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Craig LaBan: At Urban Farmer, an updated steak house concept

A chef sidled up to our table at Urban Farmer with a block of Himalayan salt draped in $38 worth of thinly sliced frozen Japanese beef - and then lighted a blowtorch.

A bone-in rib eye on a cowhide-clad wingback chair, part of the decor's mismatched seating.
A bone-in rib eye on a cowhide-clad wingback chair, part of the decor's mismatched seating.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

A chef sidled up to our table at Urban Farmer with a block of Himalayan salt draped in $38 worth of thinly sliced frozen Japanese beef - and then lighted a blowtorch.

As the paper-thin sheets of richly marbled A5-grade Wagyu sizzled and singed beneath the blue flame, a dissonant sound track of mall-grade shopping music filtered down loudly from the speakers overhead. Neon signs glowing with kitschy slogans ("Life is better on the farm") caught my eye as we sank deeper into our uncomfortably low booth. And my mind began to drift back to the former glory of the Fountain Restaurant that not long ago occupied this very space.

Was this updated steak house concept out of Portland, Ore., an improvement over that iconic institution? Or just a big misfire?

Philadelphia's dynamic restaurant scene has been a cruel place for nostalgia. The fish houses are nearly all gone. The Restaurant Renaissance pioneers have largely disappeared. And we've also lost most of the fine-dining stalwarts that once hosted our most coveted tables for a dress-up meal in the '80s, '90s, and '00s.

They fell to the insatiable forces of real estate and the changing tastes that decreed they were outdated, too stuffy, and no longer needed. So, the demise of the Fountain was both a natural state of things and a foregone conclusion once the Four Seasons closed and was replaced by the starkly modern Logan hotel.

Maybe it was, in fact, time for an update to the gold-plated luxury that defined classic haute-cuisine elegance here for more than 30 years.

Why, then, did it all feel like such a design-driven mistake when I walked into the chaotic jumble of a room that is now the Urban Farmer?

From the wicker ceiling fixtures that look like giant laundry baskets to lightbulbs on bare peg boards meant to evoke Amish austerity to the odd menagerie of mismatched seating - wingback chairs clad in cowhide, wooden country chairs, red pleather booths set too low beneath bare butcher-block tables - this space feels more like a West Elm furniture store with a fern bar than a place where I'd want to drop $100 a person for dinner.

And, of course, Philadelphia's farmer-restaurant trend was overplayed the minute it happened in force five years ago. Urban Farmer spares no cutesy wink, from the tasty corn bread dumped onto your plate from a can, to the servers dressed in agro-chic gingham, to the Old Farmer's Almanacs used to deliver bills at the end of meals. (I can only imagine a real farmer gulping at the sum.) Candelabra in the lounge splattered so much wax while we waited for our table that a server appeared every few minutes to wipe our places clean. Turns out the candles are made in-house from rendered beef fat. Yum.

To be sure, there are moments when Urban Farmer shows its considerable promise. I liked the cocktails, which had the kind of creativity and craftsmanship that could bring big crowds when the hotel's new outdoor spaces open beside Logan Circle and a rooftop bar.

And that Wagyu carpaccio is splurge-worthy fun as a sharing appetizer, each strip lightly seasoned from the salt block underneath and glistening with warmed fat that practically melted on my tongue.

If only the rest of this expensive menu lived up to that effect. It didn't.

This small chain (this is its third location) has the right ideas to update the archaic corporate steak house template - a focus on origins and feeds of beef (from grass-fed Missouri rib eye to a dry-aged grain-fed Pennsylvania strip), a concerted effort to source local produce, and clear ambition to exert more culinary initiative than most chophouse copycats.

The service is also well-informed and outgoing, paying attention to even the unspoken details of guests. Is someone not drinking that glass of unfiltered California Grenache? Replace it immediately free of charge. (And, yes, that $28 glass of exceptional J.L. Chave Hermitage "Farconnet" did the trick.)

Did the chef overcook our burger . . . again?

"Oh dear, that looks over[done], too," said a manager, eyeing the pinkish-gray patty that was the kitchen's second try at medium-rare during lunch. We hadn't complained this time. Executive chef Richard Brower nonetheless trudged out of the kitchen with sincere apologies.

