Stephen Starr's sisters aren't created equal.
Like a lumberjack with an axe, the bartender raised a long-handled spoon and showed a small iceberg who was boss. Whack! Crack! Thwack! Glassy pebbles piled into a Boston shaker like fenced diamonds into an unmarked briefcase.
My friends Campari, Beefeater and Carpano Antica followed. Liquids were stirred and strained, more ice cracked by hand. A firm twist of grapefruit peel sent essential oils spraying with Dexter-credits drama. Naked ladies in gilded frames looked on from the papered walls, all part of the prolonged theater of the Bartender’s Choice at the Steven Starr speakeasy Ranstead Room, where each moment is juicier and more tantric than the next.
It’s a formula you’ve seen before: Take 1 part hidden entrance (look for the door marked with double R’s) + 2 parts Manhattan cocktail consultant (Sasha Petraske) + 3 types of ice, including a large, finely faceted block slipped into my drink. But that cocktail (a Negroni modified with grapefruit and a rinse of Pernod) felt original, tasted delectable and made a smart, stimulating start to drinks and dinner at Ranstead and sister restaurant El Rey.
I rested my elbows on the vinyl padding of the red Formica bar-top and drank in my drink (a Quill, should you want to try one for yourself) and the colonial convent/ Dusk Till Dawn whorehouse ambiance. The tidy room wears wrought iron and candlelight, garnet pleather and disco tiles—Our Lady of Guadeloupe in fishnets and rouge.
Cocktailians lingered like the Quill’s licorice notes, but I had Ranstead mostly to myself, and snacks from the El Rey menu arrived right quick. Albondigas were tender orbs of beef and rice, simmered in smoky guajillo-chipotle sauce with a spark of mint. Gauzy corn tortillas made in-house cradled morsels of lamb stunningly good due to a marinade of Mexican canella, onions, cloves and avocado leaves.
Dionicio Jimenez left the white tablecloths of Xochitl for this two-headed Starr-ship enterprise, but he professes, “It’s still the same concept I’ve always had. I try to keep it traditional.” After those two explosively flavorful bites (plus a frothy Tequila Honeysuckle situation) at Ranstead, I wandered around the corner to El Rey, full of liquor and optimism.
Coffee is what hits you first, as thick in the air as an impending thunderstorm. In a previous life, El Rey was the Midtown Diner, and it still smells that way. Looks that way too, with faux exposed-rock walls, rows of re-upholstered booths and a drop ceiling strung with a flotilla of light fixtures. I took a seat beneath one shaped like the Cone of Shame from Up and ordered one of the best micheladas in town. The spice-crusted mug brimmed with iced Tecate and sangrita— not sangria, the waitress counseled. “A lot of people order it expecting something else.”
I ordered the $10 guacamole expecting something else, e.g. something not buried beneath a shut-down-the-highways blizzard of cotija cheese. Each overpriced bite was like a mouthful of Morton. Crab ceviche, $12, could have been called drab ceviche, a dome of oiled blue crustacean dosed with lots of jalapeño and less finesse.
Plating problems are a plague here, too—not to mention the plates themselves, diner-designed and pasty-pale as a Twilight groupie. Mounded on a flat dish, the ceviche seeped pepper-stained juices like an obstinate wound, turning a ring of crispy tortilla chips soggy while slips of partially oxidized avocado languished on top like lovesick eels.
It’s too bad, because some of the food deserved better, like the sweet, spiced short ribs braised with agua jamaica and Avolita chocolate and tucked into enchiladas in a moat of salsa; ditto for cups of muscly moles, sliding around on a plate like air-hockey pucks.
Three regional variations come in the Los Moles especialidad: brooding Oaxacan lamb mole negro, a sheep in wolf’s clothing with five types of chilies (including the elusive chilhuacue); Poblano with chicken, like chocolate velvet; and the nutty, pumpkin seed-based pipian rojo blanketing baby-back ribs. In all three moles, Jimenez’s preferred thickening and sweetening agent is Animal Crackers. It’s his mom’s, too.
I might have tried dessert, had the server asked. Instead, I beat a trail back to the warm, red center of the Ranstead Room. I’m not calling for a total El Rey jettison, but the twee cantina’s got a ways to go before becoming half as alluring as its sultry lil’ sis.
For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
2013 Ranstead St.
Cuisine: Craft cocktails and Mexican snacks.
Atmosphere: Black and red as a roulette wheel, with a civilized scene and sex appeal to spare.
Food: Fresh, flavorful, booze-friendly bites.
2013 Chestnut St.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11:30am-3pm and 5pm-11pm; Fri., 11:30am-3pm and 5pm-midnight; Sat., 10:30am-3pm and 5pm-midnight; Sun., 10:30am-3pm and 5pm-11pm.
Atmosphere: Diner dressed up for Cinco de Mayo.
Food: Poorly presented hits and misses.