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Amada retains its vibrant nature

It seems almost inconceivable that Philly's supernova celeb chef, Jose Garces, has yet to tally a four-bell restaurant. He has scored megahits with sophisticated menus built for the crowds that flock to Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Garces Trading Co., and JG Domestic. And he unquestionably has the talent to be the city's top chef.

But "the master plan" of which this 39-year-old Iron Chef so often speaks is mostly focused right now on the mega-expansion of his national brand. Already with eight restaurants (and one food truck) in his stable, the Food Network star is in the midst of opening at least seven new ventures across the country, from hotels in Phoenix and Palm Springs, Calif., to Atlantic City's Revel casino, all of them variations on existing concepts.

There are plans for a new gastronomic jewel in Philly, he says, a 20-seat boutique where he will "push the dimensions" of his culinary art, targeted for early 2013. But for now, it was time to check back on his first smash tapas triumphs to see how they've aged as Planet Garces explodes around them.

Amada? Pretty well. Tinto? A little disappointing.

Granted, there are few restaurants in the city cooking food at such a high level of quality and intricacy for such large crowds, especially Amada, which can push close to 400 diners on a busy night. Viewed through the lens of a four-bell standard, however, neither of their top tasting menus quite made the kind of personal connection I expected with either food or service.

Tinto, in particular, which came close to four bells in its initial review, had expanded to become more comfortable, but also seemed to have settled into autopilot in the kitchen, with a tasting full of repeats from a meal I'd eaten just a few months earlier. Some I was thrilled to retaste - the succulent prawns skewered around chorizo, the luxurious turbot in pastis sauce rimmed with colorful citrus, the profoundly good Iberico ham. But there were also letdowns - surprisingly bland salt cod scrambled eggs; not-hot presliced sirloin (I preferred the Berkshire pork with grilled onions from my earlier visit); and a surprisingly pedestrian flourless chocolate cake finale. And the service was rushed and sloppy, often bringing dishes before the table was cleaned. Ultimately, Tinto's high-end $70 tasting presented very little special value over simply ordering a la carte.

Amada's tasting was considerably more vibrant. Raw Cape May Salts came topped with a sweet-tart jewel of strawberry escabeche and the refreshingly winey burst of shaved cava ice. Empanadas inspired by Garces' mother, stuffed with spinach and melting manchego, stood like crispy half-moons over sherry-vinegared piquillos and artichokes. The ham salad could have won a beauty contest: Its spinach in warm bacon-Cabrales vinaigrette, with spiced nuts and Turkish figs, came sheathed inside a cylinder of sheer, scalloped slices of Serrano.

The paprika-dusted octopus wasn't as tender as usual. But the plancha-seared scallops were like seafood lollipops. And the juicy, crispy-skinned roast pork made me want to return for the entire pig. It seemed I was just revving up, though, when our meal abruptly came to a halt. A crema catalana wrapped in an oddly rubbery, translucent "veil" of caramel was left at our table, quickly followed by an unrequested bill.

The already-packed room was roaring as more guests arrived, eagerly awaiting their own taste. And Amada, cranking up to full-flamenco speed, was ready to oblige.