Ed Hackett's phone rattled on the steel kitchen shelf as a text came in. And normally, he wouldn't have answered. It was 8:45 on a Sunday night early last August, and his Diving Horse in Avalon was roaring into its second turn, getting crushed with 200-plus diners.
But the phone buzzed again, and the message from one of the food runners at Pub & Kitchen, his other restaurant back in Philadelphia, demanded his attention. He looked up and called across the kitchen to Diving Horse chef Rob Marzinsky: "Meme's closed!"
Marzinsky: "What are we going to do?"
Hackett: "We're going to get it."
Easier said than done. Hackett and Marzinsky stayed up brainstorming their plans for the Fitler Dining Room until 5 a.m., then contacted Hackett's partner, Dan Clark, and promptly made an offer to the owner the next day. But within a couple of weeks, 16 other suitors had reached out to do the same - including some of the city's biggest names.
The object of their desires? A tiny restaurant space at 22d and Spruce Streets with barely enough room inside for 30 seats. But what once was a ratty old deli in the mid-'90s had long since morphed into something rather special. It had become one of Philly's magic dining corners - first with the bare-bones-but-three-bell Italian BYOB Melograno, then with three-bell Meme, whose critical acclaim did not always translate to crowds.
Hackett and Clark clearly had a winning vision for its future as the Fitler Dining Room - one trimmed with crisp cobalt-and-marine-blue-striped awnings and twin stone Weimaraner statues, a thrilling new culinary talent, and some serious investment. And though the first few months have been full of tweaks (plus the mysterious theft of one of the dogs, to the dismay of Hackett's 3-year-old son), it has shown the potential to be this corner's most compelling rendition yet.
The look exudes a more-polished vintage swank, with white subway tile and a patinaed mirror for the illusion of depth, zinc-topped round tables, a marble chef's counter with four seats overlooking the open kitchen, and milk glass lights with Edison bulbs casting an amber glow. The antiquey tilt-backed chairs were an uncomfortable mistake - recently replaced with a more upright bentwood standard after even Hackett's mother-in-law complained.
There should be no complaints, though, about Marzinsky, whose Philly debut as a head chef has been one of the year's biggest revelations. His butter-poached oysters are such an elegant modern riff on stew that they'd make his muse, M.F.K. Fisher, consider the oyster anew. Ever-so-lightly poached, they're placed atop brioche croutons with a fine dice of potato, fennel and celery root, then lavished with a froth of rich chowder cream poured tableside. His raw Beausoleil oysters, on the other hand, are transformed with just a few jewels of smoked trout roe and ginger mignonette, each gulp a three-part fade from tang, to smoke, then brine.
A clever new technique for gnocchi results in ethereal puffs of meltaway potato dumplings. But it is the elegant contrast of textures and vivid colors - snappy toasted hazelnuts, tender earthy snails, tart pickled snips of pink ramp, and a pale green gloss of Chartreuse butter – that makes the dish so memorable.
There's such a sharp focus of flavors and clarity of vision here, I'm not surprised to learn that Marzinsky earned his undergraduate degree in art from Alfred University. He learned to cook largely on the job under Jonathan Adams at Pub & Kitchen (and the Diving Horse), as well as in a Stateside stint with George Sabatino. He learned his lessons well, with dishes that channel seasonality into combinations that balance nature and touch.
Silky minced beef tartare finds a kindred fleshiness in morsels of chanterelles conserva. Pristine sheets of raw yellowfin tuna glisten with Meyer lemon-perked olive oil over mounds of garlicky minced "rillettes," essentially fancy - but irresistible - tuna salad. Globe artichokes are pureed into a creamless soup that coats the lips with richness set off with the snap of fresh garbanzo beans and crisped trimmings of La Quercia ham.
There were a couple of miscues. The tempura-battered onion rings that might have made the beet and mushroom salad extraordinary were limp and doughy. The savor of truffles in the leek-and-potato-stuffed skate was too faint (the par-poached fish was also a little too done at the finish). An ambitious trio of pork - smoked tenderloin, fresh saucisse de Toulouse, and lacquered pork belly - suffered from too much sweetness, odd when evoking the South of France.
I also wish the restaurant would lower the volume of its eclectic playlist (from old Grateful Dead to Curtis Mayfield) to preserve the intimacy the space promises. But these were small blemishes from one of the more complete fine-dining experiences I've seen from a new restaurant in many months.
The service is serious, well-informed and generous, with little pours of sparkling rosé from the Loire and Rare Wine Co. Madeira as a welcome gesture to old P&K guests. The wine list, meanwhile, is surprisingly deep for such a little place, with a cellar of 75 labels (and counting) stored upstairs in a newly refurbished wine room. Drawn mostly from Europe, the quality choices are appealing - Camino Romano tempranillo, Monmousseau Chinon, Domaine les Ondines grenache, La Spinetta Piedmont white, numerous sherries and sweet wines - even though the triple-plus markups are steep. Fitler will waive the $20 corkage fee for BYOB when you also buy a bottle from its list.
Marzinsky's food is certainly deserving of a good wine (or even of Fitler's several craft beers). I can imagine a great Vajra nebbiolo with the sublimely tender chicken that was slow-poached in porcini stock and served with Swiss chard bread pudding. Try a crisp Vallerosa Bonci verdicchio with the delicate seared fluke with emulsified ramps and salsa tonnato. A Duchesse de Bourgogne Flemish red ale would have been perfect with the house-cut pasta tossed with eggplant-tomato ragu. For the tagliatelle with ramps, nettles, and a raw yolk to mix into the cream sauce enriched with smoked goat cheese, a glass of white burgundy (Romuald Petit Saint Veran) is perfect.
Marzinsky's beef cheeks, inspired by the Vietnamese take on boeuf bourguignon called "bo kho" and braised with red wine, lemongrass, ginger, and five-spice, are so memorably tender they're like beef pudding. Served with wild mushrooms and spring carrots, a glass of Odfjell Orzada malbec is ideal.
There are a handful of worthy desserts, including a white chocolate mousse and a moist carrot cake with golden raisin coulis. None, though, were as compelling as the ever-changing list of 12 to 16 artisanal cheeses, ranging from pungent Winnimere to Rogue Creamery's stunning "Caveman Blue" and local gems from Doe Run and Yellow Springs.
Like the surprisingly deep cellar, it's almost a sleight of hand that Hackett and Marzkinsky could find any room left in this tiny space. But to those who've coveted this corner space so deeply, it's little surprise an empty nook should reveal itself, like magic. The perfect place to install a glass-enclosed box that glows, both with cheese and these restaurateurs ambitions, like treasure.
Chef Rob Marzinsky talks about Fitler Dining Room at inquirer.com/labanreviews. Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at inquirer.com/labanchats.
FITLER DINING ROOM
bells 2201 Spruce St.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Chowder-poached oysters; raw oysters with smoked trout roe; gnocchi with snails and Chartreuse butter; artichoke soup; tuna sashimi and rillettes; house-made pasta (with eggplant ragu; with spring vegetables and smoked goat cheese cream); braised beef cheeks; chicken with porcinis; cheese board; white chocolate mousse; carrot cake.
WEEKEND NOISE Can hit an extremely noisy 93 decibels, though simply lowering volume on the music would help. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch soon.
All major cards.
Street parking only.