The recipes are Pennsylvania proud, but sloppy execution could get them shunned.

By Adam Erace
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Dec. 15, 2009

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Scrapple of my eye: Daniel Stern’s non-traditional crab cake is a fun addition to MidAtlantic’s casual menu.

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. ■

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Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. Anonymous said... on Dec 16, 2009 at 01:49PM

“I disagree tremendously with this review. I have been a half dozen times or so. The service has ranged from very good to excellent, and the food is really well executed, tasty, and fun. There have been times where I have been jonesing hard for a MidAtlantic burger w gravy fries, so thankfully MA can fulfill that need. Those fries are like potato crack, and I love the donut roll for the burger. I've eaten or tasted probably a dozen or more dishes on the menu, and they have all been well executed. Plus, everyone I have taken to the restaurant has tried those gravy fries, and they all rave about them. The reviewer is welcome to dislike a dish, but to say the restaurant lacks execution is just flat out wrong.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Dec 16, 2009 at 02:08PM

“WOW - I have no idea what happened the night you dined at MidAtlantic. I have personally eaten there 4 times, and your review is way off from the GREAT experiences that we had. You really should go back and try again, you won't be disappointed. Also - you didn't say much about the staff - who is professional and well trained, and has always looked after us and treated us really well. The burger I had was thick and juicy, the scrapple sandwiches are awesome... I could go on. Give it another shot.”

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3. Lynnie said... on Dec 16, 2009 at 02:19PM

“Everything about this place is fun, especially the Daniel Stern take on the Pa-dutch themed items. I don't see anyone else on the Philly restaurant scene taking true local ingredients & mixing in memories & flavors from our childhood like Mid-Atlanitc does on a consistent basis. Do try the many variations of scrapple & don't miss the homemade root beer sticky buns:)”

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4. Anonymous said... on Dec 16, 2009 at 04:31PM

“I have to agree with the reviewer. I had high hopes for Mid-Atlantic. Everything seemed to be in place. A great concept, nice packaging and the Stern name that should inspire quality, consistency and a skill set on par with some of the best area chefs. I and the the other three diners that joined me for dinner on a Saturday evening were completely let down. Sloppy plating and poor technique on this low of a level cannot and should not be dissmissed. The service was decent albeit overbearing at times and the drinks were interestingly enjoyable. But the food, which is why we came, was simply dissapointing.”

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5. loboredred2000 said... on Dec 16, 2009 at 11:52PM

“Wow, what a shock (schlock) this review was! Perhaps the reviewer missed the nuances of the restaurant and its concept. Did he not appreciate the creativity, and imaginative blending of regional flavors and old-time favorites? The crab scrapple took me back to small, neighborhood taverns in Baltimore City where the food was honest, satisfying, and refined to its regional best. Barley mustard is such a culinary coup, so utterly delicious that I wanted to take it home. I will continue to rave about Midlantic to all. Go back reviewer, go back,”

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6. Anonymous said... on Dec 17, 2009 at 09:05AM

“I have been to MidAtlantic twice and my experiences were very far different from the reviewer's. I found the food, presentation, and execution top notch. I also think the bar area is a great place to enjoy a beer, and the soft pretzels were out of this world. I hope the reviewer gives it another chance. I rave about MidAtlantic to everyone, and I will go back again and again.”

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7. brendancalling said... on Dec 17, 2009 at 10:06AM

“"The garlicky buttermilk dressing for the farmhouse salad looked like it had been applied by Peter North."

Whatever the quality of the rest of the food, whatever improvements the kitchen staff may make, I will NEVER be able to eat the farmhouse salad. This image is burned, unpleasantly, into my brain. Thanks, asshole. Please don't describe the mussels.”

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8. Gary said... on Dec 17, 2009 at 12:47PM

“I will add my voice to those who disagree with the reviewer! I discovered MidAtlantic just after it opened. The first dish I had were the pig "wings" and fell in love. I have tried something different each time I've eaten at MidAtlantic. Everything has been done and presented in the manner that I have come to expect from Daniel Stern's restaurants. High, quality, well presented and above all delicious. Last night I finally got to taste the Wednesday Special. Hot dogs(2 jumbo) with slaw and chips. Should have taken one home but ate both. Great Dogs. Of course the rootbeer is just great rootbeer, you have to taste it to understand how good
it is. I will work my way through the menu enjoying every morsel I eat.

