I don’t use the word ‘inedible’ lightly. Most of the time, supposedly inedible foods are a matter of perception and cultural biases against eating this ingredient or that. And as is the case with so many of life’s experiences, the most initially intensely off-putting ones often, ultimately, provide the most pleasure. In the past two months alone, I’ve enjoyed head-on whole baby eels, pig ears and hearts, cow tendons and intestines, head cheese, and even the softball-sized thymus gland of a red Patagonian deer.
So understand that this is difficult to write: Center City Grille’s mushroom soup has finally defeated me. It is inedible.
This innocent-sounding bowlful arrived at the table trailing an odor that can only be described as “uncomfortably human,” like certain dank corners of the SEPTA concourse on a hot summer day. Finding its aromatic center of gravity somewhere barely south of searing, its flavor was, mercifully, less evil than I’d expected. But that’s no great endorsement, and the slippery knobs of mushroom failed to improve with further exploratory bites.
The good news is that the soup was the worst dish I tasted at this gray-toned spot at 20th and Ludlow streets. The bad news is most everything else was only slightly better.
Potato skins were actually starchy potato wedges, a big problem if you’re expecting crisp boats of browned skin bearing the fillings. Still, I have a hard time believing that the absence of that chalky potato-meat would have rendered these any better. Day-Glo cheese and the occasional crisp bit of bacon were easily overwhelmed by the heap of sour cream, like a lactic Kilimanjaro high above the potato foothills.
Southwestern salad found itself imprisoned in a deep-fried tortilla bowl of debatable freshness and unarguable anachronism. A quick pick through the listless mix of greens revealed a number of sad, brown-edged leaves that the mildly tangy, benignly pleasant avocado ranch dressing couldn’t redeem.
The house-cured corned beef, far too lean to maintain any sort of moisture or the lacing of fat at the edge that’s the hallmark of a great slice, demonstrated all the tactile appeal of old shoe leather. The conception of the sandwich was fine—corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut—but the individual components made a hash of any baby steps toward success. Even the kraut was soggy and depressing. (The fries, at least, were crisp, well-cooked and satisfying.)
Meatballs in the meatball sandwich were virtually devoid of salt, so bland they felt almost like simulacra one might eat on a spaceship. Farfalle alla vodka with seafood was more nursing-home dish than anything else: A mushy, Dickensian bowlful of starch that a dentureless nonagenarian could easily gum into submission. The cheese was similar in texture to the overcooked pasta, and it overwhelmed everything but the occasional sweet bit of mystery seafood.
There are more issues than just the food. The beer list is pleasant but uninspired, studded with the usual suspects. I had to request a glass for my beer, a Dogfish Head India Brown Ale robust enough that most other spots would offer it with a glass without request. The space is oddly sterile, its gray linearity and perplexing (ironic?) cosmo sign a bar-space oddity. And the music runs toward the odd—a recent soundtrack highlight was the Fences tune “Girls with Accents,” in which the chorus, “I’m fucking up, I’m fucking up, I’m fucking up everything,” is repeated over and over.
Maybe that song was some sort of admission, or warning, or both. Either way, the symbolism was too obvious to ignore.
Center City Grille (12 S. 20th St. 267.861.0216)
Cuisine: Sandwiches and more ambitious dishes of dubious success.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11:30am-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 11:30am-2am.
Prices: Entrees generally under $20, though expensive for what you get.
Atmosphere: Gray and linear.
Service: Much more pleasant than the food.
Food: Proceed with caution.
Dinner with Luke Palladino