In the old Ludwig's Garden space, there are a beer bar, an updated chop house, and an absinthe lounge, all under one roof. The sum of the parts? A pretty nice threesome.

Posted: July 20, 2008

With a turn of the silvery little spigot, a stream of chilled water pours down from the elegant glass "fountain" tank perched on our table at Time.

It melts away the sugar cube perched on a slotted spoon and tumbles into a glass filled with once-forbidden absinthe. My guests turn tiny spigots on their sides of the fountain, and as the clear liquids swirl together in cloudy pearlescence, the heady perfume of anise and herbs rises above the table. On my lips, there is the bittersweet hum of liquid licorice. In my chest, a swelling, mellow warmth. In my mind, well. . . .

There are no hallucinations or wild fits of creativity stoked by the budding new generation of legalized absinthe recently pouring into the country. But one might need a little of absinthe's still-potent charm to get a handle on the jumble of concepts that coexist at Time.

Is it a beer bar? An updated chop house? A late-night "Bohemian absinthe" DJ lounge? There is a room designed for each at Time, which rambles through the multilevel, multi-mood Sansom Street space that once housed Ludwig's Garden. Jason and Delphine Evenchick, who also own the nearby Vintage wine bar, obviously just couldn't decide. So they built them side-by-side - the warm wooden-planked taproom to the right, the sleek leather dining lounge with cafe windows to the left - with sliding barn doors between, and the funky, fabric-draped absinthe lair tucked upstairs.

The incoherence could become an identity crisis if the individual parts weren't worthy. But in most respects they are, especially if you appreciate Time's one unifying theme: a dedication to resurrecting retro pleasures like brown spirits, live music, and country club cookery. Not to mention the "Green Fairy" of the Belle Epoque.

I'm all for another whiskey bar - and Time has a growing 75-bottle list of quality single malts, bourbons, and ryes that already ranks it alongside Mahogany, Southwark and the Dark Horse. The international wine list is substantial, and carefully avoids overlap with Vintage's French-centric list. With the added draw of a serious beer bar with 20 taps and 40 bottles (backed by that wall of whiskeys), this should quickly become a thinking drinker's happy haven.

Time is also one of the rare venues that manage to book serious live music - an impressive jazz trio on our Wednesday night - that complements the meal rather than crushes it.

Jason Evenchick's idea for an "updated country club" menu, though, isn't exactly a thriller for those of us outside the cricket circuit. It's an especially fusty notion at the crossroads of 13th and Sansom, which has finally blossomed, after years of anticipation, into a nexus of trendy urban nightlife.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised. Evenchick has a young chef in Keith Murphy who has embraced the classic American genre with enthusiasm and creativity - especially when it comes to red meat.

It's not surprising, considering that the 27-year-old Virginian honed his chops during a brief but eye-opening stint on the line at Barclay Prime before heading to Vintage, where he was chef until recently.

I liked virtually all of Time's meats. The hefty bone-in "côte du boeuf" rib steak was 22 ounces of heat-charred, grass-fed succulence topped with creamy marrow. The flat-iron steak-frites was the menu's bargain at $17, the well-trimmed and tender beef rubbed with smoked chile dust.

The wild boar chops were one disappointment - chewy, thin and expensive - but they've wisely since been removed from the menu. The generous mince of classic beef tartare was also an unexpectedly bland miss.

The venison strip loin, however, was outstanding, the lean game meat moistened by a bourbon brine, and perfectly matched against earthy celery root puree and the sweetness of a raspberry sauce. Tender veal cheeks, braised in Dogfish Head IPA and tossed with a ragout of maitake mushrooms and bourbon-glazed figs, were a hearty bistro update. And that old diner standby, the club, will never be the same now that I've devoured Time's ode to pig, layers of tender braised pork belly, silky-soft prosciutto, and crunchy turkey bacon on a toasted brioche roll.

This isn't exactly ideal midsummer fare. But if you step outside the chef's carnivore comfort zone, the results aren't always so fine. The vegetarian pasta with truffled celery root puree was as sticky as wallpaper paste. The lobster roll was promising, but its lemon aioli dressing was too light, and the side of sage butter was a false note.

A misnamed oysters Rockefeller has since been relabeled more accurately as fried oysters with a side of spinach-artichoke dip. The flavors worked, but the noble oyster should never be reduced to the role of a chip.

Given those seafood missteps, Murphy turned out a very respectable crab cake, moist and cleverly sparked with a garnish of pickled jalapeños. A salmon Wellington was another retro surprise, with layers of moist pink fish, tangy tomato and spinach encased in a flaky puff pastry hot pocket over lemongrass cream.

Time also turned out a trio of appealingly whiskeyed updates to some classic American desserts - a rich bourbon pecan pie with butterscotch ice cream; a brownie sundae with whiskey sabayon; and a banana split terrine layered with chocolate ganache, peanut butter and banana mousses with bourbon-soaked cherries.

With the cafe windows flung wide open onto Time's dining room lounge, the jazz trio cooking in the corner, and my belly full of good red meat, I can see the appeal. Another infusion of ice water in the old absinthe fountain might be in order.

Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Les Bons Temps in Center City.

Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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