Unfortunately, off-target execution was a trend at all three of my Urban Farmer visits, where at least four different chops ranged from a shade over their medium-rare target to considerably overdone. I didn't have the heart to waste a $58 porterhouse and request a redo. But that 24 ounces of tender Pennsylvania beef would have been great if it hadn't been borderline gray.

My bone-in rib steak was at least a close rosy pink, reminding me why it's my favorite cut. The $66 trio of New York strips was also at the far edge of its doneness range - but still close enough to taste the differences between the buttery corn-fed Kansas prime beef, the minerally grass-fed cut, and the mushroomy savor of (my favorite) dry-aged strip.

But a pork chop - precooked, then finished to order - was thoroughly overcooked, relying on an assertive spice rub and the sweetness of poached pears and candied pecans to keep my interest. A "shaved sirloin" riff on the cheesesteak at lunch was beyond repair, its meat coated in such a dark and salty glaze it almost had the texture of jerky.

For the most part, the presentations are showy but lacked the payoff of deep flavors. The chilled shrimp app brought enormous tiger shrimp that were, despite their elaborate garnish, completely tasteless. Ditto for the gorgeous lobster salad, where the odd garnish of smoked mussels and pulpy basil seeds distracted from the delicate crustacean. The prime beef tartare is generous, but the meat was minced too coarsely and was overwhelmed by its tart dressing. A bland shellfish bisque was most memorable for a big cracker spotted with truffles protruding from the bowl that, once soup was poured in, turned into a soggy sheet that flopped off my spoon.

A kabocha squash soup was more inspired, its light chili heat accented by a garnish of crisp hush puppies studded with sweet nuggets of dried Lancaster apple schnitz. A pair of non-beef entrées - a very good duck breast with foie gras-enriched bread pudding; and a crisply seared Arctic char over smoked bacon broth - were satisfying detours from the steaks.

A couple of desserts were also worthwhile: a dense chocolate cake infused with Jack Daniel's whiskey, and a pear soufflé with chai-spiced crème anglaise that evoked, in a lighter, modern sense, the decadent chocolate souffles that were the Fountain's timeless signature.

Everything needs updating eventually, right? But as history marches on here, the Urban Farmer only made me wish more that this one Philadelphia classic, at least, had not needed to be replaced.


URBAN FARMER (one bell out of four)

1850 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. (inside Logan hotel), 215-963-2788;

This steak house chain with a progressive sensibility out of Oregon has the unenviable task of replacing the Fountain, but it has also compounded its challenge with a disastrously kitschy design that, in an effort to casualize the chophouse genre, feels more like a West Elm furniture store. By contast, there are fine ingredients, pretty plates, diligent service, a worthy beverage program, and fresh outdoor spaces worth noting. But consistent struggles in the kitchen, plus ambiance more suited to a mall, make it a hard sell for a blow-out meal with steak prices that soar to the $50s and beyond.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS Japanese Wagyu carpaccio; squash soup with apple schnitz hush puppies; Caesar salad; charcuterie; New York steak tasting; bone-in 1855 Pennsylvania beef rib steak; porterhouse; duck breast; Arctic char; chocolate whiskey cake. Dinner entrees, $27-$75.

DRINKS One of Urban Farmer's best assets is a great 255-wine list with many fine glass pours and prestige French bottles (acquired from the Fountain), plus cocktails that incorporate local spirits, house mixers, and serious chunks of ice. Try the Franklin's Tower with La Colombe coffee rum and sherry, the Farmer #4 with grapefruit-beer ice cubes, or a Lowcountry Mule in the Commons Lounge. Intriguing wines by the glass include a Sauvinèrres, J. Dumangin grower Champagne, and many good reds from Iuli Barbera to White Oak cab and a splurge-worthy J.L. Chave "Farconnet" to pair with steak.

WEEKEND NOISE The already-questionable sound track is usually the loudest factor, pushing the room to a buzzy but still talkable 83 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

IF YOU GO Breakfast 6:30-11 a.m. daily. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Dinner entrees, $27-$75.

All major cards.

Reservations suggested.

Wheelchair accessible.

Valet parking costs $22.