Bella Vista bummed hard over the loss of James, a contemporary, Italian-inspired restaurant that elevated the neighborhood’s fine-dining options. Good news: Now that longtime friends and former classmates Michael Dorris and Michael Santoro have moved in with the Mildred, where Santoro is chef and Dorris is general manager, the community has something new to be excited about.
The seasonal menu is built around food from local sources like Coulton Organics, Fulper Farms, Terhune Orchards, Lancaster Farm Fresh and Weavers Way. The construction of the space itself, meanwhile—wood beam ceilings, brown leather accents and a stone fireplace—gives the feeling of a warm, cozy farmhouse, so it all feels comfortably farm-to-table without being too cool, stuffy or arty about it. The spacious bar is somewhere you’d actually want to hang out and grab a quick bite to eat this winter when takeout just won’t cut it. (“We want this to be a neighborhood restaurant where industry people can come, eat good and not get killed on price,” Santoro says.)
The Mildred Salad makes for a refreshing start with salted almond, lemon confit and fresh herbs. The dressing is light and sweet and not overdone, leaving the fresh veggies crisp; salted almonds add a pop of flavor, salt and crunch over the mild, sweet and tangy whole.
Whenever a menu boasts homemade pasta, I cannot resist. The hand-spun chitarra with braised cockles, bacon and beer did not disappoint. The pasta is fresh and cooked al dente, while the cockles are tender; the dish satisfies the craving for salt and butter without being heavy or oily. And the fresh taste of the ocean, plus the slight creaminess added by finishing with butter and Kronenbourg lager, is a nice highlight on a menu primarily dominated by veggies and braised meats.
For example: Braised oxtail with barley and parsnip risotto offers up the traditional flavors of fall. Though the barley, parsnip puree and larger-sized pearls make the risotto a heartier dish than some risottos, it is not as creamy as others. And outside of one crunchy bite, the oxtail is braised to perfection and caramelized and crispy on top.
The standout of the meal is the braised chicken and biscuits with herbs and vegetables. Healthy chunks of onion, squash, carrot and celery season the chicken, served hot in a skillet. Though this wasn’t the sort of dish I ate growing up, it nonetheless has that comfort-food feeling to it. The biscuits are light and fluffy; where a lesser preparation could have easily seen them get soggy with chicken juices, here they maintain their flakiness and texture. Likewise, the veggies—all too often lackluster in skillet-prepared dishes, or, alternately, swimming in sauce—are perfectly crisp and flavorful. The high-quality local ingredients are part of that excellence, but technique is the rest; the Mildred simply nails veggies.
Pan-braised monkfish in a chorizo-and-potato stew falls a little flat; the accompanying chickpeas are undercooked and hard to get on a fork. The flavor is there, though, as the chorizo is rendered down with onions, garlic, oregano and chicken stock plus tomato fondue (canned on site this summer) and white wine, and finished with black kale and vinegar.
Another hearty dish highlighting in-season produce is the casserole of fall vegetables with squash tortellini and red mokum carrot jus. The veggies are sweet and lightly browned: warm and tender inside, crisp and caramelized outside, while the squash puree is creamy and flavorful with a whipped texture.
You may want to pass on dessert after that fall bounty. But you won’t. Meyer lemon tart with fresh huckleberries, huckleberry sauce and thyme creme glace is fresh, not overly sweet and convinces me that summer wasn’t that long ago. Heirloom squash pot de creme with pumpkin seed tuile, goat milk ice cream and cranberries is another comforting offering: just the right amount of sweet and savory, in keeping with the rest of the autumnally inspired meal.
Chef Santoro tells us he hopes the vibrant food and cozy atmosphere will keep neighbors coming back. If the Mildred’s upcoming winter menu is anything like fall’s, it seems highly likely.
824 S. Eighth St. 267.687.1600. the-mildred.com
Cuisine type: Farm-to-table, American.
Hours: Dinner, Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–10:30pm; Fri.–Sun., 5:30–11pm. Brunch, Sat.–Sun., 10:30am–2:30pm.
Price range: Brunch menus, $4-$15; dinner menus, $7–$44.
Atmosphere: Cozy and simple.
Food: Fresh and hearty.
Service: Friendly and attentive.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014