City Grange

Dubious pedigrees and careless prep belie the Westin restaurant's claims to seasonal local cooking, leaving a diner with reservations.

Posted: December 09, 2007

The two men were a mirror image in their crisp dark business suits, but they sat back to back, each solo at his table in City Grange.

Their silk ties had loosened, the workday's stranglehold easing just a smidge, and they slumped into the soft luxury of the Westin hotel dining-room chairs with the lonely sigh of travelers about to be fed. One disappeared into the blue light of his BlackBerry, thumbing the tiny buttons long after a crock of chicken noodle soup had been delivered. The other man, though, perked up when a handsome wooden platter arrived laden with rolls, hardshell nuts and . . . a peach.

"Isn't this a nice surprise," he said softly, holding the peach in front of his face like a vision.

"Everything here's local and organic!" cooed the cheery hostess and the waiter, who echoed the farm-to-table credos emblazoned on the menus and literature throughout the restaurant.

A local peach just before Halloween? I wondered as I saw him lean in for a bite. His disappointed eyes told the story.

If his was anything like our peach, it was as ripe as a rock, and as unyielding to the promise of seasonal goodness as the rest of this menu, which details in such poetry the provenance of every morsel you'd think you were eating at Chez Panisse. In fact, the down-home ingredients and supposedly updated comfort foods here are subjected to so much mediocre cooking that a meal at City Grange would make even a world-weary traveler more cynical.

That chicken noodle soup was no doubt homemade, but it was so ordinary you wouldn't have blinked if it had been served at Little Pete's down 17th Street. The chicken pot pie was filled with such a pasty, sticky cream (and an oddly lemonic tang) that it was an overly literal take on "stick-to-your-ribs" cookery. Vegetarians get whammied with a "rustic" casserole, too, with one shriveled-up layer of heirloom vegetable stacked upon another beneath a goat cheese crust incinerated to such a spattered black mess, I doubt the "Apple Tree Farm Dairy" would even appreciate being mentioned.

Things would improve, slightly, at a subsequent meal. But should we ultimately care, one may ask, if a hotel restaurant inflicts its menu on these unfortunate but transient out-of-towners? Well, Philadelphia has a healthy contingent of high-end hotel restaurants that have come to matter to the locals (like the Fountain, Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, and XIX). And I'm sure the Westin would like to revive the buzz that has evaded this plush but windowless space since it was part of the former Ritz-Carlton.

One could argue that it also matters for the city's reputation to put its best pans forward to visitors who know the difference. And City Grange chef Christopher Lichtman estimates that as many as 75 regular guests stay at the Westin every week, capable of spreading the word of our local bounty.

I suspect Lichtman's interest in local, sustainable products is sincere. It's partly rooted, he says, in the childhood memory of his grandpa's New Jersey pig farm foundering as the nation's industrialized meat processors shifted west.

But the "creative writer" in Chicago that Westin hired to conjure up some lyrical text for City Grange's menu took more liberties than this kitchen is prepared to deliver.

"Pop Lichtman's pork chop" sounds like a fitting enough homage - except that Pop never worked at California-based Niman Ranch where this pig came from. The fib would be forgiven if the chop hadn't been cooked to leather beneath its raisiny "sultana cider glaze." I enjoyed a juicier rendition on my second visit, though the pan-fried beefsteak tomatoes were still too thickly breaded.

That second visit, indeed, showed a genuine glimmer of what City Grange is hoping to become. The hard peach had been replaced by a hard pear (at least it was in season). And the kitchen served a handful of memorable dishes.

The macaroni and cheese was as good an update to the classic as I've had, tanged with good Pennsylvania Noble cheddar and snuggled beneath a deeply crunchy crumb crust. The trendy Angus burger sliders were borderline delicious, with good meat topped in three pleasantly distinct ways. The Alaskan salmon was moist, and basked in the gentle contrast of its earthy spice rub and a sweet peach chutney. The massive ribeye steak from Meyer Ranch in Montana was undercooked, but the spice-rubbed meat was profoundly tender and buttery.

Careless cooking, though, can ruin even the best cut of meat, as the kitchen did on our first visit by broiling a $34 "medium rare" filet mignon to a steaming gray. All the maple-glazed dried cranberry sweetness in the kitchen couldn't save the dried-up "Amish chicken" (even though the Bell & Evans folks aren't exactly Amish). The seared day-boat scallops were served lukewarm.

Things would improve a bit when we got to dessert, where we sipped hormone-free milk shakes (turned a convincing shade of orange creamsicle), indulged in crème brulee made from free-range eggs, and savored piping hot (mostly) seasonal fruit casseroles topped with crunchy cobbler crust.

I must admit, though, I never knew we had "local bananas" until a server confirmed that fact when presenting our grilled banana split, a sugar-crisped confection of fruit and coffee ice cream.

So as you spoon through this clever dessert, dear business traveler, be sure to chalk up the Pennsylvania banana as yet another of our little-known local wonders.


Next week restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Shundeez Restaurant in Chestnut Hill.

Contact him at claban@phillynews.com.

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