Astral Plane Millenium

New ownership has shed the warm, if quirky, decor, and the food is too often dreary.

Posted: February 24, 2008

Given the cosmically funky spirit with which Astral Plane bopped through its first 34 years, it seems only appropriate that its new owner be plucked from the street for her style sense.

"Daaarling, I looove your sunglasses!" cooed Reed Apaghian last October, popping out of the A-Plane's front door to see Christine Fischer in her Versace specs. He was in the midst of disassembling the Restaurant Renaissance classic, which closed in July, as she was walking by. Fischer, coincidentally, had come window-shopping for a new restaurant space.

Astral Plane had its share of ups and downs in the kitchen during its long run, from the strawberry soup and chicken Tropicana of its distant heyday to less successful adventures with blue cheese eggrolls in recent years. Disenchanted neighbors didn't call it the "Gastral Pain" for nothing.

But Apaghian's place never lacked for a uniquely warm and eccentric style. Wrapped in parachute-tented ceilings, cluttered with starlet photos, vintage robots, and rattan Morticia Addams chairs, it was a wheezing time capsule of '70s romantic corn.

And it was ready for a blood transfusion. Fischer was eager to sign on (even if this one didn't come with a liquor license, which Apaghian had already sold). The irresistibly bubbly owner of ChriStevens Catering Co., Fischer had operated a short-lived restaurant by the same name at Ninth and South Streets. This time around, she had a new partner named Clara Gomez and ambitions to move across town.

Who could know that the new Astral Plane Millenium's pizzazz would begin and end with those sunglasses? The renovated space is so starkly white and minimally austere, the word style doesn't really apply. Lights still glow invitingly from strands hung in the tree outside. But inside, it feels more like the shell of an old townhouse museum that's just been cleaned out. Only the back room's naughty chandelier (which does things with phallic lightbulbs I'd never have imagined) has been preserved.

Fischer says the light decorating touch is deliberate, to keep the focus on the food. But after a couple of dreary and overpriced meals, I really wish this kitchen would focus more on the food.

What was that viscous greenish ooze slicked across the raw scallop carpaccio? It's just parsley and oil, it turns out. But it accentuated the fishiness of the raw shellfish, which should typically be sweet. A steaming pile of sauteed scallops in the middle of the raw ones made it even worse.

The cooked seafood wasn't much better. A $25 entree of red snapper and shellfish served in a wax-paper bag was so overdone (in fact, the ingredients were pre-cooked before being baked together in the bag) it was like sawing through a bad banquet chicken breast.

The dish was kindly removed from our bill in a proper gesture of contrition, since it was nearly inedible. But it was only the tip of Astral Plane Millenium's cooking troubles.

The menu designed by Fischer and executed by chef Gildardo Zavala is all over the place, from an Italianesque section of carpaccios and homemade pastas to Greek salad, curry and numerous Latin flavors. The Mexican-born Zavala, who worked several years in the Italian kitchens of Girasole, has the background to pull it off.

But Astral Plane fails so consistently I have to wonder if the owners are paying close enough attention.

There were a few highlights. The raw beef carpaccio was classically good, the rose-colored rounds of filet mignon laid on the plate like a paper flower beneath a tuft of arugula. The tuna carpaccio was also tasty and fresh, with piquant capers, olives, and sweet sun-dried tomato bits lighting it up.

The "hot" beef carpaccio, though, was not so different from a plate of roast beef. The skewered beef kabob appetizer, suggesting a weak Moroccan twist, was bland and chewy. The homemade empanadas were filled with red snapper that was overcooked and brackish.

I enjoyed the "true" Greek salad, with its lettuce-free cucumber crunch, bright dressing and creamy Greek feta cheese. The baby octopus salad brought a plate of tender little heads and tentacles marinated in a zesty chile dressing.

The use of chile heat was considerably less restrained in the also salty mussels, which exuded an overripe edge. The "two way" calamari managed to overcook squid twice, once on the grill, then in a red sauce, where they were simmered to a rubbery chew.

There were doneness issues with all the meats, which is a problem when you're charging $28 for a totally unremarkable rack of lamb or $22.50 for a pork chop so charred (on the grill, before it's baked) that a burnt flavor permeated the mushroom sauce.

I had a little better luck with some of the house-made pastas, which were actually quite delicate before they were drowned in a stiflingly rich porcini cream sauce, or formed into ravioli stuffed with mushy mushroom duxelles, then slathered in gorgonzola cream. The signature Astral Plane Millenium pasta was an appealing mound of fettuccine tossed with a vegetable confetti, but the watery sauce was virtually unseasoned.

Zavala seemed on firmer ground with the chicken Azteca, a generous serving of tender breast meat in a traditional chipotle sauce topped with melted Oaxaca cheese.

It's a nice contrast to the jarring sweetness of the drunken chicken, whose sherry, clove and cinnamon brown sugar sauce is like a poultry confection. Topped with deep-fried batons of honey-baked smoked ham, it is just wacky enough to remind me of the seat-of-the-pants cookery that once marked the old Astral Plane's often flighty culinary ambitions.

Unfortunately, the Millenium version doesn't have the parachutes or quirky charm to give its dicey dishes a softer landing.


Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Apamate near Graduate Hospital. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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