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Walnut Street Cafe a potential game-changer

Walnut Street Cafe is among Craig LaBan's best of Philadelphia.

The porterhouse steak for two with grilled carrots (left) and roasted mushrooms with bordelaise sauce and roasted shallot from Walnut Street Cafe.
The porterhouse steak for two with grilled carrots (left) and roasted mushrooms with bordelaise sauce and roasted shallot from Walnut Street Cafe.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

I perched atop a cushy leather stool in the window at the Walnut Street Cafe in the new Cira Centre South, took in its new vista of the city, a bite of pastry — and then my morning exploded into a thousand buttery bits of flaky croissant.

OK, make that croissants, plural. First came the ham and cheese, whose savory layers were moistened by a ribbon of béchamel. Then a pistachio riff on croissant aux amandes, whose creamy center of nutty green paste was unexpectedly tart with sour cherry. Neither caught me off guard, though, like baker Melissa Weller's stuffed kouign amann.

It's worth mastering the name of this once-obscure wonder of sweet Breton viennoiserie popularized by New York Cronut master Dominique Ansel. Say "queen a-mon" and prepare for the crackle of gossamer caramel sheets whose pastry leaves are folded in, one upon another, like God's muffin. There are a few fine renditions in Philadelphia right now. But the heart of this one flowed with a dreamy core of chocolate hazelnut cream. And it was, like, what just happened?!

Darned if the sun outside that window didn't suddenly just shine a little brighter. And this once-barren stretch of Walnut Street looking back over the rail yards and river to Center City sprang to vibrant new life. Commuters biked past on their way to University City. Athletes trotted down to Frisbee practice on the Penn fields below. Executives in suits popped in for macchiatos and chocolate babka before heading upstairs to the corporate world of the latest Cira Centre skyscraper, which has formed a veritable new neighborhood of 2,000-plus people stacked among its offices, residences, and hotel.

Me? I wanted to grab a seat on one of the big sidewalk cafe couches and hang around for a house-ground cheeseburger lunch, or linger even longer for a raw-bar tower with cocktails and a glass of clairette blanche for dinner, followed by a lattice-topped slab pie stuffed with seasonal fruit. It is thoroughly possible at this all-day cafe, which feels like a potential game-changer on a number of levels.

There are two other all-day concepts a little farther east on Walnut, including the excellent Res Ipsa, a minimalist BYOB that actually makes a better (and less expensive) breakfast sandwich. But the Walnut Street Cafe, launched by four partners who also run New York's Michelin-starred Rebelle, has a broader mandate and the wherewithal to connect the east and west banks of the Schuylkill like no other West Philly restaurant before it. There are fantastic cocktails (a frozen daiquiri inside a frosty brass pineapple!) and one of the city's most compelling wine programs, a star chef spinning smart takes on pasta and American cuisine, and one of most beautiful new dining spaces in years.

You'd hardly know it was there from first glance, as it's hidden from westbound traffic by the sloping portico of the building's sleek facade. But inside, it opens up into a glass box series of airy rooms and a mezzanine-topped bar leading to an open-kitchen dining room whose curvy blond wood furniture, teal leather banquettes, brass fixtures, and smoked glass tube lights are framed in the oblique angles of the building's contemporary exterior.

With '80s hits and New Wave bopping in the background (at a manageable decibel level), and an outgoing young staff in jeans and linen aprons whirring about, the mood is lively, casual, and crisp, with polished accents at every turn, from the intricate tile work to the cut-crystal tumblers that give the drinks extra class to the little details that distinguish chef and co-owner Daniel Eddy's elevated American cuisine. Like the still-warm slices of multigrain toast that contrast the chilled pâté of whipped pork rillettes smeared over top. Or the beet juice that adds a subtle undertone of earthy sweetness to the crimson mignonette for pristine Massachusetts oysters.

A familiar wedge is transformed into something elegant simply through a different cut, a tenderloin slice through the iceberg's heart that looks more like a lettuce stump, artfully scattered with nubs of deeply smoked bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, chervil, and creamy Lancaster blue cheese dressing. A beautifully plump flounder is pan-roasted whole and juicy on the bone, which is removed just before serving and laid against the browned fillets like a mermaid's comb. The head-turning smoke of Bordelaise sauce being poured over a sizzling hot iron Staub skillet lends tableside drama to a giant porterhouse splurge for two that is already epic enough, the meat dry-aged 35 days before being roasted in garlic butter and thyme over shallots. (It would have been perfect with just a touch more seasoning. )

Eddy, who commutes from Manhattan, is a protégé of Le Coucou's Daniel Rose, for whom he worked for three years in Paris at Spring. He and the partners who were recruited for this project by Cira's developer, Brandywine Realty — managing partner Branden McRill, Weller the baker, nationally renowned sommelier Patrick Cappiello — still run the French-themed Rebelle on the Bowery, with its 3,000-label wine cellar. Walnut Street's menu draws on wider influences, including Eddy's Nicaraguan heritage and his earlier work with Michael Psilakis (Onera) cooking Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines — aided locally by executive sous-chef Manny Perez, a longtime Vetri hand.

The pastas, not surprisingly, are outstanding. Delicate hat-shaped ravioli stuffed with lemony ricotta come over a puddle of brown butter sparked with mint. House-extruded rigatoni anchor a fresh rendition of all'Amatriciana with guanciale and fresh long-hot pepper spice. The ruffle-edged ribbons of black squid ink reginette tangle with rock shrimp in a golden tomato sauce sparked by Calabrian chilies. The most visually stunning dish, a white veal lasagna fanned out on its side like a broiler-crisped deck of cards, was disappointingly dry.

It was one of the few letdowns from Eddy's kitchen, which seemed effortless with so many other dishes: a tender pork loin over stylish black rice and romesco sauce; a roasted hanger steak enlivened with an herbal, capery salsa verde; black bass over braised beans and sweet piquillo pepper piperade. Even the chicken, which is cooked skin-side down before resting in a bath of melted butter infused with citrus, becomes memorable in a crock finished with marsala and mushrooms.

Though the Walnut Street Cafe does not have nearly the encyclopedic depth of Rebelle's cellar, Cappiello has still created here one of the city's most exciting wine programs, with 50 by the glass and 80 more by the bottle culled from indie producers around the world, including 75 percent that are either "natural" or organically farmed. Most important, the somms put on a clinic in good wine service, offering diners preview tastes of divergent styles (A classic semillon from Bordeaux's Chateau Belleue? Or a New World exotic like that South African clairette blanche from Craven, or the tropical tones of a Mendocino chenin blanc from Pax?). There's a stunning New York rosé from Bellwether, the earthy cab franc fruit of Chinon's Olga Raffault aged in chestnut barrels, and sparkling wine from … England? The intriguing choices are many, and they're presented risk-free.

The Walnut Street Cafe also does something I've not seen before, offering a half of any whole bottle on its list, which is what led us to the black-fruit and olive intensity of Sixteen 600, a suave natural zinfandel that was perfect for that porterhouse. The big surprise? That dark Sonoma zin was also spot-on for the mint chip ice cream sandwiched between two of Weller's soft chocolate biscuit cookies for dessert. It wasn't the first time the Walnut Street Cafe has changed my worldview for the better, and I doubt it will be the last.