") went a long way toward soothing the sticker shock. But not for long. As I scanned the entree prices — $32, $38, $36, $29 (for chicken?!) — I wondered what kind of neighborhood restaurant this was.

Yes, there are deep pockets in the high-rises around Rittenhouse, but even some of the richest denizens of the square I know have confirmed to me these are special-occasion prices for them, too. Time to recalibrate my expectations for what the Love really is: a potential prospect for a charming splurge meal. It's a beautiful space, all done up in whitewashed brick arches, soft lighting, and tufted denim-blue linen banquettes. This the most expensive real estate in Starr's extensive collection of Philly places, so the upscale prices should be no surprise.

If the cooking lived up to that level of expectation, it would have been green light all the way. And some of my first bites were impressive, from the irresistible whole wheat Parker rolls with warm chive butter to the stunning of Skuna Bay salmon cubes tossed in olive oil and lime, then dotted with black Hawaiian salt and the pink and purple poker chips of shaved heirloom radishes. Ricotta ravioli glazed in vivid yellow squash puree with toasted hazelnuts channeled the essence of butternut.

The $24 pierogi dish was flat because the American fish eggs atop the buttermilk panna cotta lacked enough briny caviar snap. But the pumpkin soup was notable, not just for dynamic flourishes of sour lime, Fresno chili heat, and puffed wild rice, but also for the huge helping in that bowl: "I don't want to be that guy who doesn't serve enough soup," says chef Charles Parker, doing double duty here now while also overseeing Talula's Garden, since the Love's initial chef didn't work out.

The determination to serve big portions, almost as though to justify the prices, left me with mixed emotions. There was a lot of food in those entrees. But in the case of the buttermilk fried "Love Bird," there was also so much "comeback" sauce smeared across the entire plate and, by extension, every corner of the chicken, I wanted it to go away. But when Parker's food is good, it can be great. A papered plank bearing an enormous whole trout tawny with smoke alongside farro salad and lollipop kale is reason on its own to come. Other dishes, like the massive short rib Stroganoff with egg noodles, were simply too heavy for a single person to comfortably wrangle.

I wish someone had given me this advice: Sharing is the best way to embrace the Love with any frequency.

A "Lite" Lunch: You know how sometimes people seem different in the daylight? Restaurants do, too. And the Love is particularly handsome in the lunchtime sun, more relaxed, quieter, and with (slightly) lighter fare. It was only then when I realized just how stripped-down, even austere, the design of this corner space really was. It's the "grown-up" look, Starr says, devoid of the themed concept designs he's known for, not to mention the farm chic tchotchke look Olexy has mastered at her three Talulas.

In a way, I miss that personality. But Olexy's kitschy reflex finds its way onto every possible piece of printed paper, from the chaotic multifont menu to bad food puns on the take-out bags, and all-caps phrases like "EAT YOUR VEGGIES!" to introduce the crudite. It comes off goofier than ever.

The name, she told me, is really more a reflection of the attention she wants her team to give every plate. "Give it the love," she often tells them.

And that effort is really working at lunch in the creamy (but creamless) clam chowder topped with Old Bay-scented corn bread, and in the perfectly fried Chesapeake catfish and hush puppies platter that, like so much here, could have fed two. Even the cringingly named "Lite" chicken salad — whose moist steamed meat is tossed with perfect Dijon dressing in a hearty bramble of endive and radicchio with almonds, grapes, and a goat-cheese-smeared plank of toast — delivered genuine satisfaction.

And then came the $20 wagyu cheeseburger, which was surprisingly small and as much of a remember-where-you-are statement as that Manhattan. It left me underwhelmed, except for the amazing fondue of Doe Run and Birchrun Hills cheese with house potato chips, which should be a star all its own. That burger has since been lowered to $18, which at least tells me someone is listening — an essential virtue in any neighborhood restaurant: "It will just be what it becomes to the people who come to it," Olexy promises.

Dinner Decisions: I'm picking up the clear signals now when I ask my server about a cocktail and she replies, "I … enjoy it," without breaking a smile, then deftly steering me toward a lovely Oregon chard from Adelsheim. (The local grüner from Galen Glen was another smart recommendation.)

I only wish someone had lucidly explained how to eat the curious "gnocco frito" fried dough pillows, which were at once too delicate and not crunchy enough to make a logical companion to the otherwise delicious slices of house mortadella and onion jam.

Of all my visits, trying to determine if I could truly love the Love, this night proved that, while I still feel pangs of great potential, it's not yet consistent enough for a full commitment. The spaghetti with lobster and the scallops with tangerine butter were fabulous. But the salmon was overcooked, and the beautiful crudite platter was so large that, by the time we'd made a dent in all those radishes, it felt like dutifully slogging through an entire week's CSA in one sitting.

Is there still hope for a lasting relationship here? I'm an optimist, based on the fast evolution of Olexy and Starr's first collaboration at Talula's Garden. And there are genuine qualities that shouldn't be ignored.

Chief among them is pastry chef Olivia Portelli, who captures exactly the kind of updated homeyness I believe the Love truly aspires to. Ice cream infused with buttered popcorn comes topped with a homemade riff on Cracker Jack toffee. Crumbles of carrot cake folded stealthily inside cream cheese ice cream blooms as it melts with the most intense carrot cake flavor ever. Tart and creamy fro-yo speckled with poppy seeds is the perfect counterpoint to the bright citrus bar.

Meanwhile, the "Not Your Neighbor's Cookie Plate" is such a skillful display of bake sale favorites reimagined for the restaurant spotlight —  sea salt chocolate shortbread bars, pumpkin doughnuts, frangellico truffles, chai snickerdoodles, and coconut-lime macaroons, just to name a few — the $12 fee seems, finally, like an absolute deal.

Just when I was about to wander elsewhere in search of a neighborhood restaurant, the espresso-white chocolate chip cookie draws me right back in. I may give it time. But I'll be back.