'It's emotional," says my colleague Karl, an Elkins Parker who lives a quarter-mile up Montgomery Avenue from Park Plates, the BYOB where we were having dinner.
He was trying to explain to me, as I tried to wedge a fork into the putty-dense dough balls they call "gnocchi," exactly why there'd been such a groundswell of enthusiasm for Park Plates.
The sleepy inner-ring commuter village of Elkins Park, it seems, just has not had much luck with restaurants. It's one of several dining deserts in the Philly suburbs that, curiously, despite reasonably affluent residents, can't put together a serious place for dinner.
But the yearning here for that oasis has been particularly great. And so, naturally, when a space once occupied by an ice cream parlor, then a deli, then a hot dog joint, then a short-lived kosher cafe is replaced by a charming BYO with actual ambition and an appealing Mediterranean menu - the reaction is borderline mass euphoria. Even if half the menu is held together with chickpeas.
"Time for Park Plates?" a colleague and Elkins Parker e-mailed, even with his own suggested headline: "Two Starr, Frog vets serve thoughtful, quality dishes with surprising taste for the land of the gefilte."
"This was a special place," gushed another, a usually reliable reader who's in the food business.
But is merely wanting so bad to be good enough to make it so? My emotion, at the moment, was cautious optimism.
And I tried to cling to those positive vibes as I attempted to cut through a tree stump-size hunk of braised lamb shoulder. But each time I pried two sides of it apart, the thick ribbons of collagen and sinew strained taut like bowstrings, then snapped it back into shape like a rubber toy. Frustration! It smelled so good!
Our kind waiter acknowledged the problem, and swiftly replaced the shoulder with a char-roasted eggplant, with emphasis on the "char." A veggie option I'd hoped would be safe, the eggplant's bottom was so blistered from the flame that it smelled like cinders. The center of the eggplant, though, was still woody and undercooked. If only the poor thing had been treated with more finesse, I might really have enjoyed its Mediterranean flavors, an aioli schmear made from chickpeas (a common theme) and scattered with olives and capers. Disappointment!
And there was reason to expect better. Park Plate's veteran co-owners, Locke Johnston, 61, and Owen Lee, 58, are two C.I.A.-trained chefs with long careers in restaurants and catering - for the Commissary, Catering by Design, and Starr Catering, among others. Lee, who took a hiatus to film a Mexican travel show for PBS (One for the Road) is perhaps best remembered for Cibucan, the Nuevo Latino he ran on Sansom Street until 2005.
Their collaboration began after working together, but did not start with a grand plan to save Elkins Park for fine dining. They landed there because of a Craigslist ad, says Lee. And it does seem well placed, close to the train station, and with rambling angular rooms warmed by kilim rugs from Material Culture, old cake pans decorated with collages, votive lights, and wood planks lining the rear wall with a touch of rustic chic.
With the purple sunset fading over its gracious front porch, I see Park Plate's allure. The dining room even looks out onto the CreekSide Co-op across the street, a bustling hive of organic-food energy that has given this little crossroads genuine signs of life. Add a cluster of recent offerings in nearby Jenkintown - the Moroccan Argana Tree and French Leila's Bistro, whose owners just opened a tiny Italian BYOB called Forcella - and the area suddenly has dining momentum.
Park Plate's Israeli-themed concept, inspired equally by the Balaboosta and Ottolenghi Jerusalem cookbooks, is intriguing. But the kitchen is going to need to step up its game with execution.
I loved the elegant little amuse-bouches that opened our meals - a cucumber cup with beet mousse one night, a choux pastry puff sandwiching herbed roast arctic char another.
And one dish, especially, really spoke to Park Plate's potential, a huge braised short rib with all the tenderness that lamb lacked, glazed with the exotic sweet tang of a pomegranate-cardamom BBQ sauce over earthy buckwheat cake.
It's possible I liked it so much because it was one of the few dishes that didn't lean on chickpeas as a crutch. There were chickpeas two ways (whole and fried into "panisse" cakes) with the shrimp, which had an Aleppo pepper sauce that was too raw with heat. There were chickpeas pureed into aioli smeared beneath eggplant-stuffed burekas that turned their phyllo crusts soggy. There were chickpeas pureed into soup, essentially a thin hummus, that would have been better as a shooter than a big bowl.
Another workhorse here, a basmati pilaf with toasted noodles and lentils affectionately known as "Lockeroni" is actually something I wouldn't tire of, and was the base for an aromatic lentil-stew-with-kale variation on mujadara, another highlight. Even Lockeroni, though, could not save ground lamb kefta kebabs that had been overcooked gray and dry.
Overcooking also did in the arctic char (promised "medium rare" by our waiter) which, wedged between two more chickpea cakes, also suffered from a thin puddle of pinkish-gray butter sauce. A promising branzino was too deeply scored and overseared into a fish cracker.
The lamb pastrami, a concept I'd covet if done right, was notable for its garnish, a fennel slaw with grain mustard and torn rye croutons. The meat was dry and gray, and pastrami's typical crust of black pepper spice was nowhere to be found.
The weak tea described as French-press coffee (too hastily pressed) didn't do much to perk me up at the end. But there were some mood-changing desserts. A dense but crunchy, biscotti-like take on a Kit Kat that came glazed with white chocolate. A thyme polenta cake that lifted my lemony spirits. And a yogurt panna cotta I didn't like at all - too pasty - but which came stuck with a plume of translucent caramel I found fascinating. We all saw something different in its shape, like a sugary Rorschach test. A rooster? A squirrel? Huck Finn carrying a rucksack? Just a free-form whimsy?
Park Plates is proof that people will see all kinds of things when they finally have a restaurant to call their own. But one thing is clear, there's finally dining ambition to consider in Elkins Park.
Locke Johnston and Owen Lee discuss Park Plates at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats. EndText