It isn't every day that visitors get razzed by a pack of rowdy Eagles fans for having the wrong license plates - and still fall in love with Philadelphia as the destination of their dreams.
But Jason and Cindy Caminos, oblivious to the Eagles-Redskins game underway during their day trip from Washington D.C. that October afternoon in 2006, knew they'd found a home for Swallow, the bistro they'd envisioned since they were both students at the Culinary Institute of America.
They found those hecklers in the Italian Market "kind of charming," says Jason. And as the two walked the streets of Northern Liberties, they could still sense a special quality there, a signature blend of gritty urban vibrance and small-town accessibility that makes Philadelphia such fertile ground for cozy neighborhood restaurants.
"It reminded me of the Lower East Side when I was growing up," said Jason, a native New Yorker. "It was instantly apparent that people actually know each other."
Jason, 36, no longer views New York as a city with "real opportunities" for young people who aren't already financially privileged. And rents in D.C., where the Caminos cooked for the previous seven years, are exponentially higher than in Northern Liberties, he said.
So the corner space they opened in March on second block of the Liberties Walk promenade would seem a perfect spot to plant their neighborhood bistro. Northern Liberties is rich in gastropubs, but it is short on unpretentious BYOs serving homey pork chops, big fresh salads, and frogs' legs fried to a crisp.
The Caminos would seem well-equipped for this mission. But something is off-kilter at Swallow, and not just because of the cutesy double-entendre name, with winks to the bird and the bodily function.
The space's bordello look is a nod to the neighborhood's history as a red-light district, but it seems only half-done, with purple damask wallpaper that clashes with blood-red chandeliers, and tiny tables on bare wood floors that foster an awful din. The servers, meanwhile, were totally amateur and seemingly flummoxed by something as basic as bringing water or an extra spoon.
But this is also a city that routinely forgives a lack of polish in service and decor for real talent in the kitchen. The food can still be a savior. Swallow's menu, though, has struggled with consistency and the kind of culinary inspiration that entices diners to travel farther than a few blocks for dinner.
Some of the French-inflected dishes capture the satisfying essence of a simplicity done right. The big pork chop, for example, is tender and superbly moist, crusted in peppercorns and mustard with a side of sweet potato fries - a fair deal at $18. A starter of grilled fresh head-on sardines needed little more than sweet red peppers and roasted garlic to evoke a snack on the Mediterranean.
The salads were also fresh and bountiful. The garlicky Caesar was full of anchovy-raw egg zip. A finely shredded mound of raw fennel and button mushrooms was cleansing, their anise and earthy crunch enlivened by a lemony vinaigrette. The goat cheese bruschetta was awkward - a big slice of cheese-smeared country toast buried beneath a pile of arugula - but it was a natural combination nonetheless.
The simple roast chicken, meanwhile, was also a straightforward winner, but it has been removed from the menu because Jason Camino - still vetting his local purveyors - can't seem to find a steady source of chicken that is up to his standards.
What's left on this menu has been far less reliable, and simplistic to the verge of boring.
The big bowl of mussels was relatively flavorless. The cheese plate had a nice slice of honeycomb and a good firm chunk of Spanish Tetilla, but it otherwise had mundane supermarket selections like Pierre Robert and Prima Donna.
I liked the delicate crisp of the fried frog's legs, but they so lacked seasoning that the cool cucumber salad showed them up. They were also so nakedly presented on a white plate, all those little ankles crisscrossed as if doing a jig on their final leap, that they were not for squeamish eaters.
Diners with more conservative preferences might also be in for a letdown. The steak-frites brought a well-crisped haystack of skinny fries and a N.Y. strip of decent quality. But it was a skimpily thin slice for $25, and overwhelmed by herb butter. A classic butterflied trout, served with brown butter and a raft of green beans, was a shade overcooked and topped with slivered almonds that had been toasted to a nearly burnt brown.
The shrimp risotto with peas and mint was the only total disaster - a huge lump of pasty rice on the plate with lots of starchy peas and absolutely no flavor, and none of the creamy luxury of a well-done risotto. The crab cakes were decent in a straightforward way (little binding, lots of sweet crab), but with nothing more than a plate of bitter salad greens as a garnish, the dish was missing something (a sauce? a starch? a cooked vegetable? any interest at all?).
The duck confit, which also came plopped unceremoniously over a plate of salad (and topped with a rubbery fried quail egg), was not much better. These legs get simmered in molten fat for nearly 12 hours, which would normally mean sublime tenderness. But the slightly bland meat refused to come off the bone without shredding - which is not a great sign in a neighborhood where the signature gastropub (Standard Tap) makes one of the best duck confit salads anywhere.
And Swallow will have to prove itself to the neighborhood crowd first if it hopes to gain the momentum to finally soar. Philadelphia is no doubt the fertile landscape for independent restaurants that the Caminos discovered on that fortuitous day trip from D.C. nearly two years ago. But the competition is stiff, the standards high. And a rowdy bunch of Eagles fans ticked off by a rival license plate will look like friendly birds indeed compared with a Philadelphia diner scorned.