I wish I could tell you what McCrossen's Tavern was like before the arrival of Townsend Wentz - or, at least, the arrival of Townsend Wentz as a partner and chef.
I did eat a lunch there several years ago - a hot roast beef sandwich, maybe? - but it was so forgettably unremarkable that McCrossen's slate-trimmed, redbrick facade simply melted back into the Fairmount landscape. It was one of a thousand or so unpretentious neighborhood tappies woven throughout the fabric of the city, a tavern dating to the Depression that became favored over the following decades by craftsmen, union workers, and a general blue-collar crowd.
This, of course, was long before the days this kitchen was putting out roasted marrow bones stuffed with wild mushrooms or hand-rolled pastas tossed with slow-braised oxtail ragu, or house-churned ice cream made from rich Valrhona chocolate and Belgian sour ale. Certainly, the old McCrossen's never would have dreamed of promoting something as refreshing as "the summer of riesling."
But it just so happens that among the regulars in McCrossen's more recent years was a group of young chefs, guys who would reconvene there for wings, brews, and artichoke dip after a long night working the luxury kitchens of the nearby Four Seasons hotel. One of them - Townsend Wentz - had even lived upstairs when he was in college.
Wentz is not yet a name that most Philadelphia diners know - though that is no correlation to his considerable talent. He and his Four Seasons cohorts became something of a Lost Generation of Philly chefs - ambitious young cooks who spent a decade following in the gastronomic wake of chef Jean-Marie Lacroix only to come into their primes at the moment haute cuisine began to crumble. While many local chefs rolled up their white linens and went the BYOB bistro route, some of them escaped to New York and beyond, like Wentz and his pal, Matt Ridgeway, who eventually threw in his toque to begin curing artisan charcuterie with own company called PorcSalt.
Wentz, meanwhile, toiled in the quasi-anonymity of Twenty21 before doing his own New York-metro stints (A Voce in Manhattan, Morello Bistro in Greenwich, Conn.). He then decided that his return to Philly (and to his family here) couldn't wait for a fine-dining resurgence.
Whether that high-end comeback ever happens remains an open question. But with the gastropub movement ratcheting higher in quality every year, catering to younger diners who want to eat and drink well without the formal fuss, chefs like Wentz have found themselves a once-unlikely but happy home, where they can cook their organ meats and dust their fries with southern French piment d'espelette, and make a living, too.
McCrossen's is still co-owned by longtime proprietor Michael Rodolico, an old friend of Wentz's. But now, flanked on all sides by newer bars with substantial menus (St. Stephen's Green, Belgian Cafe, Kite & Key), the old place has suddenly become the best of the Art Museum-area pubs.
Walls have been opened up between the lively bar and the small dining room, its brick and wood fireplace warmed - even romantic - with the flicker of votive lights.
An outstanding selection of craft beers, touted daily on McCrossen's pulsing Twitter feed, now flow through the taps, with seasonal brews (Dogfish Punk!) and international classics (Blanche de Bruxelles wit). A small but worthwhile list of food-friendly international wines shows that someone here also knows gastropubs don't have to be exclusively about beer.
That person would be general manager Lauren Harris, an alum of both Twenty21 and Tria, who was also responsible for some surprising moments of service grace (like a round of free drinks) when our table wasn't ready on time for the reservation. Though considerably less polished, the other servers were at least well-prepared to discuss the menu.
And it is, after all, Wentz's food that is really the reason to come. You know a chef's in the kitchen (cooking for himself and fellow cooks) when you see a crock of brandade (an old favorite). But Wentz's cod is so lightly salted before it's poached and whipped with garlic, potatoes and thyme, that it easily could find mass appeal. Who knows - could it be the artichoke dip of its day? There are plenty of other cheffy items along those lines, like the tender braised cubes of pork belly now being served in a white bean cassoulet; or the superbly crisp sweetbreads that came alongside rounds of poached veal tongue, whose sublime softness was given a finishing char from the grill and a refined veal sauce tanged with Banyuls vinegar.
Not that McCrossen's has entirely forgotten its bar roots. The kitchen still makes a very respectable crispy wing - fairly addictive once the habanero sauce flips the heat light on your taste buds. There's an excellent burger here - made from trendy New York LaFrieda meat - with an earthy hint of dry-aged beef fat, a ripe tomato, and your choice of cheese.
Old McCrossen favorites such as chicken Sicilian have also been preserved, though Wentz has given the old South Philly classic an upgrade, serving the tender breasts in a refined tomato gravy with genuine Sicilian oregano (flecked right off the branch) and the glowing warmth of chile flakes. Likewise, McCrossen's shrimp scampi is one of the best versions of this much-abused dish I've had, the buttery spaghetti lit with just the right amount of garlic and bright lemon, then crowned with two majestic head-on shrimp.
There were moments when this kitchen could have been more consistent. The pork Milanese topped with caper sauce was a vision of cutlet perfection one night; burned nearly black and chewy another. The pork meatball was stuffed with mozzarella (can't anyone leave a poor meatball alone anymore?), but was really dimmed by too much breading. A side of snow pea leaves, meanwhile, was woody and undercooked, also overwhelmed by too much sesame oil. With the exception of those tender littlenecks steamed in a bowl of Viet-flavored crab broth, Asian flavors are not McCrossen's strongest suit.
A big crock of bouillabaisse lands much closer to this kitchen's comfort zone, the fennel- and saffron-infused shellfish broth a lusty orange backdrop to sweet morsels of cod, clams, mussels, and shrimp - even moist lobster tail one night, since swapped out for scallops.
Menus here change often. But there are things I'd love to see again. A nearly perfect carpaccio would be among them, the sheer rounds of marbled beef topped with piquant slivers of olives and the toasty crunch of hazelnuts. Or an end-of-summer gazpacho that featured spot-on fresh croutons, ideal with that glass of dry, tart Golem Aussie riesling. (I only wish the croutons had been as good - and not all so hard - with a more recent panzanella.)
I also wish we could recapture just a few more weeks of September to preserve the ripe peaches that glowed like orchard sunshine from beneath the delicate crackle of a brûléed sugar crust. It tasted almost as if someone had wanted to preserve those peaches in caramel amber. But the season's best flavors are ever-changing. And it is a good thing, indeed, that old McCrossen's now has a new kitchen spirit that can change with them.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan talks about McCrossen's Tavern at www.philly.com/labanreviews. He will resume his online chats on Oct. 25. Join him at 2 p.m. at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.