On the Side | Words, words, words - all of them empty

Posted: September 20, 2007

Well, the publicists for the Westin Philadelphia hotel's new City Grange restaurant on the 17th Street side of Liberty Place succeeded, sort of: They got my attention.

The chef would be serving every buzzword in the book - "Cage-free and Loving it" omelets, and Pennsylvania amber maple syrup, and "comfort in a bowl" chicken noodle soup, and an homage to his pig-farmer grandpa, Pop Lichtman's Pan-fried Center Cut Pork Chop.

The centerpiece was a farmhouse table crafted from a slab of black walnut salvaged from a fallen tree. The ingredients were "locally sourced," and "small-batch," and everything was groovy and wholesome, pure and recycled and, of course, green as the pastures in Gap.

Chef Chris Lichtman, 33, finally, was not just book-learned. No sir, he had "a distinguished lineage as the scion of New Jersey's former largest pig farmers, Lichtman Brothers."

That was the clincher. I would have been inclined to wait a while; the re-concepted dining room (formerly The Grill) had opened just five days before.

But my appetite was whetted. So in a pouring rain last week, I set off to bask in a lunch as sweet as a Lancaster County sunrise; as true-blue as the National Grange Movement (circa 1920s), which was said to inspire the place's name.

Big mistake.

Let me first blame myself. Talk is cheap. Repeating the words real food and local and regional and artisanal does not a great dining experience make.

A few years before, I'd dashed off to crushing disappointment at Normandy Farm in Blue Bell, dazzled by its country hype. And then to Farmicia in Old City, another farmer-friendly-themed room that talked the talk way better than it walked the walk.

Right away, City Grange got off on the wrong foot. Looks like Generic Hotel Chain dining room - tubular hanging lights, walnut paneling, corporate seating, Hallmark art, a farmhouse table beached at mid-court.

Palm cards at the entry chirp a homey patter: "We believe a little warm bread and room-temperature butter can cure almost anything," they assure.

Low bar. But if you set it, for goodness sake, don't give me a basket of bad, cold (locally sourced) bread.

And don't bother telling me where the cheeses for the mac and cheese come from if it's going to be thin and runny. Or telling me the french fries are "fresh-cut Pennsylvania potato fries [with] housemade heirloom tomato ketchup" if the fries are limp and the ketchup, well, Heinz does it better.

Or that the crabcake is Maryland crab if the seasoning is Maryland bland. Or that the chicken potpie is "Lancaster chicken potpie" if it tastes, frankly, oddly sour. (Can we skip the glazed meatloaf sandwich?)

And don't, dad burn it!, get me all hot and bothered about trying Pop Lichtman's pan-fried pork chop "topped with Sultana cider glaze and served with fried beefsteak tomatoes" if you don't even carry it on the lunch menu.

City Grange's promoters have the hormone-free and Amish chicken and down-home sophistication [whatever that means] boilerplate down pat. But words - even in the hands of a publicist - ought to stand for something.

No "dinner bell rings" here. It's not "reminiscent of outdoor scenes in Lancaster County." It doesn't "re-create an inviting Grange Hall setting."

It's a hotel-chain dining room.

And if you wanna rhapsodize about warm bread, fine.

Just warm up the darn bread!

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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