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9. Anonymous said... on Dec 17, 2009 at 01:41PM

“I heartily disagree with many of your comments about MidAtlantic. I thought the menu was very inventive and clever. We were a party of eight so we got to try a lot of different dishes and they were all simply delicious. I could have eaten 3 orders of those "pig wings" alone. The description of the presentation of the food was unfair.The concept of the restaurant made the casual presentation perfectly appropriate. I also don't understand why an issue was made over Daniel Stern's absence that one night. It seems insignificant to me. My husband and I will definitely go back and so should the reviewer.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Dec 17, 2009 at 05:07PM

“since when was simple, well executed and understated plating of food a problem? why does everything have to be over the top and stacked toweringly high with a useless foam that only detracts from the plate?

I have to disagree with this review...I appreciate the fact that chef dan stern has kept this concept simple in comparison to what was done at gayle....its not about glitz and glamour...its about the overall experience which is a cohesive one. crazy culinary exploits would not fit the space nor the menu.

something tells me that this reviewer needs to get it out of his head that all new restaurants need to wow with useless crap and appreciate simple, comforting, homey cooking.

i cant wait to go back to midatlantic after reading this review.”

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11. Jill said... on Dec 17, 2009 at 05:27PM

“I really want this place to succeed and I like the space, but the food is disappointing after several visits. The ideas are great and the flavors are there, but every dish suffers from texture issues. The scrapple appetizers are mushy. The MA burger has wonderful flavor but the summer sausage on top adds nothing and its texture is distracting. The fries are great. Staff has always been friendly. The plates really need to be re-worked, though.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Dec 18, 2009 at 02:10PM

“I've been to MidAtlantic. Loved it. Can't wait to go back. The hot dogs are killer. Everything we tasted was delicious, creative and fun. Dan Stern did his homework and his riff on PA Dutch works. The space itself is wonderful and the service was friendly, informed and had the classic Stern touch. You can tell his staff loves working for him. He cares. Midatlantic will only get better and it's damn good now! One reviewer's misguided opinion shouldn't keep you from going. Go and enjoy! You'll be glad you did!”

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13. Anonymous said... on Dec 18, 2009 at 11:27PM

“I'm with the reviewer on this one. Frankly, several of these reviews sound like folks connected with the restaurant. Service was good and the bar looked inviting. The crab cake/scrapple was fantastic. The boat of cheese with a pretzel was good. The fish stew was good. And I appreciate that there is Sprecher's on tap. Beyond that, eh. The pig wings were in syrup that congealed and the meat inside was dry and overcooked. The roast chicken and roast pork were extremely overcooked -- had we been in a smaller group, I'd have sent the pork chop back. Such simple dishes should have been executed much better. There are much better restaurants in Philly.”

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14. T-Mac said... on Dec 19, 2009 at 03:40PM

“The cheese dip with pretzels chips were like something my aunt would make out of her betty crocker cookbook only hers would actually be tasty.

trio of scrapple looked like mushy dog treats and tasted no better.

Also, Mid-Atlantic food is not well represented by just throwing pretzels on everything.

Newark has a huge Portuguese population so do house made chorizo, Maryland blue crabs, stuffed cabbage, brick oven pizzas, sauerkraut, pierogies....I could go on.
It's just not done well.

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15. Geri said... on Dec 19, 2009 at 11:04PM

“If MidAtlantic is located in a jet hangar, I'd like to book weekly flights. When I walk through its doors, I am warmly greeted by the attendants. Sure, the taproom has been open for only two months, but my husband and I are frequent flyers. On a regular basis, we shuttle back and forth to Daniel Stern's new venture, always bringing friends with us to share its first-class cabin. I loved both Gayle and Rae, and I miss them. I certainly look forward to R2L. But MidAtlantic's chicken, its pigs wings, its seafood stew, and its root beer have primed my palate since October. Creative excellence appears casual only to those who overlook the talent and energy that fuel its performance. And any judgment of presentation that is peppered with comparisons of MidAtlantic to school and prison cafeterias ranks right up there with the bags of pretzels and peanuts I received on my recent flight to Florida.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Dec 28, 2009 at 08:27AM

“Daniel Stern's newest restaurant MidAtlantaic is a true eating experience!
The unusual menu has already enticed my family to return three times...
The pheasant special was absolutely delicious- cooked to perfection...the interesting side dishes reflected the creative talents of Daniel Stern. Don't miss the root beer donuts...a true treat!”

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17. amos stoltzfus said... on Apr 20, 2010 at 11:15AM

“what a ferhoodled review! the buttermilk dressing is the best i've ever had. probably more like ron jeremy, though.”


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