Like a lot of young chefs, George Sabatino has kept a notebook to sketch his someday plates.
He nursed it through his wood-fired-pizza-and-antipasti days at Barbuzzo, where he was chef de cuisine. It grew during his pickle-jar-and-marrow-sausage stage at Stateside, where his solo star first shot to wider notice. It even survived the treadmill trial of deep-fried burgers and compressed melon salads that marked the "elevated picnic" fare of his 1,200-diner summer nights at Morgan's Pier.
But now at Aldine, someday has finally come for the 33-year-old Sabatino. With his wife and partner Jennifer Sabatino mixing the cocktails and setting the scene - a moody second-floor aerie with a deep purple tin ceiling and tall windows drinking in the constellation of neighboring skyscraper lights - one of Philly's most promising young chefs is finally able to chart his own course (actually, lots of small ones) and bring those ideas to life on intricate plates that aren't afraid to take risks.
Thick ivory slices of kanpachi crudo are fanned beneath an unexpected dairy drizzle of tart housemade buttermilk vinaigrette, the luscious raw amberjack sparked by crunchy radish cubes, oniony nigella seeds, pickled fennel and a snow of shaved horseradish. Baby carrots get top billing for one of Aldine's middle courses, but their costar barley steals the show, tinted crimson sweet and tangy from a sous-vide bath in beet juice. (According to Sabatino's notebook chicken-scratch, it's a veggie riff on beef barley soup. According to our excellent and funny sever, Emily Teel, an errant grain is also a dry cleaning nightmare.)
Vegetables figure prominently in Aldine's kitchen, which offers an "herbivore" option to the five-course "omnivore" tasting menu for $55 that is a fair bargain, and the best gauge of the restaurant's lofty ambitions.
But what excites me most about Sabatino's culinary mind is his knack for melding modern techniques with classic ideas, plus a penchant to zig ahead of zagging trends. While most chef's blades were mincing 2014 into the year of tartare, Sabatino (a former tartare-ist) was maniacally meat-gluing morsels of filet tail back into a perfect solid disks, for another raw beef experience altogether that I call "tar-paccio."
A prototype I tasted previously was intriguing, but not quite there. Two months into Aldine, however, Sabatino had expertly fine-tuned every element of that dish - the puffed quinoa now more a delicate accent than crunchy distraction, the beef now both cured and lightly seared to amp the umami, the soft pad of flesh layered against snappy chips of raw mushroom and tart dabs of green caper aioli.
Such progress in such a short time is telling of what can be done once sketchbook ideas hit the plate. And Aldine's menu still has several promising dishes that still await a final tune-up - my prime hesitation for withholding a third bell.
A couple of the herbivore courses, for example, were tasty but came simply piled in bowls (a pile of shredded of kale and Brussels sprouts in too much buttermilk dressing; a pile of fresh black garlic pasta with blandly creamy root veggie puree) that had a long way to go before they match the layered elegance and artistry of the omnivore creations.
Dishes such as the lamb rillettes, its tender milk-braised meat shredded and formed into a crispy cake over silky Hubbard squash puree sparking with red chile heat, evoke both visual beauty and a deep satisfaction of soulful flavors. Sabatino's clever crudo deconstruction of the ubiquitous sesame-crusted tuna - raw tuna sashimi brightened with blood orange, fennel crackers and sesame seeds - was like tasting Mediterranean sun.
The dramatic skewer of a bright purple Japanese eggplant, herbaceously moist from its brine and posed over line cook Vincent Ferrari's piquant family caponata and sumac-scented house yogurt, was one exceptional standout from Aldine's herbivore world.
Sabatino the perfectionist is the first to admit his vision is far from final draft here, as the new distractions of being an owner chef - fixing the water heater, grappling with the lack storage space, dealing with Philadelphians' resistance to a second-floor restaurant - have slowed the polishing progress.
