Fitler Dining Room opens in a charmed space, seems poised to succeed

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 22, 2013

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Midway through a recent meal at Fitler Dining Room, a friend of mine pointed out what had by then become increasingly obvious: “This space,” she said, “is charmed.”

I knew just what she meant. Before Ed Hackett and Dan Clark had taken over the corner address at 22nd and Spruce, David Katz held sway at Meme, turning out food that had grown increasingly accomplished the longer he was there. Before that, it was Melograno, as close to a quintessential example of what a truly standout Philly Italian BYOB should—and could—be.

And now, it’s Fitler Dining Room, where executive chef Robert Marzinsky seems to be poised for a similar trajectory as his predecessors.

Potato gnocchi melt on the tongue with the slightest pressure, bathing the palate in all the Chartreuse butter perfume they’ve absorbed. So, too, have the escargots studding the plate, and if they could have used a bit more seasoning, it wasn’t enough to detract, only distract. The crunch of hazelnuts, the melting gnocchi, the springtime brightness of ramps (wild onion) and that phenomenal butter were more than enough to pull it all off.

A salad of roasted beets were livened up with pickled ones alongside, and the tension between the sweetly acidic latter and the sweetly earthy former found its counterpart in the intersection of buttermilk dressing and mushrooms, including maitakes and black truffles. Globe artichoke soup was a hearty flavored wonder, complicated beautifully with La Quercia prosciutto and fresh garbanzos.

The menu here—at least at this point in the spring—peddles in flavors that are firmly rooted in the now, yet still manage to look forward to the warmer days ahead. The wine list, however, seems built to succeed throughout the year. There are plenty of excellent options, including a nice selection of Sherry (the fino with the artichoke soup was especially appealing) and enough unusual or underappreciated grape varieties and regions to make mixing and matching your food and drink a whole lot of fun. A bottle of Mencia, from Bierzo in northwestern Spain, was just the sort of fruit-forward, gently spice-kissed offering to work with this food.

For the short period of time that Fitler has been open, its food is remarkably confident: The distance between the intent of each dish and its execution is virtually nonexistent. And the way it straddles the line between higher-concept and comfort is something that many restaurants far further along in their evolution still struggle to achieve. Tagliatelle, hand-cut and tender, arrives all tangled around nettles, spring peas and ramps. Smoked chèvre melts when the hen egg nesting in the center of it all is broken and mixed into the noodles, creating a deeply flavorful sauce and providing a perfect framing mechanism for those bright spring flavors. Braised beef cheek arrived all shimmering black like some sort of lacquered jewelry box. For a chilly, early spring evening, it was perfect.

Prices aren’t inexpensive here, but the quality of the ingredients, the painstaking work that clearly goes into every component and the generosity of the portions justifies them. The straightforwardly named Ozark Mountain Berkshire Pork was actually far more than that, a hillock of piggy treats calling out to everyone at the table from its plate, a cassoulet-like gathering of beans and a gorgeous mustard jus, pork belly dizzyingly moist beneath its shattering crust of skin, tenderloin with texture to spare, and Toulouse sausage, made in-house and kissed with just the right hit of ramps.

We ended that night with desserts that followed through on the promise of the savory dishes: Pastry Chef Davina Soondrum is turning out a remarkable repertoire, including a carrot cake with cinnamon ice cream that just sings.

Service is perfectly pitched for this sort of food: The entire front-of-house staff was unerringly professional and deeply knowledgeable, able to back up recommendations with genuine enthusiasm. Their friendliness fits in perfectly with the space itself, with the shimmering candles at each table and the windows opening out to a picture-perfect Philadelphia street scene: All of this is inviting.

My friend was right: This space must be charmed. And now the streak continues with the excellent Fitler Dining Room. Some places are just lucky that way.

2201 Spruce St. 215.732.3331.

Cuisine type: American bistro.

Hours: Wed., Thurs., Sun., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm.

Price range: $10-$28.

Atmosphere: Inviting and warm.

Food: Ambitious, deeply comforting and wildly successful.

Service: Knowledgeable and justifiably enthusiastic.

Hog heaven: Ozark Mountain Berkshire Pork is dizzyingly moist.

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