RATING |

Bring the flaming wick ever-so-close to the Gaslight's lamps. But carefully, please! I wish to illuminate the lessons that live inside this once-promising Old City pub - not to mention its few chicken-nugget virtues - without letting it completely explode.

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But chef-owner Jason Cichonski is the one here with the jittery hand. The poor fellow's nerves have gotten the best of him as we speak on the phone, and his voice oozes the dread of self-recognition - without any prompting on my part - that things have not gone as hoped with his second restaurant, even nine months after opening: "I'm going to have to take this one on the chin."

OK - so where to begin? With the desiccated brick of pressed short-rib meat? Its impenetrably hard corners were as dry and oily as a forgotten slab of scrapple (but not nearly as tasty). Or how about the baby carrots murdered by over-roasting: pure carrot-cide! Their weird chemical aftertaste was only overshadowed by the mealy sourness of salt-cured cranberries scattered on top.

Our friendly but baffled waitress, at least, got us a swell recommendation from the bartender, who suggested pairing it all with Sweet Baby Jesus!, the inexplicably popular porter from DuClaw flavored with chocolate and peanut butter. (Really, this could be Mr. Creosote's new "wafer thin mint" cue in a remake of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: "Bring me a bucket!") Such unsavory circumstances are unexpected and unfamiliar territory for Cichonski. Now 30, he's been a rising star since he was the 24-year-old heir to Lacroix at the Rittenhouse's four bells, then as an able hand for chef Chip Roman to open Mica (three bells), and then as Roman's partner at Ela, the stylish restaurant-bar he still oversees in Queen Village that maintains three bells.

His culinary talent is legit - and the Gaslight might have seemed like a good idea. Philadelphia's tourist and nightlife district can really use a casual tavern with witty concepts, technical savvy, and handmade takes on familiar bar fare. But the Gaslight is Cichonski's first solo chef venture, with co-owner Charlie McMaster, who enlisted his help to revamp the old Philadelphia Bar & Resturant. Like many young chefs trying to extend their reach, however, other factors of empire expansion (like staffing) have made the going rough.

The handsome rehab is more than skin-deep, uncovering original white glass tiles behind the bar, adding warm wood charm and natural window light to the broad, open room. They've also brought serious aspirations to the menu and bar, with an excellent whiskey and beer list that compensates, somewhat, for a list of silly cocktails like 10-Cent Glamour Girl and Elephant in My Pajamas.

But Cichonski's real talent is cooking. Building a team and managing it? Not so much. This is especially true in the competitive market for kitchen help in the city's current restaurant explosion. ("I'm calling all my friends asking, 'Who do you know?' " said Cichonski. "And they're asking me exactly the same question.")

He has gone through two chefs des cuisines since opening in February, and the last one unfortunately oversaw my meals. But at this nine-month mark, it is ultimately Cichonski, who splits his days between Ela and the Gaslight's kitchen, who is responsible for what's on the plates.

The menu has Cichonski's familiar cool-kid swagger. But almost none of it appeared on the plate with the finesse and balance required to make some of these ideas work.

The good news: They really nailed the chicken nuggets. These tiles of breaded meat, first pureed into a mousse, shaped, and poached sous-vide, not unlike Cichonski's signature scallop noodles, had the perfect McBounce and savory oomph. Another deep-fried chicken shape, a breast rolled into crisp tubes over celery root-creamed risotto, was another highlight, solid comfort with style and Brussels sprouts for $22.

Other food groups were fraught with poor execution. An otherwise beautiful whole trout was so salty I couldn't eat it. The house-cured veal bacon on the VLT and the excellent burger was flabby, thick, and fatty. The octopus had a fishy aftertaste. The creamy onion dip was thin as soup. I might have loved the tuna tartare with puffed rice crackers if it had been more carefully chopped and not drenched in too much ginger oil and nori mustard.

The cream-braised Polish meatball ode to Cichonski's heritage (blended with kielbasa meat) would have been great if only the kitchen had remembered to smother them with the cabbage they braised in. Even the fried onions were burned, not to mention hacked into strips instead of rings.

A house-extruded pumpkin pasta sauced with pielike pumpkin puree and root beer-braised pork was unappetizingly sweet. An odd combo with the foie gras dip - a smoked-duck-fat lid and vanilla-scented cherry mostarda - lent the liver an unfortunate aftertaste reminiscent of old blue cheese.

I could go on with more complaints - about serving nothing but potato chips to eat with the cheese and house charcuterie; about servers who had not been taught the difference between a blue cheese and St. Andre; about charging $10 for a glass of plonk cab that costs $10.39 a bottle; about the desperate need for chefs to please stop putting bacon in chocolate desserts.

It was, in sum, a performance worthy of No Bells. But Cichonski has earned a bell's worth of hope with the self-awareness to clean house (before ever reading this review) and hire a new chef de cuisine in Steve Forte (ex-Dandelion, Farmer's Cabinet). Even so, Cichonski must stick around a bit more and cook himself. Or else one of Philly's brightest talents risks watching the promise of his new Gaslight flicker ... and then go pfft.

HIT-OR-MISS

THE GASLIGHT

120 Market St. 215-925-7691; thegaslightphilly.com

Ela's chef-partner Jason Cichonski (ex-Lacroix) has stumbled in this solo attempt to expand his reach to Old City with a stylish gastropub. The concept of an updated but casual tavern for Philly's tourist and nightclub district is solid. But finding the staff to execute the chef's ambitious vision - in the kitchen, at the bar, and in the dining room - has been a serious challenge, resulting in sloppy plates, floundering service, and yet more staffing changes to come for a project that, nine months after opening, is still wobbly.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS Charcuterie board; Polish meatballs; chicken nuggets; tuna tartare; GSLT burger; chicken breast with celery root risotto; bacon banana bread.

DRINKS If cocktails like "10 Cent Glamour Girl" and "Elephant in My Pajamas" aren't for you (and they're as froufy as they sound), the Gaslight compensates with a solid list of bourbons (and some classic bourbon drinks), plus a sizable craft beer roster with some great brewers (Nebraska, Shawnee, Bells, Funk, Weyerbacher Riserva). The less impressive wine list covers the basics with some decent picks (Elisabet prosecco, Urban riesling, Cloud Break pinot noir), but they're mostly affordable because they're inexpensive to begin with.

WEEKEND NOISE When busy, the Gaslight hits a boisterous 92 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, until 11. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Dinner entrees, $13-$27.

All major cards.

Wheelchair accessible.

Street parking only.

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Next week: Craig LaBan reviews the Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange in Mount Airy.

Join his online chat 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.philly.com/labanchats. claban@phillynews.com 215-854-2682