If you manage to land a lucky seat at the table of a genuine Amish or Mennonite farmer, you can taste the simple-yet-transcendent wonders of mashed potatoes dug from the backyard an hour before dinner, of hand-rolled noodles shined with a speckled gloss of browned butter made from hand-churned cream, of the deep sweetness and surprising crumble of a shoofly pie enriched with lard.
To most of the public, though, that world is unknown. And the general lack of enthusiasm to explore further has likely come down to a simple fact: scrapple just isn't sexy. Or at least it hasn't been until recently, when suddenly everything from foie gras (Silk City Diner) to oysters (the Oyster House) can be found in a slice of well-crisped mush.
That Daniel Stern's MidAtlantic restaurant has so much to say on the topic of our neglected regionality - from the scrapple-as-canvas (now with crab and venison) to the heirloom mustard tray, house-cured sausages, and, yes, house-churned butter, too (this milkmaid is actually a Hobart mixer) - is a welcome dose of overdue inspiration.
And there are many moments where the possibilities shine in this lively, open room where colorful, barnlike planks and stamped-tin doors contrast with the contemporary glass and concrete bones of the newly built space. Set into University City's Science Center complex, it captures the spirit of a smart rustic-modern update. If there was anywhere I'd be at home eating house-ground burgers on savory "doughnut rolls" topped with fresh summer sausage, or apple fritters on my pork chops, it would be here.
But rarely have I seen such a fantastic idea stumble critically across the finish line over a needless array of elemental cooking gaffes, from a recurring salt problem to sloppy plating and dishes that taste like concepts still in the works.
What is the point of making such tasty beef hot dogs, coarse-ground and aromatic with fennel and clove, if they're so awkward to eat? Mine were buried under a mountain of potato chips, pickles, and wads of fermented cabbage so messy, it looked as if it had been plated by a bucket, not a chef. Such free-form presentation and overflowing bounty wasn't always a put-off. We enviously eyed a wooden board groaning with a feast-worthy "mixed grill" at the table beside us - a generous montage of pork chop, marinated steak, veal pastrami, roasted chicken, cured trout, sausage, and grilled oysters. We needed our own. But then it simply offered this unsteady kitchen too many opportunities to make mistakes.
The wine-marinated steak and juicy grilled mollusks were great. But the veal pastrami was jarringly salty. The cured trout was even worse, recalling an un-rehydrated salt fish. The pork chop was tender but boringly bland. The roast chicken, meanwhile, though flavorful beneath a golden skin, was lukewarm and dry.
It wasn't a fluke. We had the same juiceless luck with the night's special, a bowl of doughy potato-dumpling balls with half a warmed-over roast chicken that only drew attention to the fact that MidAtlantic's rotisserie (aflame with dripping birds on my other visits) had long been extinguished.
The immensely talented owner Daniel Stern, formerly of Le Bec-Fin and fresh from the recent closings of his Gayle and Rae, can do better. Few chefs in town have his keen kitchen intellect to rejigger the familiar with better ingredients, smart techniques, and wit. And I love his concept and approach here - when it works.
The tin pail of fried oysters and salsify roots is a fantastic take on a regional classic, the perfectly fried mollusks as soft as pudding inside, their sweet marine tang echoed by the salsify. The dark, house-cured summer sausage adds a wonderful country swagger to the bountiful farmhouse salad, its butter lettuce and array of pickled cauliflower, carrots, and heirloom radishes drizzled with garlicky buttermilk dressing.
The Friday seafood stew, a zippy bowl of crab boil brimming with skate, poached lobster, and littlenecks, was a proper ode to the region's Shore bounty. The fresh burger, meanwhile, makes a convincing case for the delights of both a deep-fried doughnut roll (beignet batter without the sweet) and the savory oomph that a little beef-kidney fat can provide. The shatteringly crisp fried potatoes are among the best morsels to eat here, period.
But perhaps Stern's plate of obligations may simply be too full. I never saw him once in the kitchen during my three visits, and he's obviously also preoccupied with the nearly simultaneous opening a second restaurant, upscale R2L on the 37th floor of Liberty Two. He has a trusted team of Gayle vets running MidAtlantic's kitchen. But they're clearly not tasting enough as they cook.
How else to explain the nearly inedible "pig wings," tender nuggets of crisply fried pork tossed in an otherwise intriguing molasses glaze, that exploded like tiny sodium brine bombs? The oysters on the half-shell weren't chilled enough, and were filled with errant shell. I loved the creamy wedge of lima bean polenta one night. But a retry brought a bean-and-corn pudding so amazingly oversalted, it should never have left the kitchen. Likewise, I appreciate the effort to concoct the tray of unusual mustards and antique ketchups, including favorites like the celery root puree and barley mustard. But the rendition of mushroom ketchup, a fermented fungi brew drawn from Mary Randolph's Colonial-era tome The Virginia Housewife, was like swallowing undiluted Worcestershire sauce - an intense flavor enhancer, but not a palatable table condiment.
Which signals the nut of MidAtlantic's challenge: capturing the essence of rustic regional food is not simply an intellectual exercise, but an emotional one. And I'm rarely convinced the kitchen feels it quite yet.
Even the repertoire of nouveau scrapples - with crab or venison or fermented veggies blended into an oaty mush of kasha and buckwheat - has yet to nail the right textures and vivid flavors to go beyond "that's interesting" to something I'd crave to eat.
The desserts, on the other hand, are another story. I devoured that creamily deconstructed butterscotch krimpet bread pudding. The root beer sticky buns were fantastic. And the deep-fried apple long johns? These long-legged fritter braids, stuffed with sweet apple shreds and shined with apple glaze, have just the taste I'm looking for - an elusive bite of the country served up on a city pedestal.
With a little more focus in the kitchen, that shouldn't be so tricky for the rest of MidAtlantic's fascinating - and important - menu to achieve.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Gemelli in Narberth. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.