Every great trend hits a moment of sudden saturation when the buzz of novelty wears off and expectations ratchet up to a higher level. That time has come for the gastropub, the exuberant hybrid of hipster bar and neighborhood restaurant where craft beers coexist with serious cooking.
It's been a signature trend here for years, helping Philadelphia to secure its growing national reputation as one of America's beer meccas. But a gush of recent newcomers has flowed into the city so fast that the concept's limits are being tested, like a pint of ale frothing over from a hasty pour. Good intentions so easily turn to a foamy mess.
Don't get me wrong. The fact that one can now get a draft of Belgian Tripel or Kensington-brewed Walt Wit on tap at dozens of corner bars around town is an evolutionary step forward for any city.
It's the "gastro" part (i.e., the cooking) that has become the new generation's biggest challenge. Eating in many of these restau-bars lately has brought disappointment, despite some adventurous kitchens. The wild, wild game menu at the newly expanded South Philadelphia Tap Room, which has one of the best beer lists in town? The crispy pork-cheek "nuggets" are great. But the deep-fried Rocky Mountain oysters were greasy ("buffalo balls," shrugged our pigtailed waitress, matter-of-factly), and the agave-nectar-streaked ostrich kebabs were chewy, gamy and jarringly sweet. At the new Kite & Key on Callowhill Street, the fish tacos, crab cake sliders, and a fried shrimp po-boy were disappointing (times three), the service excruciatingly amateur, down to the dirty dishrag hanging from my waiter's pants.
The Devil's Den in South Philadelphia is another example. Its beer cuisine is ambitious. But the devil, as they say, is in the Den's details, especially in the kitchen.
The bar itself is a great new destination for craft brews - with a side of sports on flat-screen TVs. The former Felicia's at 11th and Ellsworth has been transformed into a handsome pub, with Brazilian cherrywood floors, exposed brick walls, comfy banquettes, and a double-sided hearth that fills the bar and dining room with a warm wood scent.
Owners Scott and Erin Wallace, who also own Manayunk's Old Eagle Tavern, named the Devil's Den after the Gettysburg battle site, with a wink to all the local bars named for the more virtuous side of religion (Monk's, Abbaye, Eulogy).
But this is still a beer-drinker's heaven, with 16 rotating taps and 112 bottle selections ranging from local brews to unusual American micros on draft (Avery, Founders), and greatest hits from Germany (Aventinus, Ayinger) and Belgium (St. Bernardus).
Our outgoing server was well-informed on the beer list, and enthusiastic when it came to explaining the food. But the kitchen, which has already changed chefs once since Devil's Den opened in April, too often missed the mark with execution.
I love the idea of rabbit marinated in Petrus sour ale, but finishing it on the grill made the already bony hunk of meat inedibly tough. The Village Bay oysters might have been splendid, but they weren't cold enough - nearly room temp by the time they arrived on the half shell.
The Hennepin-marinated chicken sandwich was cooked to leather, overwhelmed by bun, and bland. The fish of the day - trout with lentils - was promising. But it had a pale broiled quality, and the lentils were a watery mush. The duck confit salad was scattered with meat so overshredded and dry, it was like eating greens laced with wiry threads. The veal boudin sausage, meanwhile, would have been the perfect pub sandwich had the delicate white sausage not been squished inside an oversized baguette that had a stale, dry chew.
I did eat some highlights. The sandwich of tender pulled lamb and onions braised in Optimator Doppelbock was a perfect example of what beer cuisine can be - juicy, flavorful, rustic. Devil's Den also made some of the best mussels I've had in a while, which, if a beer place is going to do something right, is a good place to start. The mollusks basked in distinctive and vivid sauces, whether a coconut Thai curry flickering with ginger and spice, a classic white wine broth with garlicky parsley butter, or, my favorite, the Aventinus, rich with dark wheat beer, pancetta, cream and leeks. The house French fries, when not too greasy, are addictive. Then again, with a supplemental topping of Arrogant Bastard ale cheese and bacon for those fries, what's a little extra oily shine?
The fritto misto was also inconsistent, but delightful on its grease-free night, with tender shrimp and calamari sealed inside a delicate fried crust. Seared scallops with fava beans made the most of good ingredients, even if the brothy vanilla-flavored lobster and rum sauce didn't taste nearly as intriguing as I had hoped.
There were other similarly soupy presentations - like the roasted veal sausage with flageolets - that would have been better with less liquid. At least the flavor was bold, bolstered by good Avery Salvation ale enriched with foie gras. A moist pork chop with mashed sweet potatoes and a chipotle barbecue sauce proved that the kitchen had enough finesse to properly cook a chop. I might have thought otherwise after two misfires in cooking the prime-grade strip steak medium rare - landing way too rare both tries. The Den gets extra credit for starting an entirely new steak on the redo, but the lesson was clear - avoid $24 entrees on a menu whose comfort zone is $10 to $20.
Lower expectations for the homemade desserts, too. The caramelized apple tart was a reliable bet. But the blueberry bread pudding was dry and chewy. And the crème brulee was so wrong that, with the tap of a fork, its chunky caramel crust capsized and sank beneath the surface of its liquidy, unset custard.
You'd be better off with a draft of "Crème Brulee" imperial stout from New York's Southern Tier. While some new gastropubs still struggle to shoot straight in the kitchen, at least their taps are pouring true.