Firecreek

The New York strip steak, Firecreeks most expensive entre at $34, was perfectly cooked and tender, with a hearty smoked-bacon and potato hash and a traditional red-wine gravy.
The New York strip steak, Firecreeks most expensive entre at $34, was perfectly cooked and tender, with a hearty smoked-bacon and potato hash and a traditional red-wine gravy.

This Downingtown steak house has big potential and prices a cut below Center City levels, but both food and service need upgrades.

Posted: September 06, 2009

The red-meat race to build Center City's biggest, most luxurious chophouse has dominated the dining headlines of the last year. But an insatiable devotion to grilled beef is hardly confined to the urban limits.

There are already enough destinations in the suburbs that one can drive an hour in most any direction from City Hall and come upon an independent steak house of some distinction.

Head north and you'll hit the retrofitted church hall of Marsha Brown's Southern grill in New Hope. Head east and there's the contemporary style of the Chophouse in Gibbsboro; and even farther, to the Shore, where casino-fed carnivores make Atlantic City a meat-ropolis of its own. To the northwest, there are the buttery, cast-iron-seared steaks of the old-school Blue Bell Inn. To the west in Chadds Ford, there's the Wyeth country-chic of Brandywine Prime.

And now, if you amble even farther west to Downingtown, there is Firecreek, in a dramatically rehabbed historic paper mill overlooking the East Branch of the Brandywine. It's a project with big potential, the first of two recent suburban steak-house openings (swanky new Parker's Prime in Newtown Square is the other).

The long hall of the space is appealingly renovated, with exposed stone walls, fireplaces, and salvaged mill wheels that hark back to its industrial former life. A stylish bar scene, open kitchen, and riverside terrace, meanwhile, signal its current mission as a hot spot built for crowds. Firecreek is aiming for a more casual and diverse New American grill than the white-linen fine dining of its city cousins. It's a smart move to make it accessible to a wider audience.

And yet, with entrees that range from the low $20s to the low $30s for the steaks, this newcomer needs to hit higher marks, for both food and service, than it did at my meals.

I know it can, since the kitchen is being overseen by Carlo deMarco from successful 333 Belrose, whose wide-ranging influences - a Southwestern flair, some Asian accents - are evident on this simpler menu. But so many things here were either sloppily cooked or poorly tended in the dining room that I wonder whether this project is too big for this crew to handle.

We were rubbed the wrong way from the moment we passed the great bear sculpture outside and entered the restaurant. Though we were on time for our reservation, the hostess shuffled us to the bar for the revenue-padding of predinner drinks while our table was being readied. Odd, though, how we were seated 20 minutes later at one of the several empty tables we had passed earlier on our way to the bar.

Perhaps, less cynically, this was simply a way to relieve our overburdened server of some traffic. She was clearly in the weeds by the time we ordered, and we received our first course nearly an hour after the reservation.

She didn't get much help from the kitchen, which neglected to fully cook my crab cake on the first try - the center, bound with a raw-egg mayo, was still cold. It was a satisfyingly good crab cake on second try, even if the Tabasco rémoulade was over-spiced. But it was a good example of how more careful cooking could have translated some disappointments into hits.

The fresh calamari were tender and flavorful, but their cumin-scented breading was so unevenly tossed that the squid was full of naked spots. A duo of tuna, seared into tataki on one side and minced into tartare on the other, would have been spot-on if the fish's flavor hadn't been obliterated by runaway spice in the coconut dressing. I would have loved the burger had it not been meanly oversalted.

When things go right, I see Firecreek's appeal. The N.Y. strip, at $34 the most expensive entrée, was perfectly cooked and tender, with a hearty smoked-bacon and potato hash and a traditional red-wine gravy. A New Orleans-style "BBQ" shrimp was also satisfying, its buttery Worcestershire-tanged sauce and summer succotash of corn and limas hitting the spot. The seared tuna steak with mango salsa over bok choy was perfectly fine in a 1990s-fusion kind of way.

But this kitchen needed far too many tweaks - big and small - to make these dinners work.

I wasn't wowed by the quality of the beef here, which is a sticky issue for a chophouse. The prices are a solid tier lower than the new prime meat houses downtown, but are still by most measures a splurge. The steak frites brought a seldom-seen shoulder cut, teres major, that was so chewy it left my jaws sore. And for $21, is it too much to ask for fresh - not frozen - fries?

The big Delmonico was plenty tender. But it was slathered in such a thick mop of sweet onion jam that the curving contours and zestiness of the rib eye were obscured. Maybe that was a good thing. That same cut of choice-grade beef, slow roasted into a garlic-rubbed prime rib, was unimpressive, our grayish slice of overcooked meat leaving a metallic and livery aftertaste as it disintegrated on the tongue.

The $32 rack of lamb was also far overcooked past the requested medium rare, but this dish really went off the tracks when the gamy meat was paired with sweet grilled peaches, a match typically better made with pork.

Other savory dishes using fruit were closer to success. The tacos topped with crisped duck confit, barbecue sauce, and peach salsa would have been splendid if the tortilla rounds themselves hadn't been so puny. We could have sipped the addictive orange, fennel, and Brooklyn ale broth from the mussel bowl through a straw - but the flabbiness of those little mollusks left much to be desired (they should be plump and firm). And while Coca-Cola isn't a fruit, it definitely left its own sweet and tangy echo in Firecreek's barbecue sauce. Now if only the kitchen put some real smoke on its ribs, we'd be talkin'.

There are so many solid ideas here that have been left at loose ends, but none of those issues are impossible to fix with a little more focus. These folks even ruined Morning Star's fine coffee (from West Chester) by brewing it airline-style to the shade of weak tea.

So skip the caffeine and stick with the bar. There's a small-but-workable selection of craft brews (Victory, Stoudt's, and Brooklyn, among others), and a 70-label wine list from the Americas that offers some intriguing New World Rhones under $50 (Alban viognier; Zaca Mesa roussanne; Cline "Ancient Vines" mourvedre) and worthy bottles from Oregon (Elk Cove pinot blanc) and Argentina (El Felino malbec).

The relatively most consistent aspect to the menu here was Angela Masciantonio's desserts. Granted, my guest nearly injured himself trying to slice through the deeply frozen chocolate crust of the peanut butter ice cream bar - but it was tasty once it defrosted. The chocolate-hazelnut layer cake was moist and decadent. The bananas Foster crème brûlée wasn't bad at all.

But the all-around favorite was a bread pudding made from cider doughnuts supplied by nearby Highland Orchards - one of my favorite spots for a fall picking jaunt. Moist and full of apples, with a cinnamon anglaise, it offered a clever and satisfying twist on a local flavor.

If only Firecreek had more ably done the same for the steak-house phenomenon already saturating the region, that drive to Downingtown would be worthwhile.


Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan previews some anticipated highlights of the fall dining season. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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