Update of Rittenhouse spot is as cool as a locally grown cucumber.
Twenty Manning, when it opened in 1999, represented the height of cool here, a sort of New York-comes-to-Philadelphia spot, with resolutely black-clad patrons, dishes featuring that long-ago era’s touchstone, Asian fusion, and a vibe whose well-thought-out hipness was outdone only by the noise from the bar.
Oh, how times have changed.
In the 11 years since the heady days of Twenty Manning’s arrival, our definition of hip has shifted along with its cultural and economic context. Gone are the de rigueur $200 Helmut Lang T-shirts and LV-stamped everything that characterized and, in hindsight, ultimately condemned the era.
These days, comfort rules, from clothing to decor to the dishes that comprise what we now consider a desirable menu. In response to this—and in response to Twenty Manning’s correlative drift toward anachronism—Audrey Taichman and her chef and partner, Kiong Banh, overhauled the place. They shut it down in March, remodeled and redecorated, and switched up the menu to better reflect the way Philadelphians eat now.
The TMG burger is an effective case study for this shift. The beef comes with a pedigree (Pineland Farms), a firm moral framework (it’s pasture-raised and grass-fed), a minimalist seasoning philosophy (salt and pepper and nothing else), and just enough kitsch (Mickey D’s-esque special sauce, bourbon aioli far more interesting than anything the golden arches ever considered) to keep it from being too serious. There’s even a sweet, fluffy bun directly from Georges Perrier’s Main Line bakery, the most significant nod back to the good old days when the biggest mealtime choice facing a Rittenhouser was Rouge, Manning or Brasserie Perrier.
Aside from the problem of heft (even at eight ounces, it’s simply too thick to fit comfortably in the mouth—insert your own Michael Scott that’s-what-she-said here), this is a serious burger, possessing all the mineral tang and toothsome texture you’d want from non-industrial beef.
House-cured and -smoked Virginia trout was another comfort-y winner—deeply savory, still just the slightest bit moist, blessedly not oversalted and served with all the familiar fixings: wonderfully savory horseradish cream, onions, capers, greens and toasted baguette slices. It pulled off the old Proust/Ratatouille trick, too: My first bite transported me back to Sunday-morning brunches as a kid; all it needed was my mother to walk into the restaurant and start yelling at me to quit bullying my sister.
Of course, for all its successes, Twenty Manning is still a young restaurant, and there were some youthful stutters. Scallops, with an addictive roasted-yellow-pepper coulis, grapefruit supremes and spinach, were perfectly seared but a touch too salty, throwing off the balance of flavors on the plate. Magnificently crafted gazpacho, whose snappy texture reminded me of a looser version of granita, would have been perfect had the island of pineapple-basil sorbet floating in the center not been so sweet. The tomatoes that formed the base of the soup were plenty sweet on their own; the addition of the sorbet stole attention from what should have been the focal point.
As far as desserts, even they jive with Twenty Manning’s neighborhoodiness. The half-baked Toll House cookie, though a bit too sweet for me, will appeal to sentimentalists for its youthful sense of fun and to hipsters for its wink-wink irony. The local, super-seasonal berries in the cobbler were matched in impressiveness by the dough, fluffy and perfect.
So far, the city appears to have embraced the makeover, gutsy as it was. In fact, it seems to have attracted a wider range of guests than the old Twenty Manning did. On a recent Friday night, the place was populated by a spectacular cross-section of 2010 Philly. From simple black T-shirts to Tommy Bahama palm-tree prints, from corner-store wire-rims to Persol sunglasses, from respectable neighborhood ladies modestly buttoned up to younger women flaunting what their mamas gave them for the obvious pleasure of the more silver-maned members of the crowd, every make and model was represented, chatting, drinking, eating amiably.
It was all perfectly suited to the space and the new attitude here: Everyone blended in seamlessly with the more casual, comfortable, approachable feel. Which, these more egalitarian days, seems to be the new definition of cool.
Thank goodness for that.
261 S. 20th St. 215.731.0900.
Cuisine: New American.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 5pm-10:30pm; Sat.-Sun., 5pm-11:30pm.