My first thought when our waitress described Gemelli’s new seasonal cocktail, a pumpkin mojito, was a crestfallen, Really? Clark Gilbert, who made a nice splash in Narberth with his prior incarnation of Gemelli a few years back, had moved to Manayunk this past summer and, I feared, fallen into the trap that so many had before him, pandering to the post-college crowd with sweet cocktails and flavor combinations about as sensible as Herman Cain’s thought process on matters of foreign policy.
Turns out I was dead wrong.
The drink, a silk-textured, roasty wonder the color of sunset, embodied all that makes this Gemelli an exceptional addition to Manayunk’s eternally frustrating dining scene. In fact, it’s a stellar newcomer to the region’s restaurant universe.
This is food that’s guided by well-developed flavor and seasonal propriety, everything else be damned. There are no unnecessary tricks here, no techniques employed to show off the kitchen’s skill. Even dishes that read a bit baroque on the menu turn out to be carefully considered assemblies of complimentary components that almost always add up to more than the sum of the parts.
At his best, Gilbert sends out gems like the mammoth portion of beef cheeks, a gorgeous plateful of shimmering, ink-toned flesh from New York’s renowned Pat LaFrieda. All the earthiness of the meat—sticky and melty and beyond fork-tender—was balanced by deliriously sweet caramelized cippolini. The slick of sauce, the reduced and concentrated braising liquid, served as a perfect vessel for showing off its constituent house-made veal stock. And just when all of this heartiness threatened to overwhelm, the celery-root risotto swept it up to a brighter level.
Cannelloni accomplished a similarly complex feat, though with a lighter touch. Here, silky kerchiefs of homemade pasta had been wrapped around tender tubes of shrimp-and-lobster mousse and bathed in a cardamom- and cinnamon-perfumed lobster jus. That on its own would have been enough, but the addition of sticky rails of pork belly and meaty slices of nebrodini mushrooms took it over the top: A thoroughly modern surf and turf.
Very occasionally, this tendency to work so many components into a single dish diminishes the entire effect. A recent bruschetta special with silky ribbons of Serrano, honey-caramelized shallots, goat cheese and nicoise olives would have been better without that last component: It was plenty savory without.
But that was a rare over-stretch, and so much of the rest of Gilbert’s food bears the mark of a man confident in his technique, comfortable with his concept, and passionate about the details. This is grown-up food, occasionally challenging and regularly rewarding.
Arancini, those fried risotto balls that have grown a bit tired lately around the region, were given electroshock therapy here and made exciting again. The starch of the arborio and the shreds of salt cod were a witty riff on brandade. Accompanying chorizo aioli—heady and worthy of licking from the plate—and chartreuse-colored buttons of velvety green-olive tapenade may be two of the most exciting condiments I’ve tasted this year. And vitello tonnato, which garnered Gilbert positive attention in Narberth, has made the journey to Main Street with some tweaking: the fried sweetbreads are like the best, earthiest McNuggets you’ve ever had, and the tuna tartare is fresh and emphatic from the clever addition of lemon oil.
All of this is beautifully accompanied by the wide-ranging and original wine list that Clark collaborated on with GM David Howard. Put yourself in his hands and don’t argue with his recommendations. It takes guts to put Austrian St. Laurent and single-vineyard Spanish Petit Verdot on your list, but the risk more than pays off when the glasses are poured.
And make sure to have a glass of sweet-savory Banyuls with your dessert. Its cherry compote notes balance out the yeasty beignets every bit as well as their dipping sauces, and its concentration is a hearty accompaniment to the perfumey flourless chocolate cake.
This is seriously accomplished food in a neighborhood that badly needs it. It’s already, I’d argue, among the top tier of restaurants on Main Street, and definitely worthy of a trip to the neighborhood, wherever you’re coming from.
4161 Main St., Manayunk, 215.487.1230
Cuisine: Northern Italian and French.
Hours: Sun.-Mon., 5-9pm; Tues.-Thurs., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm.
Price range: $10-$27.
Atmosphere: Modern but comfortable.
Food: Expressive and soulful.
Service: Professional and very helpful.
35 Things You Must Eat at the Shore