It's a bit immodest to compare such a classic album to the Local, which has a raft of great beers and a cool enough vibe, but an unambitious and greasy menu of various fried foods (not all bad - the fried oyster mushroom po-boy is a winner). But second acts are always hard, and Hartranft says he deliberately made the Local "rougher . . . it was meant to be like the Khyber Pass, but with cleaner bathrooms."
With their third offering - the Resurrection Ale House on Grays Ferry Avenue in the Graduate Hospital area - Hartranft and Maida have elevated their ambition on many levels.
"It's our Almost Blue," he says, citing Costello's country-influenced disc. "It's our mature introspective album. And it's the best of me I could present."
It does feel as though a slightly older, mellower crowd has come to fill this airy, earth-toned bi-level space, across from Naval Square on a wide-angled corner formerly occupied by the forgettable Yell'O Bar. But there are some ingredients familiar to their other locales, too. For one, Resurrection anchors the farthest edge of a neighborhood in the pulsing throes of transformation. In an area that was once a dining desert, there are now a few nearby pioneers (Sidecar Bar, Grace Tavern, and newer Pub & Kitchen to the north) to slake the gentrifiers' craft-beer thirst.
Resurrection certainly does its part for the pour, with a beer list that's broodingly heavy with high-alcohol intensity ("Like a record store that sells nothing but Captain Beefheart albums!" says Hartranft, mixing his musical metaphors.) There are rich local drafts on the dozen taps and low-fizz beer engine (like the fantastic Victory Storm King Stout), with a 50-bottle collection of big Belgian boppers (Rochefort 6, De Dolle Stille Nacht, numerous Cantillons) and other international power brews (John Courage Russian Imperial Stout, Founders Breakfast Stout.)
There's also a friendly, engaged group of servers here who know the beer list as well as the food.
The most notable difference at Resurrection, however, is the kitchen ambitions of chef Jim Chmiko. This 33-year-old veteran of Buddakan, Django, and Marigold Kitchen manages to build a menu on primarily scratch ingredients (from the fettuccine to the kabocha pickles) without topping $15 an entree.
Chmiko brings a frequent Mediterranean influence to his flavors that is especially appealing. Tenderly grilled shrimp, piqued with a spicy sambal marinade, come over a white gazpacho puree whirred up from almonds, oil-poached garlic, and bread. Pan con tomate is a little heavy on the tomato spread, but still offers a satisfyingly classic Spanish combo of chorizo, manchego, and tomatoes on grilled bread. Mascarpone polenta makes a richly creamy base for an earthy saute of wild mushrooms. Bitter Belgian endive is braised down into a faintly sweet crunch with oranges, rosemary, and olive oil.
There were some unexpected misses here. The crock of mussels sauteed puttanesca-style was all wrong, with pungent anchovy accentuating the mussels' fishy funk. I loved an early version of Chmiko's homemade fettuccine, tossed with peas and lump crab and pancetta chips. But his porky Bolognese sauce was too dry, without enough gravy to moisten the mound of crumbled meat and heavy-handed dollop of herbed-ricotta cheese.
The Swiss-topped burger was actually delicious - ground from sirloin, brisket and rib - but it was so petite that my guest, a former NFL running back, gulped it down like a Scooby Snack and looked on hungrily as we finished ours. (He, unfortunately, had also ordered the fishy mussels.) The tender balsamic-braised beef shank sandwich with gorgonzola and hot peppers would have been a heartier choice.
But I was happy to share. And there were more than enough other great flavors here to compensate for the kitchen's few missteps. The grilled pork loin chop was outstanding, brined to tenderness, and served over shaved Brussels sprouts that snapped with crispy pancetta chips. The hanger steak (and eggs) and frites was, at $15, an excellent value, with its protein boost of sunnyside eggs. The hand-cut fries, meanwhile, were wonderfully crisp.
Resurrection's twice-fried chicken thighs, meanwhile, are rightfully earning renown, the buttermilk-cornmeal crusts tingling with a pinch of sriracha heat beneath a drizzled honey glaze. I love it most, though, for its flourishes - the house-pickled okra that drips tartly onto the sweet and spice, and a German potato salad below warmed with molten schmaltz and crispy bits of chicken cracklins. Of course, there is the obligatory Berkshire pork belly dish, which Chmiko deftly slow- braises and serves over a guajillo-spiced kabocha pumpkin puree with the unexpectedly wonderful garnish of cognac-steeped prunes.
Speaking of unexpected - especially in a place so gifted with swine and schmaltz - some of Resurrection's most notable flavors turn out to be vegetarian, from the spicy lentil sloppy joe to the pumpkin risotto dusted with Amaretti cookies, and the crunchy fennel-green bean salad.
Chmiko's roasted maitake mushroom entree, though, may be his finest dish. Pan-roasted and topped with hazelnut bread crumbs so its feathery fronds become crisp, this majestic mushroom pouf, set atop celery root puree with a side of glazed carrots and peppery arugula, is at once meaty, earthy, and rich, the ulimate blue-plate special of veggie comfort.
It's the kind of dish Elvis Costello - a reputed vegetarian - might even someday consider. (In Hartranft's dreams!) For now, at least, Graduate Hospital residents should rejoice, because the Resurrection Ale House is yet another solid step up for a rising neighborood that's now a far cry from the days, not long ago, when its dining options were, in Costello-ese, "Less Than Zero."
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Pizzeria Stella. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.