It isn't often that Saturday Night Live beats the local restaurant critic to the punch line on a new place.
Damn you, Weekend Update!
But the notion of a "no-tipping" restaurant in a culture where servers earn their livings from tips is hilarious enough to some to cue the laugh machine one month before the restaurant even opened.
I can only imagine the jokes SNL faux-anchor Michael Che might have lobbed if he'd lunched at Girard Brasserie & Bruncherie in Fishtown and beheld the first restaurant in the city (maybe anywhere?) designed in "dazzle camouflage."
The mind-warping motif of zigzagging zebra stripes, borrowed by architect Joshua Otto from an actual technique to disguise battleships in WWII, can make you slightly dizzy if you follow the angles folding into angles that crinkle across the rippling ceiling inside Girard. I like it. Especially for its ability to make the 47-seat space with sunny yellow walls feel larger - not to mention distract from the weirdly charred grapefruit and salty croque monsieur on the plate.
But the "dazzle" is a "fizzle" when applied to the corner building's exterior, where white metal stripes stenciled against the facade like cartooned shutters, along with globe lights oddly stuck flush against the brick and flea market-style boards advertising specials, have had a repellent effect on some prospective customers: "I have friends who refuse to come in," confided my guest of her Fishtown neighbors.
It isn't easy being a pioneer. It's even harder when you're in over your head, trying to untangle the basics of plate composition, fair value and not burning food. And while co-owners Cristian Mora and chef Brian Oliveira have effectively launched a couple of legitimate dialogues - one on the important subject of workers' wages and a more textured one of how edgy design can ruffle an emerging neighborhood - their messages are overshadowed by missteps on many levels.
I believe Philadelphians would pay higher menu prices instead of tipping if the extra cost was transparent, and, most important, if the food were decent. Mora estimates his prices are about 15 percent higher than they would be if he weren't paying his employees $13 an hour with health benefits and sick days - a fair wage based on a recent survey of restaurant employee earnings. But the menu doesn't make that percentage clear in the calculation of prices.
All I see is a brown pile of roast veal and mushrooms - flavorful, but artlessly dumped onto a plate with no smart side or garnish - and wonder: "This is $32?"
I wouldn't pay $27 for it, either.
Girard aspires to be too many things at once. It's a casual "bruncherie" with $10 value plates, sweet squeezed-to-order orange juice, and serious Elixr coffee by day. It's a nighttime destination with elderflower mix-ins for BYO champagne and $31 to $42 prix-fixe meals at night. And it's certainly welcoming when Mora is there: "I want this to be your home away from home," he says with an earnest, wide-eyed warmth while bidding farewell to new customers.
It's a logistical problem, though, when a promising rotisserie chicken basted in zingy Oliveira family piri-piri sauce sits around all day after a morning par-cook waiting to be finished with a drying char on the grill. Why not just cook some for lunch, and then more fresh for dinner?
It's almost unfair to saddle the inexperienced 24-year-old Oliveira with such responsibilities. He studied cooking at the Culinary Institute of America but was working as a server at Parc when Mora, also a server there, saw potential in the soups Oliveira was selling from his home kitchen to restaurant colleagues.
There are some good things at Girard, to be sure. A red pepper-tomato bisque topped with sweet shreds of blue crabmeat offered a satisfying taste of what Mora saw. The burger, a fistful of perfectly juicy beef topped with bacon jam, oozing clothbound cheddar, caramelized onions and mushrooms over a square Philly muffin crunchy with everything spice, was one of the better burgers I've had in a while. The diced beet tartare over whipped crème fraîche with hazelnuts was solid. The charcuterie and cheese platter was a generous serving of well-chosen nibbles (Moody Blue, Ossau-Iraty, wild boar salami, house-cured duck prosciutto) that made for an enjoyable linger course.
But too many dishes failed to connect good ideas to a plate of complete success. Oliveira's signature omelet was textbook perfect, stuffed with avocado, creamy cheddar and bacon. But the side of charred grapefruit, grilled face down (letting the sugar fall off) instead of brûléed with a torch, was bitterly burnt. The lamb ragu had an intriguing daube-like inflection of olives and orange, but was literally braised to a mush that was poorly paired with doughy gnocchi. A torchon of foie gras, usually a luxuriously creamy disk of delicately poached liver, was an off-tasting smudge of tan butter on toast overwhelmed by a thicker smudge of fig jam for $13.
I loved the freshness of the smashed avocado brightened with tarragon oil, poppy seeds, lime and a pretty tulip of shaved watermelon radish on top. But the two-inch guaca-mountains balled atop their Philly muffins were awkward to eat. An absolutely gorgeous heirloom pork chop served as the Tuesday night rôti du jour was notably juicy - but disappointingly tough. The curried squash soup was salty. The merguez-spiced turkey sausage patties were charred and dry. Making croque monsieur with drizzled egg yolk instead of cheesy béchamel was a salty mistake.
The deep-fried "Lyonnaise" potatoes would have been better described as home fries. But no matter. The brittle chips were irresistible once beneath a poutine-esque flow of molten raclette and veal stock.
There were more redeeming bites for dessert, with an impressively light lavender cheesecake, a spot-on chocolate mousse with salted caramel and adorable mini marshmallows made with blood orange and brûléed as a lovely parting gift.
If only we could find our waitress. As if a cliché of salaried server indifference, she'd gone M.I.A. for the final 10 minutes of our meal. Once the chef finally tracked her down, she presented us a check that left an open space line, curiously, for a tip,
Was the dazzle camouflage finally taking effect? "Tip is not included," she said.
Our obvious confusion led to a long explanation about her living-wage salary and benefits, then a clarification that Girard is not, as SNL mocked, a "no tip" restaurant. It's a restaurant with "tip optional" for "exceptional" service. Oh, the guilt of a lifelong tipper. Do I? Don't I? With no clear guidelines (say $5 to $10 atop the unstated 15 percent) the joke, it seems, was on me.
ONE BELL OUT OF FOUR (HIT OR MISS)
GIRARD BRASSERIE & BRUNCHERIE
300 E. Girard Ave., 267-457-2486; www.girardongirard.com
The mission to eliminate required tips in favor of higher menu prices (and employee benefits) has dominated the dialogue about this ambitious Fishtown corner BYOB from Cristian Mora and chef Brian Oliveira, as has the controversial avant-garde striped design. But what ultimately dampened my Girard meals was inconsistent service and a French-inspired menu dimmed by flawed concepts and spotty execution, revealing an inexperienced staff over its head serving entrees that crest $30.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Breakfast: Omelette de Oliveira; Elixr "coffee shot." Lunch and dinner: avocado toast; cheese and charcuterie; beet tartare; smoked duck and prosciutto salad; cheese and charcuterie plate; Brasserie burger; chocolate mousse; cheesecake.
BYOB Bring a champagne, vodka or beer to pair with one of the house mixers (including freshly squeezed OJ for superbly sweet mimosas).
WEEKEND NOISE The small space and angled ceiling can spike a boisterous noise in the high-80s, but was rarely busy enough to get there. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon-3 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $16-$34. Three-course prix fixe, $31-$42.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.
Street parking only.