There's already so much to like. Knowledgeable servers such as Teel clearly take pride in the details that make both the food and drink program so engaging. Jennifer Sabatino's cocktails, conceived primarily with her husband's food in mind, were more fruit juice-forward than I'd prefer for cold weather drinking. But there were also some gems (a pithy citrus-Aperol-sparkler cocktail; the hot spice-buttered rye) that were ideal for the tasting menu drink pairings. Likewise, the wine list is small but thoughtfully constructed, with wines such as a white Bordeaux (Château Magneau), and lush Priorat (Vega Escal) that enhance the dishes.
The intimately dark 70-seat room, completely rehabbed from its Noche nightspot days (the banquettes were riddled with holes from girls dancing on the furniture in stiletto heels) has an appealing minimalist style of gray accents and warm wood that is also very noisy, a flaw that could be tempered with modifications.
Some dishes can also use some touch-ups. The skate (with an otherwise tasty clam escabeche) was glazed a little too hard with butter. I loved the crispy tender duck breast over duck fat enriched cabbage with apple-quince chutney, but just wished it was hotter. The larger à la carte hanger steak entrée, with boquerones, salsa verde, pickled sunchokes and romesco sauce, was too busy. The smaller tasting menu version, with snappy trumpet mushrooms, turnips and uni butter, was concise and compelling. The Thai-style squid salad was brilliant, but the pork belly it came with could have been a tad less chewy.
Aldine's desserts are also a pastry chef-less work-in-progress, with a pale iced coffee panna cotta (too bland), a fresh doughnut with lemon curd (simplistic compared to the savory dishes, but what's not to like?), and the now requisite carrot cake revamp (a pudding-moist brick I'd eat again).
Then again, this kitchen also baked one of my favorite breads from recent memory, a sublimely fluffy Parker House roll made from rye and buttermilk with a rich smear of honeyed butter that, like the crème fraîche and yogurt here, is laboriously churned in-house.
Building a culinary perch with the multi-stacked ambition and potential of Aldine is such a labor-intensive and detailed endeavor. I wasn't surprised to see Sabatino scratch a stern message to himself below his notebook instructions for making black rice crackers for that lovely squid salad: "Don't [expletive] it up!"
As his notebook's someday plates slowly evolve into delicious reality - and I have no doubt that will continue - quite the opposite is happening here.
1901 Chestnut St., 2d floor, 215-454-6529; aldinerestaurant.com
First time owners George and Jennifer Sabatino have moved up in the world, literally, to a moody, purple second-floor perch north of Rittenhouse, where they have created an appealing destination for modern dining wrapped in city lights. George Sabatino's food shines best in $55 tasting menus that are a fair value for intricately conceived beautiful plates, where good ingredients always star in creative ways. Several dishes still need refinement, including desserts and an "herbivore" option that lacks the spark of the "omnivore" menu. But excellent service, fun drinks and the undeniable talent of the chef (ex-Stateside, Morgan's Pier) tag Aldine as one that could be poised to step up a tier by year's end.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Kanpachi crudo; raw beef; carrot and barley; duck with cabbage. Tasting menus: raw tuna; lamb roulade; hanger steak with turnips and uni butter; eggplant with sumac yogurt; carrot cake.
DRINKS The cocktail list focuses on menu-friendly scratch mixers and fruit-forward flavors instead of liquor-heavy blends, with elegant balance, if not ideal seasonality for winter drinking. The indulgent warm spice-buttered rye is one must-order exception. The concise wine list is a nice surprise, with smart collection of less-common European bottles, lots of choices under $60 a bottle and good-quality options by the glass. Try the Chateau Magneau white Bordeaux, pinot bianco from San Michele all'Adige, or a lush dark Grenache from Priorat's Vega Escal. The beer list is tiny but crafty (Stillwater, Neshaminy Creek, Weyebacher).
WEEKEND NOISE A tin ceiling, glass walls and hardwood floors stoke a noisy 93-decibel roar that crimps conversation. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Sunday, until 9 p.m.
Entrees, $22 to $25.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.
Not wheelchair accessible.
Street parking only.