I hungrily ogled the epic chicken on our table and tried to remember how and why I forgot about Bistro 7.
The platter before me was so gorgeous it had its own gravitational pull - a whole bird divided across a wooden board into two stunningly different incarnations. One part was lemon-brined, then fried in a buttermilk crust tinted exotic yellow with a cardamom whiff of vadouvan curry. The other, a cast-iron pan of creamily braised thighs, exhibited its own adventuresome charms, a light Moroccan touch of picholine olives and preserved lemon adding a piquant tang to the crème fraîche.
The taste? Whoa . . . crunch. Mmmm . . . so tender. Give me more of that creamy chicken sauce . . . or a chili-blushed drizzle of sweet-and-spicy honey for the shatter-crisp fried crust. A tart pickled radish to cleanse the taste buds.
Do I really have to share? This is elite poultry craft at its most devourable, with so many well-executed textures, flavors, and contrasting themes in play (yet somehow all in juicy harmony) it almost seemed unfair. And once again the questions. Where have I been and has this chicken been missing me?
The answer is that it didn't exist until recently, when Bistro 7's Michael O'Halloran decided to remake his 11-year-old labor of love with both a new look and menu concept. And I'm thrilled he did. This Old City standby, perhaps simply overshadowed by the city's ever-churning restaurant tidal shifts, feels more relevant than ever.
Eleven years is a long time in restaurant years. It's even longer if you run a BYOB, a beloved but challenging local genre that's low on profit margin, high on competition, and that has undergone both a boom and a thinning of the herd in the last decade.
Most of the best operators by year five typically come up with something new - a second restaurant or liquor license - to give their starter bistro an extra boost. That didn't go so well for O'Halloran, who can add a decisively failed second restaurant - remember the short-lived Kong in Northern Liberties? - to his list of difficulties.
Add in the unexpected challenges of Old City, a once hot dining district that nearly flamed out over dodgy nightclubs but that is mounting a comeback, and it's a wonder O'Halloran and Bistro 7 are still here.
But there he was in the back as a solo act in the hot open kitchen, a silver-haired blur happily turning out an array of small plates and sharing platters for a room of 38 seats.
The linens are gone. The food is less French - with a wider embrace of Asian flavors and Mediterranean touches that may give the wine clubs that often come here enough pause to leave the delicate burgundies and fat chards at home.
But this menu from O'Halloran, a longtime Fork and White Dog Cafe vet before opening his own place, feels fresh, current, and focused. And with a flexible new format more tuned to today's grazing trend, it feels less like the special-occasion, tasting-menu venue it had become and more a vibrant, spontaneous night out.
I loved his new ode to beets, a fairy garden of pickled whole baby beets over a smear of ash-dusted goat cheese set beside clever meringue crisps, tinted pink and shaped like beets, that is a whimsical revamp of the goat-cheese-and-beet-terrine that anchored Bistro 7's old menu for years.
There were some evocative Mediterranean moods, like the crisp balloons of delicately fried squash blossoms stuffed with creamy goat cheese. And the baby clams steamed in a dusky broth spiced with 'nduja salami and anise Pernod. An inverted gazpacho brought a colorful bowl of chilled green soup - avocado whipped with buttermilk and basil - topped with a scoop of tomato sorbet.
North African flavors were among the most memorable plates - a couple of spice-crusted T-bone lamb chops one night ripe with cumin over Israeli couscous salad blended with cilantro pesto; the same salad came mounded with merguez meatballs the next, the ground lamb seasoned with harissa and a side of cumin-scented yogurt. A fillet of rouget - the briny little red-skinned mullet that's one of my favorite fishes - was posed over saffron orzo cooked like risotto studded with cuminy sausage of more merguez.
A creamy duck liver mousse with cherries and oat streusel was a throwback to the menu's more classic French roots. The crispy-creamy poufs of brown buttered gnocchi with summer succotash evaporated off the plate in a fork-battling frenzy.
O'Halloran revives some of Kong's better moves with some distinctly Asian-inflected dishes. The diced raw ahi tuna could almost be trendy poké with its contrasting crunch of puffed red rice, hijiki salad, and cool pickled cukes, but then a silky aioli enriched with sesame oil takes it in another direction altogether. A beautifully crisped soft-shell crab paired tart yuzu aioli with creamy avocado puree.
Other dishes were simple, effortless fusions. Like the tea-smoked duck breast dabbed with raspberry puree over black rice and pistachios. Or the branzino, which serves as one of the menu's two big sharing plates. It was crisply fried whole in the Asian style but given a Euro flair over excellent saffron risotto streaked with purple olive aioli.
I enjoy the rhythm and variety of nibbling all those small bites and then settling in for one big shared event. But it can stress the lean service staff, which was friendly and well-informed but occasionally struggled to keep the rolling flow of little plates tidy.
A bigger problem was the new room's din - and its inability to handle noisy customers. Perhaps a by-product of the more casual redesign, the sound level amplifies especially fast when big parties settle in and start shouting.
Some, of course, was food-induced, as cries of "Woohoo!" and "Oh my God!" roared with the arrival of each new course to a 10-top beside us. But enough of it was the unfortunate result of one particularly inconsiderate patron who single-handedly spiked the sound level to a 98-decibel din. When he left for a long smoke break at the cigar shop across the street, the entire room basked in a collective sigh of momentary relief.
It's hard to blame a restaurant for one customer's bad behavior, even if it shows there's still room to refine the comforts of its space.
But as I enjoyed this moment of respite to savor a trio of comfort desserts - creamy coconut rice pudding, a decadent chocolate mousse sundae, and a ripe peach roasted with lavender honey and toasted oats - it was more than enough to remind me of just how far Bistro 7 has come. And it won't be forgotten again any time soon.
BISTRO 7 (three bells out of four)
7 N. Third St., 215-931-1560; bistro7restaurant.com
Michael O'Halloran's Old City BYOB is an 11-year-old labor of love that's survived the ups and downs of the neighborhood, the chef's career, and the now-saturated BYOB scene itself. With a recent decor makeover and a new menu concept split between beautiful small plates and large sharing platters, Bistro 7 has reemerged better than ever, with a more international flavor palate and a comfortable new casual vibe that should put it back in tune with diners' go-lists once again. The only caveat: Big parties can quickly make this little room noisy, noisy, noisy! But the epic sharing platter of whole chicken both stewed and curry-fried is worth it.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Green gazpacho; baby beets; fried squash blossoms; gnocchi; ahi tuna; 'nduja-braised clams; rouget with merguez; soft-shell crab; duck liver mousse; lamb meatballs; crispy whole bass with saffron risotto; whole chicken platter (vadouvan-fried and tagine-stewed); coconut jasmine rice.
IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:30. Brunch Sunday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Small plates, $8-$16. Sharing platters, $42-$49.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended weekends.
Not wheelchair accessible. (A step at the entrance, but bathroom is accessible).
Street parking only.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Jansen in Mount Airy.