Shining Starr

It's been a year since Stephen opened a restaurant in this town, and we miss him.

By Lauren McCutcheon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 5, 2005

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325 Chestnut St. 215.574.9440.
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Prices: $18-$65
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-11pm; Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm and 5pm-midnight; Sat., 5pm-midnight; Sun., 5-11pm.
Smoking: At the bar.
Atmosphere: Onetime striking shrine with feel that's now familiar.
Service: Automated orderlies in white get the job done.
Food: You need to ask?

You may think it's pointless to read a review of Buddakan. You probably believe you know what the place is all about.

Maybe you've sucked down a baker's dozen Sumos in Sidecars or felled countless villages of Chocolate Pagodas. Perhaps you've blown the bank on all four versions of the Angry Lobster, bumped untold elbows at the centerpiece community table, or charmed the white pants off a tan server. Who knows? You may even have scored a Saturday-night reservation.

But even if you haven't done any of the above-even if you don't know anyone who has but suspect the restaurant's regulars to be the same who-are-they people who occupy Old City's $4,000-a-month condos and million-dollar lofts-you've probably been to the big B, at least for a calamari salad.

So. Let's just say you're acquainted with the 10-foot gilded Buddha and family-style service. Let's go further and assume you've heard tell of the restaurant's forthcoming sequels in New York's Meatpacking District (the same nabe as a future second Morimoto) and at the Pier at Caesars in A.C. (along with a third Continental). You're wondering: Why cover familiar territory? Why reprise a told tale?

I'll tell you why. It's nearly a year since Buddakan master Stephen Starr-recently crowned Restaurateur of the Year by Bon Appétit magazine for his 300 other Philly restaurants-birthed one of his entertain-centric eateries. The food page misses him. I miss him. Hear this: I miss you, Stephen. Why won't you call?

Buddakan's menu has changed little over its seven years-and its chef has changed not at all. Scott Swiderski, plucked lo last millennium from Miami's China Grill (oft-referenced as the model for Buddakan), has been slinging cashew chicken and wasabi mash since the start.

Can't blame the guy for sticking around. His workplace thrives every night of the week, and shows no signs of slowing. Its secret? Consistency. The menu, the decor, the service are nearly identical to those of 1998. The formula obviously works. But does the food still stand up?

Say this much, it's as good as ever. Those ballyhooed potatoes, softly spiked with Japanese horseradish and fluffed with cream and butter, remain a reference point for fusion comfort fare.

Cashew chicken, while not quite transcendent, endures as a primary example of the refinement potential of Chinese takeout, what with its plum wine sauce that soaks into white meat and glosses cashews, green onions and nickel-sized cutouts of carrot, zucchini and yellow squash, served with airy jasmine rice in a jauntily lopsided bowl.

Presentation hasn't shifted either. Best-selling staples like sesame-and-togarashi-crusted tuna and dry-aged beef in bite-sized slices continue to be arranged like fallen dominoes along their plates' edges.

The beef-supple and flavorful, soaking in fragrant soy-mirin-half encircles a lofty haystack of matchstick Szechuan fries drizzled with Chinese mustard. It's not exactly a manly meat-and-potatoes meal, but it's tasty and fun to pick at.

That tuna, however, could use an update. Too much wasabi in the dressing overwhelms the morsels of prettily striated, carefully seared, ruby-centered fish. Although crisp frisee salad is a nice touch, superfluous mounds of wasabi paste and pickled ginger take us back to dot-com dining, as does the $29 price tag.

There are moments of bliss: UFO-looking ravioli stuffed with buttery puree of edamame and truffles, tea-smoked spareribs so tender that their bones are nearly edible, a delightfully uncloying and refreshing cilantro martini, and finger-lickin' five-spiced mini donuts with three irresistible dipping sauces.

There are moments of disappointment: Tuna carpaccio over warm flatbread is boring and vaguely fishy, barely improved by its side of honeyed soy sauce. And when the star of a $14 bento box of six chocolate desserts is a tiny dish of cocoa-dusted almonds, it just feels gimmicky.

But most of all there are moments of familiarity. Japanese black cod still tastes fresh enough to swim out of its soy sauce. Banana towers and chocolate pagodas still rise tall, stuck with clear, pointy sugar straws, as delightful to behold and as they are to destroy and consume.

Sweet, bitter and crunchy watercress, chicory, Napa cabbage and radicchio still mix with tempura squid rings and sublimely simple miso dressing to make for the perfect calamari salad. That calamari salad outsells every other menu item at Buddakan. Will it sell in New York, where diners have seen it all? Will it sell in A.C., where squid is exotic? Who knows? It sure as heck sells here, because it's the same as it's always been. But you already knew that, didn't you?

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