Kevin Sbraga's attempt to go back to the future with a retro-1980s menu takes a wrong turn and ends up lost.
At 10:04 p.m. on a Saturday night, lightning struck the clock tower beneath Billy Penn atop City Hall and a pair of flaming tire tracks ripped a path to Broad and South. As a DeLorean came to a smoking halt and opened its gull-wing doors, "Doc" Emmett Brown emerged wild-haired and frantic on another time-travel mission to fix history.
But his passenger from 1985 this time wasn't Marty McFly. It was young Kevin Sbraga.
"Listen chef, we're in big trouble. You're not going to believe what's happened to food. They're making soup out of foie gras! They're eating bubbles and putting 'soil' on plates! Your green bean casserole now comes with . . . sweetbreads."
Doc shuddered and whispered the clincher: "No one remembers how to make a Caesar salad at your table anymore, Kevin. Real food is in danger. You have to help!"
I don't know whether Kevin Sbraga was possessed by a McFly-like trance when he created Juniper Commons. But "Man-eater" was clearly looping a Hall & Oates soundtrack through the 36-year-old chef's heart, along with Lionel Richie and Run DMC, as he crafted the glass-walled corner room of this new building into a Back to the Future shrine of 1980s nostalgia.
From the plaid booths and vintage album covers (Thriller) to the old Inquirer and Philadelphia Bulletin front pages papering the far wall, the visual cues are there. And it didn't take much on the table - a basket of zucchini bread, the crack of my guest opening another can of beloved Coors - to bring it all back in an upturned-Izod-collar rush with Simple Minds in the background singing, "Don't you forget about me . . . "
What I just can't understand is: Why?
The 1980s in which I grew up were hardly a culinary golden age. It was the dark, bland decade that brought us Lean Cuisine and Chi-Chi's chimichangas. It was the final loaded-baked-potato trudge before America reawakened to fresh, handcrafted food in the 1990s.
Can Sbraga finally right those culinary wrongs?
I could only wish. This kitchen, which I expected to be so much more adept, given Sbraga's stellar history at the Southern-inspired Fat Ham and his namesake tasting menu restaurant, had trouble with something as basic as baking a decent potato, judging by the leathery-skinned spud beside my prime rib. A "Beef Burgundy" casserole of braised short ribs with fresh egg noodles would have been awesome had it not been terribly oversalted. A $21 seared salmon for lunch with mustard cream sauce was virtually flavorless.
Dinner at Juniper Commons is sort of like going to your high school reunion. It seems like a great idea in the beginning to revisit the past with all the wisdom and success of your improved older self. But how often does that ever turn out to be satisfying?
The best parts about Juniper Commons really have more to do with 2015 than 1985. The drink program from affable general manager Tom Pittakas is stocked with over 100 gins - a spirit with barely a dozen choices back then that was nearly murdered by vodka. But it anchors a bar with witty twists on retro-inspired cocktails (Sand in Your Shorts, Flying Caucasian), house-blended wine coolers, and enough craft brews (Neshaminy Creek J.A.W.N.) to give savvy Philly beer drinkers a modern fix to counter the retro wink of Miller High Life.
The raw bar - another current touch - is also worthy, stocked with well-shucked oysters and briny clams, perfectly poached shell-on shrimp, and a succulent chilled half-lobster.
On the more successful appetizer end of this menu, I devoured the crispy head-on smelts, bones and all, like fish-flavored fries. We also enjoyed the smoked fish platter with cured salmon, smoked white fish (bound with shrimp mousse) and creamed bluefish with house pumpernickel toast. The same pumpernickel, smashed into black crumbs, was a key crispy accent to one dish here that showcased the modern perspective Sbraga does best: a corned beef special reimagined as a carpaccio-like fan of flavorful pink beef scattered with Gruyère shavings, and a deconstructed slaw of Brussels sprout leaves streaked with tangy dressing.
When Juniper played the corned beef straight as a reuben for lunch, it was dull, and simply made me wish for the real deal at Famous 4th Street deli.
Most of the dishes Sbraga attempts to celebrate here, from prime rib to crab cakes, actually hark back to an earlier canon of endangered American comforts. And I'm all for revivals with ingredient upgrades and smart concepts. A couple - the moist and meaty crab cakes; the soulful manicotti with creamy ricotta stuffed into fresh pasta tubes - were better than average.
