After 20 years in the shoe business, Joseph Scorsone knows a good fit when he feels it. So it's not surprising that he describes his short-lived first attempt at owning a restaurant with 26 North BYOB, and his strained relationship there with its first chef, in terms a cobbler could relate to.
"Those shoes were way too tight. So tight I couldn't walk in them," said Scorsone, who before his restauranting career owned Joseph's Shoes near Rittenhouse Square.
And so, with the sudden departure last summer of its opening chef, 26 North closed for business in Old City barely eight months after it opened. Even by my own rough-'em-up shoe standards, that's not a lot of tread.
That's probably the reason the recently reopened and rebranded occupant, Wister BYOB, looks a whole lot like its predecessor, the long and narrow 46-seat room decked out in the same postindustrial style of exposed brick walls and Edison bulbs dangling from iron pulleys. But there have definitely been some substantive changes there beyond the name on the front window, an homage to John Wister, the Germantown ironmaster, fisherman, (and "an expert ice skater" according to Scorsone, citing a Googled source) whose prominent family's name dots several properties on Third Street.
The most significant change has been in the kitchen, where chef Benjamin Moore, 36, is making a fine head-chef debut after a couple of years overseeing the epic 40-item gastrobrunch at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.
There is a far smaller and more traditional Sunday brunch at Wister of Lancaster scrapple, egg sandwiches, and French toast. But the notable creative focus here has been dinner. Much as at 26 North, Wister's menu focus is seafood. But Moore (who, interestingly, once managed a Sherwin-Williams store) paints with a distinctive perspective, dabbling in exotic flavors, with excellent ingredients put into unusual combinations turned with some contemporary techniques.
For example, a rumination on the best part of a cooked scallop - a crusty dark sear - prompted Moore to reengineer the mollusk into a crepe by pureeing it and pressing it into a paper-thin round. Once browned, the delicate sheet is rolled into a baton around a creamy core of risotto infused with briny cherrystone clams, then dusted with earthy shavings of Perigord truffles. It's a delicious shellfish riff reminiscent of Peter Serpico's "scallobit" (a scallop-halibut hybrid) and other Lacroix alum Jason Cichonski's signature scallop noodles - though Moore insists he came to his scallo-crepe independently.
I don't doubt it was based on some of his other clever ideas. Among the quirkiest is his notion to make cubes of maitake-mushroom terrine to garnish a tuna carpaccio, an unusual but delicious combo that resonates with earthy umami against the sweet chunks of purple fish, tart bursts of grapefruit, and piquant dabs of tonnato sauce. In another dish, tender baby squid take an unexpected Southeast Asian trip, their plancha-seared gingery savor dusted with sesame, tossed with bok choy, and set between sweet-and-sour swirls of tamarind sauce and a garlicky, rich peanut puree.
Wister's culinary ambitions sometimes stumble over details. A ring of walnut butter is an eye-catching anchor for a plate but way too pasty for a salad of roasted beets. Caraway and harissa are fantastically aromatic for the roasted cauliflower, but the overcooked florettes arrived at our table like a pile of tiny limp mops. I respect any chef's decision not to bother with making his own bread when he can serve a world-class loaf baked just half a block away at High Street on Market. But why was that bread served fridge-cold? The simple desserts - a kabocha-squash pie twist on classic pumpkin, and a tiny cone sundae play on the Nutty Buddy - were adequate but belied the absence of an actual pastry chef.
It's hard to say whether the execution hiccups and weak points were a reflection of how hard it is to staff a BYOB that's remained just outside the limelight since it opened last fall. The service staff has its limits, too. It's friendly enough, which matters. But it's awkward and inexperienced considering the price range (with entrées in the high $20s). Our server had a habit of mincing cautiously up to the table, then hovering awkwardly until what seemed like the worst moment to interrupt our conversation with the dreaded anthropomorphic riddle: "How are the plates treating you?"
For the most part, I'd say they were easy to get along with, though sometimes also sneaky, as was the case with a seemingly familiar pork chop that hid some tasty chunks of a stewed pig's head (brain, tongue, cheek, etc.) inside the mashed potato comfort of its twice-baked spud. That's a stealthy offal dish if there ever was one. The Brussels sprouts, similarly, were even daring. The fried leaves came tossed with coarsely chopped liver, a pleasantly earthy surprise that gave the now over-popular sprout an edgy new personality. (Chicken liver rigatoni people will like it.)
The lamb dish, though, was a miser, especially as it brought only a single chop for $32, albeit with a crispy terrine of braised shoulder, some cute little baby artichokes, and a deep-fried basmati rice ball wrapped in caul fat that was a clever idea still in need of tweaking.
It was one of the few dishes here that didn't treat us fairly when it came to value. But most of the others were solid, including a thick piece of delicately flaky Icelandic cod served with roasted kabocha squash, wilted bitter radicchio, and a buttermilk sauce infused with a vadouvan curry aromatic with fenugreek, coriander, and cardamom. An equally plump slice of Ora king salmon from New Zealand, the skin crisp as a cracker, brought a more classic bistro sensibility to the plate over a mound of thyme-scented lentils ringed by zingy orange sauce steeped from carrot juice, Thai chilies, and the tang of red wine vinegar.
And then there was the whole chicken for two, a dish so ubiquitous it's hit meme status on current local menus. Some of my favorite versions happen to be nearby, the fried-stewed combo at Bistro 7 just across the street, and the honey-laquered young bird tossed with greens at High Street on Market. Wister's $55 bird is a bit more traditional, though prepared two ways, with the legs stewed confit style (a tad salty) and the breast butter-roasted on the bones to order before being carved for presentation by the kitchen. It arrives in a hollowed-out log with two compartments over Brussels sprouts, roasted potatoes, and other roots, with a tableside drizzle of rich lavender-scented chicken jus to moisten a breast so deeply golden it satisfied an elemental hunger. Is it the most inventive dish on Wister's menu? No, definitely not. But as owner Joseph Scorsone tries to rebrand and reboot his BYOB with a new name and an ambitious new chef, mastering the art of the whole chicken can be the restaurant equivalent of serving its patrons the ultimate comfort fit.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Veda near Rittenhouse Square.