The recipes are Pennsylvania proud, but sloppy execution could get them shunned.
Daniel Stern is not a chef who likes to waste time. Shortly after the former Le Bec-Fin chef opened his first restaurant, a 30-something-seater named Gayle, in 2005 he announced her sequel would be Rae, with capacity for more than 200 guests in the glass confines of the Cira Centre. The tower proved to be a tomb for Rae, but Gayle went strong till just this past August, when Stern announced the charming BYOB would close as he readied two new concepts, R2L on the 37th floor of Two Liberty and MidAtlantic, a taproom on the UPenn periphery.
Though R2L won’t premiere till January, the MidAtlantic opened in October, featuring a jet hangar of a room done in salvaged metals and lustrous reclaimed woods and a casually organized, Pennsylvania Dutch-themed menu including crab scrapple, bread pudding fashioned from Butterscotch Krimpets and root beer as a primary cooking ingredient.
Is it the infusion of undergrads in the high-ceilinged dining room? Or the servers’ “I Love Crab Scrapple” tees? The patio fronted by planters and ablaze in orange Tolix chairs, the line cooks in chocolate-brown ballcaps, the experience of sipping the dazzling fruit-and-vinegar “shrub” sodas of our forefathers—plus a healthy slug of Bluecoat? I don’t know what it is, probably a combination of all these things, but MidAtlantic just feels fun .
Gayle was fun, but in the cerebral way that seeing The Usual Suspects for the first time is fun. The frosty Rae was fun, but only when the undertrained staff mispronounced ingredients on the menu. MidAtlantic is a different animal, exuding that pure, unbridled, swingin’-for-the-fences, swayin’-from-the-monkey-bars kind of fun, especially at the stainless-steel chef’s bar that puts you so close to the line you can feel the heat rippling off the stoves.
The cool, youthful vibe is the reason I’ll return, not necessarily the food, which is casually priced but so casually presented you might as well be in a freshman dining hall.
The ivory-and-teal-striped oval plates might be charming with some scratches at a vintage diner; at MidAtlantic, their pallor and odd, constricting shape doesn’t do any favors for the food, which was often forced into an unfortunate muffintop situation. A nasty skin covered the ramekin of barley mustard, one of three mustards served with the braided soft pretzel that was neither soft nor warm. Sauerkraut and a single apple fritter (burned on the outside and raw in the middle) had been placed alongside the decent pan-seared pork chop with all the care one might expect in a prison cafeteria. The garlicky buttermilk dressing for the farmhouse salad looked like it had been applied by Peter North.
That salad arrived alongside the dry MidAtlantic burger, which came topped with horseradish cheddar, a senseless split link of beef sausage and pickles, which I’d requested on the side. The compact donut roll bookending the burger was playful in theory but sobering in execution, devoid of the airiness you’d expect from a donut.
Coming from Stern, a serious technician whose food normally never looks less than exquisite, this was a curveball. But then again, Stern, presumably occupied with the fast-approaching R2L opening, wasn’t even at MidAtlantic the weekend night I dined. Chef de cuisine Steve Lamborn (the original sous at Gayle) runs the show here, and there are glimmers of Gayle in his cooking: a textbook-perfect fry on the buttery panko and Ritz cracker-crusted Long Island oysters and salsify batons; the cleverness of pan-seared crab “scrapple” cake composed of crabmeat and barley, far better than any traditional crab cake I’ve had in recent memory; and the root-beer sticky buns for dessert, which called to mind the banana buns that once starred in the Gayle breakfast spread.
These soft, spiraling sticky buns don’t have the cheeky appeal of the Butterscotch Krimpet bread pudding, but they’re far less sweet, even swamped in the spicy, sappy root-beer syrup. The rolls unraveled like spools of Bubble Tape, dripping with the nectar invented by Charles Hires in 1876 and perfected by the Amish and Mennonites still crafting small batches up the Turnpike. You could taste the vanilla, the wintergreen, the cinnamon, the history. It’s a fitting tribute to the recipes of our region, even if the restaurant in which they’re served needs a bit more time for fine-tuning. The question is whether Stern has the time to spare. ■