But the art of simple food requires an elusive touch and intuition. And I found that too rarely here. There was even a dash of Reagan-era-style waste in the build-your-own salad bar remix, which brought a tray of 15 little condiment dishes (Benton's bacon, Roquefort, croutons), more than half of which usually get tossed once each guest is done.
And that was the good salad. The wedge was just a bowl of poorly dressed iceberg, altogether skipping the crisp-cut architecture that gives a wedge its genius. The tableside Caesar - that midcentury trolley wonder of bow-tied waiter showmanship - devolved into an awkward five-minute pause as we cleared our tabletop to make room for a young server to wrestle with a large wooden bowl. We looked on politely as he unsuccessfully tried to shave a big garlic clove with the side of a spoon, added too much lemon, shook in far too little oil, inaccurately declared the egg yolk pasteurized (it was not, according to Sbraga), and then tossed it all into a breath-destroying bowl of greens that was nearly inedible. (Cue the Police: "Sending out an S.O.S.!")
The server was earnestly charming - like the entire front-house staff. Our first-night waitress was impressively versed in pairing the massive gin list with house-made tonics. But with eight different Caesar-certified servers, Juniper Commons risks the inconsistency that doomed tableside Caesars to begin with.
The kitchen's trained chefs were challenged enough. The baked spareribs were chewy, dry and sorely lacking in personality. The roasted chicken, flashed on the grill to finish with mushroom-marsala sauce, was only a tad more exciting. The lobster roll brought beautiful meat, but drowned in too much mayo.
I admired the seared rainbow trout topped with cauliflower and brown buttered almonds. But at $24, the portion of a single tiny fillet was way overpriced. There was plenty of beef on the big slab of beautifully pink prime rib, the priciest item at $35. But it was unexpectedly bland and threaded with a long, tough sinew that made a chore of every bite, with Hall & Oates chiming in my head, too: "Watch out, boy, she'll chew you up!"
The tune changed completely, though, at dessert. As I dug into the old-fashioned comfort of baker Marqessa Gesualdi's sublimely moist chocolate cake, and then the ethereal fluff of cheesecake made to the recipe of Sbraga's dad, Harvey, it was a Commodores-era Lionel Richie moment - creamy, sweet, and easy like a Sunday morning.
In that moment, I understood the tug of nostalgia that might have drawn Sbraga in to his culinary DeLorean delirium. But like that old high school reunion, visiting the memories can be fun, but the best feeling is knowing that you really don't have to stay in that past.
HIT-OR-MISS (1 BELL OUT OF 4)
521 S. Broad St., 267-417-5210; sbragadining.com/juniper-commons
Kevin Sbraga channels his inner Hall & Oates to conjure the simpler prime-rib comforts and salad-bar days of his youth for a 1980s throwback concept in a sprawling corner space at Broad and South. With the plaid booths, vintage soundtrack, outgoing service and huge (very non-'80s) gin list, there are enough good apps to set an undeniably fun retro tone. Too many cooking issues, though, led to unexciting entrees (and a disastrous tableside Caesar salad), showing how difficult it can be to revive some classics to relevance for a modern audience.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Raw bar (oysters, clams, shrimp cocktail); smoked fish platter; fried smelts; corned beef special; French onion soup; manicotti; crab cakes; crispy Brussels sprouts; chocolate cake.
DRINKS The bar has fun with updates to 1980s classic cocktails (such as the gin-take on Sand in Your Shorts or the Flying Causasian remix of a White Russian), house-bottled versions of wine coolers and throwback cans (Coors "Banquet") to complement some good craft beers (Ommegang, Lagunitas, Neshaminy Creek J.A.W.N.) There's a small list of American wines featuring New World takes on less-common Euro grapes (roussane; malvasia; sangiovese; mourvedre). But the real draw is one of Philly's biggest gin collections, with 100-plus varieties, ranging from floral (Monkey 47, super-pricy but sublime) to herbaceous (Edinburgh) and "unique" (Beefeater Burrough's reserve). Pair with one of six house tonics (hopped orange) for a fresh remake of a G&T.
WEEKEND NOISE A very noisy 96 decibels in the front room, but 5 decibels quieter in the South Street side area.
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
All major cards.
Street parking only.