Rotten is a bit too strong to describe my first visit to this restaurant, which opened in the summer in the space previously occupied by Bitar's. But after all the early raves I'd been hearing from friends in the neighborhood, ever-desperate to acquire another good haunt for Germantown Avenue, I wasn't especially impressed.
We waited 20 minutes past the reservation time for our table, and I spent most of that time trying to get the attention of an overwhelmed bartender for a drink. It could have been the deafening roar of the room, despite the sound-baffling cushions on the wall. But I practically had to stand on a chair to order a glass from the intriguing list of wine values. Wines marked up only $15 per bottle - a steal worthy of the restaurant's name.
Service didn't improve much at the table, where we practically had to beg for water, and advice on that wine list - a range of two dozen international choices available by the glass or carafe - was sketchy at best.
The kitchen, meanwhile, run by former Max & David's chef Jared Cohen, wasn't having its best night. There was a memorably vivid Thai coconut green curry broth for the mussels, but too many of the mollusks were piled high and dry over the broth beside grilled toasts that were strangely stale. The eggplant cheesecake, a clever savory take on the classic dessert, was pockmarked from overcooking and too densely rich, flaws accentuated by the fact it was essentially cold on the plate. A similar lack of reheating dimmed what otherwise might have been a stellar blueberry cobbler.
A handful of bright spots provided some glimpses of Wine Thief's potential - a nicely seared butterfish over a basmati rice salad with heirloom tomatoes, an updated comfort plate of tender meat loaf made from bison with a flavorful side of garlic mashed potatoes, a platter of eclectic sausages (chicken-apple, whiskey-fennel, ostrich) that made for a fun appetizer nibble.
There was also an undeniable glow to the burgundy-and-sand-toned room as a full house - a notably Mount Airy-style group diverse in age, race, and style - filled the church-pew banquettes with the energy and buzz of a convivial neighborhood haunt.
Yet when our harried waitress abruptly dropped off the check at our table, before we'd even asked for it, I felt we'd missed out on some of that magic. My first Wine Thief experience had the vaguely off taste of a potentially one-bell vintage.
One month later, much had changed for the better, especially in the kitchen.
The "Thief Roll" is one of Cohen's most addictive dishes, medallions of tuna maki that wrapped ruby-raw fish inside a ring of seaweed and the flash-fried crisp of a sesame crust, over spicy streaks of wasabi cream. The halibut ceviche was so zippy in its citrus marinade, I only wish there'd been more of the fish tucked into the martini glass of citrus and lacy peppers.
There was an outstanding fried chicken, whose tawny crust crackled with the unexpected savor of lemon and celery. It came with a pudding of crumbled corn bread, niblets, and peppers that was decadently ribboned with custard set oh-so-barely to order. There was a stellar grilled tuna entree over curry-scented Israeli couscous that would have been perfect had the lemon-mustard aioli not had the feel of salad dressing.
But the hanger steak was spot-on, a generous portion of bistro beef enlivened with the herbaceous tang of Argentine chimichurri, a sweet plantain fritter, and crunchy jicama slaw dressed with a mojito's worth of lime and mint. A hearty bowl of cioppino, its tomatoey stew brimming with fresh seafood, came over fusilli that gave the gingery shrimp broth some extra bounce.
There were some small hiccups at this visit, too - yet another stale toast, this time with the cioppino (where have all the good crouton chefs gone?); a lack of chile heat in the homemade poppers; a one-dimensional root-vegetable stew that exuded the grim cheer of a lonely winter cellar. But Wine Thief gets some points for really trying to please its vegetarian patrons with this and other dishes.
The dessert-arians at our table were pleasantly surprised by the simple but satisfying sweets - a genuine Southern pecan pie, a moist bread pudding marbled with pureed pumpkin - which brought a happy finale to the rousing Round 2.
Yes, there were still some lingering issues in service, like the 15-minute wait for a reserved table. But this time the bartender was aware enough to interact with good recommendations.
Our waiter was pleasant and involved, too, though he didn't know enough of the specifics that a wine-bar server ought to, such as being able to clearly describe the differences between the Argentine torrontes, a Saumur chenin blanc from the Loire, and a verdejo from Spain in more depth than a friendly shrug: "It's like splitting hairs."
Of course, Wine Thief really makes no pretense of being a destination for wine geeks – a crowd it relinquished with those clunky, thick-rimmed stemless glasses. But the Simpsons, who've worked in dining rooms from Philly's Four Seasons to Manhattan's Balthazar and Pastis, have certainly assembled a thoughtful list of wines that works for everyday drinking at a neighborhood bistro, which is exactly what they wanted to create.
And that's good news for a stretch of Germantown Avenue perpetually short on reliable dining options. If it were a wine in the barrel, I'd say it's still a ways from being fully mature, but starting to show some real promise.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Miga in Center City. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.