There’s obvious talent in the kitchen and a lot of heart in this little BYOB.
Some restaurants are easy to love—they have delicious food served in a great location at an affordable price. Others are more difficult. Perhaps the location is cool, the price is right, but the food falls flat. Or maybe the food is unreal and reasonably priced, but the restaurant is out of the way. For Fishtown’s the Pickled Heron, it’s even tougher.
This one-room BYOB is the kind of place you hope to love. Owned by couple Todd Braley and Daniela D’Ambrosio, who met working under Terence Feury at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia, the Pickled Heron specializes in modern interpretations of French-American fare. This far-flung spot could be a vibrant showcase of their nascent collaborations in the kitchen—if it hangs in there long enough for everything to come together.
The location alone is a tough sell, a good walk from the Berks stop on the El through a neighborhood that could be generously described as up-and-coming. Cafes and galleries share space with long-entrenched corner bars and vacant lots. Street parking isn’t tough to find, but it’s not the kind of place anyone outside of the neighborhood is likely to drop by on a whim.
That “destination dining” appeal makes sense when you examine the Heron’s menu. Appetizers run from $7 to $18, with entrees topping out at $24. Clearly, as a BYOB, they hope to draw a crowd from Center City and beyond with their food, rather than create a neighborhood spot for locals to frequent. Which is too bad, because the food only inconsistently merits either the price or the trip.
Chefs Braley and D’Ambrosio turn out a seared foie gras that ranks among my favorites in town, expertly cooked without a hint of over-searing and served over a golden raisin and black pepper jam that is both a sweet foil and a thoughtful complement to the faintly metallic character of the foie. Caramelized brioche underneath it all adds crunch and heft; this is a gorgeous appetizer.
Seared scallops are tender clouds drifting on sunchoke puree and a scattering of toothsome fava beans, the entire dish brightened by a judicious squeeze of lemon: early spring on a plate. The house-cured charcuterie includes mortadella with pistachios that is subtly sweetened with a hint of clove and brings life to the otherwise dry house-baked bread.
But for these highlights, there are twice as many missteps. The spring garlic soup, creamy and light, lacks salt despite a handful of duck prosciutto lurking beneath the surface. Veal breast is prepared porchetta-style, but the delicate flavor of the meat is lost, no match for the heavily breaded, fried white-bean cake served alongside; it’s essentially a refried bean croquette. Grilled octopus salad is chewy and lacks the vibrant punch of citrus that might have brightened it; an accompanying blood orange vinaigrette is oversweet.
Other house-cured charcuterie is dull, with smoked duck sausage lacking intensity. Crispy head cheese is another breaded-and-fried patty, tasty but indistinguishable as meat (my companion initially thought it was mushrooms). Sweet potato gnocchi are distressingly gummy, served with overcooked Brussels sprouts, slices of chestnut and lumps of goat cheese in a dish whose flavors I adored but whose texture was paste-like enough to keep me from cleaning my plate.
Like the kitchen, service is a touch green, but trying very hard. The white tablecloths suggest a gentility that never quite gels; more than once, our water glasses go empty in a dining room that is less than half-full and our white wine—sent away to chill—doesn’t come back until our first dish is on the table and we’ve asked for it. Generally, though, the team is trying: They are knowledgeable about the food and helpful without hovering.
One hopes that the Pickled Heron will survive long enough to correct the errors in their execution—or adjust their service and price point to reflect what they really are: an ambitious new neighborhood restaurant with some great ideas, worthy of being given a chance, but not yet worthy of a trip and the best bottle from your cellar.
2218 Frankford Ave. 215.634.5666. thepickledheron.com
Cuisine: Contemporary American by way of France.
Hours: Tues.-Thurs., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 11am-9pm.
Price range: $7-$24, cash only.
Atmosphere: Off-puttingly bright, with a disparate soundtrack that includes Amy Winehouse and Simon & Garfunkel.
Food: Ambitious but uneven.
Service: Warm and appealingly casual, but occasionally inattentive.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014