Daniela D'Ambrosio and Todd Braley are not the first chef couple to dream up their bistro with a doodle on a cocktail napkin, and find themselves three years later with hammer and paintbrush in hand, a small-business loan in their pocket, and the will to put their own sweat into making it happen.
Philly's BYOB movement is tailor-made for determined duos like this young pair behind the Pickled Heron, an admittedly curious name that began as playful wordplay between the two a few years ago, but is now a very serious new offering in Fishtown's resurgence. And Braley, a working carpenter and electrician who rehabbed houses before becoming a chef, is likely more suited to the handcraft than most aspiring restaurateurs.
You know the DIY culture has found true devotion with chefs who can lay and wax the cherrywood floors from a pallet of wood they purchased from eBay, then smoke their own bacon and Argmanac-splashed sausage with the lumber scraps. Plenty of places churn their own butter, bake their own bread, pickle their own veggies, and cure their own duck prosciutto, as the Pickled Heron does. But "floor-smoked meat" is a standard for resourcefulness that is hard to beat.
More of that pluck is necessary if this couple is going make a sustainable go of their French-inspired bistro, a bright box of a room with an open kitchen, Veuve Cliquot-orange walls, church pew banquettes, and gallery art set into a long-vacant townhouse space that once, decades ago was the Puerto Rican-American Club, D'Ambrosio says.
To be sure, Fishtown is one of our most dynamic neighborhoods on the rise. There are gastropubs and cafes galore, with an artisan pizza place (Pizza Brain) and an inventive ice cream artisan (Little Baby's) set to open soon. And yet, this stretch of Frankford Avenue (or "rue du Frankford," as the Heron's menu says), better known as the home of Circle Thrift, is still an unlikely block on which to find an $18 appetizer of seared foie gras.
To be fair, that starter - a crisped pad of luscious liver over house-baked brioche smeared with black pepper-raisin jam - is loftier than any other on the menu. But along with entrees in the mid-$20s, that foie is a signal of the ambition and high-end flavors of this BYOB, unprecedented in Fishtown.
If you sear it, they will come. That's the theory, at least, for these optimistic urban culinary pioneers. And, for what it's worth, that appetizer has become one of the restaurant's best sellers. D'Ambrosio and Braley have the pedigree to take this shot at something special in their own neighborhood (so close, they can see the restaurant's elegant bird-shaped door handle from their home).
Both trained at culinary schools (New England Culinary Institute for her; Restaurant School for him), and they met during their years working at the Ritz-Carlton Grill, under both Terence Feury and Kevin Sbraga.
That experience shone through a number of fine flavors on their seasonal, ever-changing menu, giving good reason to come back. Wonderfully tender grilled octopus tumbled with baby fennel bulbs and tart segments of blood orange. Plump seared scallops take on an almost meaty south-of-France quality with bacony red-wine sauce, hedgehog mushrooms, and sweet salsify. Thin-stemmed roasted beech mushrooms and a crispy cake of white beans come beside a tender breast of veal rolled around a pinwheel of lemony sorrel - a clear emblem of the old-school Larousse aesthetic partly informing this kitchen.
Based on the sparse crowds in the 50-seat dining room on my visits, I wonder if the Pickled Heron's upscale inclinations have outpaced its actual audience. It's only a few months old, and time will tell. My instinct, though, is that a valuable local following would take root much faster if the entrees were just a few dollars less.
The chefs already made one such smart calculation between my visits, deleting one element from the duck-breast entree, a thick pastry baton filled with celery root and duck confit. Not only did it ease the price, from $25 to $22, it removed the flourish that weighed the plate down, making it overbearing rather than memorable. Similarly, a very good lamb loin with pomegranate molasses and chickpea "panisse" fries would have been as appealing had the dish not been weighed down by a half-pound portion of meat.
Finding that perfect balance, in price and composition, is an extra challenge for first-time restaurateurs in their early 30s. And for these clearly talented cooks in the throes of biweekly menu rewrites, finesse will come.
Their youth in the kitchen, though, was clear in a few dishes that could have used some extra tweaks. I loved the giant ravioli filled with pureed sunchoke and lentils, posed in a vibrant green pool of coriander broth. But segments of wickedly sour grapefruit tipped the whole plate off-balance.
The house charcuterie plate was mostly impressive, with its crispy round of soft-and-crunchy head cheese, slices of smoked hunter sausage, and rustic duck pate. It would have been even better, though, if the duck prosciutto had been sliced thinner for easier eating. And while I loved the depth of flavor in the tender beef-cheek boeuf Bourguignon, it was (in contrast to my other complaints) strangely skimpy on meat, a peasant dish padded with fancy king oyster mushrooms and fingerling potatoes when humbler button mushrooms would have been a better choice. The spongy grilled loaf of house-made seitan, while paying homage to the popularity of faux meat in Fishtown, showed the limitations of this dedicated scratch kitchen. A store-bought product such as Ray's, made locally, would have been a far better choice.
The service here is friendly, but also clearly inexperienced, as our first-night waiter demonstrated by trying to pour a bottle of dry white wine into a glass still holding the remains of a glass of sweet and bubbly moscato. Our second-visit waitress fared better - once we coaxed her out of a case of soft-talker shyness. ("We've got some specials tonight . . .," she said softly. OK, we finally ask after an awkward pause: "What are they?!")
The most encouraging fact is that the Pickled Heron's kitchen showed marked improvement in both execution and concept just in the few weeks between my meals. A crisply seared fillet of black bass over tiny heirloom carrots and a poached artichoke barigoule was both elegant and dynamic. Delicate sweet-potato gnocchi contrasted with the bitter snap of wilted brussels sprout leaves, the tang of goat cheese, and the earthy sweetness of chestnut chips shaved on top. The house-smoked bacon known as "petit Salé" arrived in unabashed rustic glory, big chunks nestled proudly into a plate of lentils.
Even the desserts showed a special new spark. While my previous meal's sweets were pleasant but imperfect (an apple galette whose Armagnac crust was underbaked; profiteroles with runny centers), a following meal's sweets were inspired. An upside-down Meyer lemon cake was simple elegance, incredibly moist and glazed in a caramel flecked with lemon thyme highlighting the citrus snap. It was the crème brûlée, though, that really caught my attention, transforming the old faithful into something memorable with a splash of Lillet, and the richness of a duck egg.
A good sign, if ever there was one, that Fishtown's fine-dining scene is ready to hatch.
Daniela D'Ambrosio and Todd Braley talk about the Pickled Heron on a video here.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.