Amuse has potential, but food and decor both need upgrades

Posted: September 26, 2010

The yellow moon of City Hall's glowing clock tower beamed above the couple as they nibbled their warm baguettes, downed shots of complimentary strawberry smoothie, then lifted glasses of Champagne to clink a toast. It was a Chamber of Commerce moment if ever there was one, framed by the grandly paned windows of Amuse, the striving French bistro at the new Le Méridien hotel.

Too bad those diners, seated snug beside the glass, were the only ones who could soak it in. Dark, heavy curtains, to my dismay, dangled clumsily down the middle of each of the room's tall windows, blotting out the million-dollar power view that should be just one of this intriguing venue's numerous no-brainer attractions. But Amuse, it seemed, never met an easy style point it didn't trip over.

In a faux-Euro setting that could so easily push the overpriced l'eau mineral, Amuse kindly offered an egalitarian touch with smartly chilled bottles of tap water for the table. Ours, though, also came with a fly inside doing the dead-man's float. The cocktail bar, meanwhile, makes a fuss over its array of "amuse-bouches" tailored to the drink you order. Our four different cocktails, though, brought each of us the same spoonful of microscopically slivered fig. So much for filling up on the freebies.

The food we paid for wasn't much more satisfying. At one lunch, I was served most of my food twice because both the still-cold goat cheese-and-onion tart and the tepid chicken paillard had to be sent back for reheating. Once warmed, though, the piped squidge of brownish-gray whipped cheese looked disconcertingly like something the cat had left me that morning.

To be fair, most of the dishes prepared by this young kitchen looked far more appealing and full of promise, from the wooden board laden with house-cured charcuterie to the bright colors of mini-heirloom veggies, and even the occasional molecular gastronomy. A "ravioli" of apple cider (a high-tech liquid sphere encased in a membrane of seaweed alginate) burst with brilliant orchard brightness into the rich warm puree of fall squash soup.

I'm also glad Amuse has finally dropped the ridiculous pretense that its kitchen won't cook a steak medium rare - only rare, medium, or well done. Eating a well-done hanger steak is like gnawing jerky. Cooked to a perfectly rosy hue, with a heat-darkened crust of caramelized garlic marinade on its surface, the steak-frites here is earthy and intensely beefy, the single best reason to come to Amuse. Add a bowl of classic French onion soup and you have a lovely meal.

The restaurant has certainly garnered enough top-billing here to merit some attention. In fact, from the moment you pass through Le Méridien's pink glass doors you encounter an illuminated cocktail bar - not the hotel front desk tucked discreetly around the corner. It's clear the Starwood corporate strategy here is to let the dining room and lounge set a tone of hip urban energy, and the hotel traffic will follow.

I wouldn't bet on it.

I love the idea of updating the classic Philadelphia space of the former YMCA - all hardwood floors and tall ceilings, rimmed with fireplaces, wood paneling, and ornate crown molding. But without anything to warm the dining room (not even a rug), all the contemporary chrome and white leather furniture, glass bubble chandeliers, and marble-topped tables look to be just rattling around in a ballroom.

Amuse's retro "three-martini lunch" promotion - onion soup, steak-frites, and three cocktails for $30 – might dull the senses with just enough of a Mad Men buzz. (Still-sober diners can get a voucher if they don't want to drink all three in one sitting.) But this restaurant would help itself most by paying better attention to some cooking basics.

The fennel and heirloom carrots that came with the overdone mustard-crusted salmon were woody and undercooked. The house-pulled mozzarella with tomato salad was so overworked and rubbery, it would have been better brought in. The beet salad was overwhelmed by the tartness of its lemon vinaigrette. The roasted chicken was dry.

The pot au feu, traditionally meat and vegetables poached together in a clear broth, was too rich with the dark gloss of dense gravy and bacon. But at least it was filled with the satisfying flavors of tender short ribs, baby turnips, and Thumbelina carrots. There was nothing "Provencal" about the celery root-carrot slaw that came with the scallops, either, but at least those good seared Jersey mollusks weren't ruined. A seared duck breast over a bean ragout was also safe.

I can't say the same for some of the duck items on the occasionally interesting house-cured charcuterie platter - which had some fine sausages but also inedibly oversalted rillettes, and a prosciutto sliced so thickly it might as well have been duck leather. Even worse was a skate that had been cooked to soggy oblivion - almost shredded and wafting ammonia - then scattered with brittle strips of lemon zest that were startlingly similar to toothpicks.

If there was a bright spot at Amuse, it was the staff on my most recent visits, consistently welcoming and warm. Every mentioned problem was acknowledged with a genuine apology. The wine list is generally overpriced, featuring some triple-plus retail markups and far too few affordable French selections, considering the bistro theme. But what by-the-glass drinks they did pour were generous. The plush La Crema pinot noir, for $45 a bottle, was a fair and versatile value.

In addition, our Irish-born waiter, Michael Smyth, was one of the more charming and professional servers I've had in a while - and I remarked upon his skill as he deftly shuttled ice cream-stuffed profiteroles to our plates using a fork and spoon as tongs. It wasn't the best of the desserts he served us (that would be either the deeply caramelized tarte Tatin or the decadent chocolate pot de crème), but that lost art of table service was worth a mention.

"I was trained at the Savoy in London, sir!" he said emphatically, stiffening with pride.

Amuse and Le Meridien are a long, long way from becoming our Savoy. But if they could just open the curtains a bit, warm the room, and start cooking with significantly more care, focus, and finesse, the view from any seat here could become as grand as Philadelphia has to offer.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Tweed in Center City. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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