Tweed gives familiar space some forgotten flair

Owner Edward Bianchini sits on the second level of what most recently was Les Bons Temps, where he replaced long-standing features such as the opera-box seats.
Owner Edward Bianchini sits on the second level of what most recently was Les Bons Temps, where he replaced long-standing features such as the opera-box seats.
Posted: October 03, 2010

Why do I get the feeling I've stepped into a time machine when I walk through the circular glass capsule at the entrance to Tweed?

The name, of course, evokes retro images of dandy chaps in monocles and trilby hats. But the only woolly touch here is the tasteful, modern herringbone lining those comfy booths on the mezzanine - so that's not it.

I'm guessing owner Edward Bianchini must feel like he just stepped out of a time warp into another world, too. After all, the Mount Airy native has been away for a while - about three decades - running a boutique hotel and restaurant in the south of France. And Philadelphia was a very different place to eat when he left. The Bookbinders were still hot. And "regional American cooking," as defined by restaurant renaissance spots like the New London on 12th Street, featured such delights as chicken Georgia, "American" onion soup (yes, with American cheese), and Mississippi mud pie.

Now that Bianchini has finally returned to run his own restaurant in that same 12th Street address, he has revamped the space - which had since hosted a long roster of names (Odeon, Bistro Bix, Lilies, TPDS, Les Bons Temps) - and hired David Cunningham, one of Old Original Bookbinder's last chefs, to run the kitchen.

But it's not as if he's resurrecting snapper soup or the carpetbagger steak. In fact, Cunningham delivers a thoroughly modern update to some classic American flavors, from pot roast to designer wings and alt-meat burgers, informed by the compulsive go-local and sustainability fetish that is so thoroughly 2010.

No, the throwback feeling here is more of a subtle aesthetic, and the time journey I'm talking about zaps back to a far more recent era - maybe a decade ago - when a space dressed up with sleek fixtures and white linen still mattered, before fine dining's startlingly sudden demise. In pub-crazy, small-plate-smitten, BYO-batty Philly, nobody makes crisply pressed new restaurants like Tweed anymore.

To the dismay of some nostalgists, the remnants of this bi-level room's beloved bones - the romantically sweeping staircase and opera-box balcony seats - have been replaced with a more modern ascent of floating wood blocks and glass partitions. Bianchini says the old fixtures were structurally unsound, but either way, I like the new look, with its zinc bar, Edison bulb chandeliers, and comfortable velvet-lined seating. The shabby old space needed the redo badly.

There's a catchy drink list to attract a trend-thirsty bar scene, with herb-, wine-, and seasonal-fruit-infused cocktails (pawpaw daiquiris, anyone?), local craft beers, and a smart little list of international wines whose prices were lowered last week by as much as $15 a bottle.

The real challenge is for Cunningham to execute the contemporary American flavors well enough to keep the second-floor dining room filled. Our meals showed real promise, with enough successes to bring me back, but also room for improvement in the fine points that can make the difference between good and great.

On the plus side, few chefs in town cure and smoke a better salmon than Cunningham, whose pre-Bookie's resume (Le Bernardin, Lespinasse, Petrossian) wears a French seafood pedigree. Here the silky, translucent orange slices are clad in a trio of flavors - peppered, dilled, and plain - that were just sublime dabbed with crème fraîche sparked by fresh horseradish. Cunningham's devotion to local ingredients plays especially well with some uncommon finds on the cheese board, including a beer-washed Maidenhead from Cherry Grove and a cheddary Valley Thunder from Valley Shepherd.

Cunningham is also having fun with the vogue of upgrading Americana bar snacks. The mustardy punch of his deviled-egg filling is framed with a surprising two-toned harmony, the salty pop of smoked salmon roe on top and the juicy tartness of diced green apple hidden like treasure at the bottom. For the chicken wings, Tweed meticulously removes all but one bone to create its irresistible birdy "lollipops," crisped in honeyed hot sauce and served handle-up in a griddle with buttermilk blue cheese on the side. Wings never looked so pretty.

Beautiful plating, though, can't make up for lagging flavor. Cunningham's cocktail croquettes of deep-fried cheesesteak were cute, but also too dry inside and bland. His hiramasa sashimi brought a gorgeous painter's palette of superb white fish and colorful dabs of flavored cream. I loved the sashimi with curry, but overall the other creamy sauces needed something sour or salty (a soy glaze?) to cut the richness. Another catchy idea - lobster Cobb salad - suffered from the opposite problem of jarring flavors, with sharp blue cheese and bacon overwhelming the lobster's delicate meat.

In many cases, though, Cunningham nailed a perfect balance of complex flavors. A tart sheep's milk yogurt, tingly with chile flakes, basil, and mint, was the ideal link for a duet of lamb, a tender shred of shoulder braised with curry, eggplant, and kale, set beneath perfectly pink tiles of seared loin fanned on top. A "T-bone" slice of halibut was so thick, it was meaty enough to handle a rustic garnish of bacon-studded cabbage ringed by garlic butter and Concord grape verjus. A stylish update on homey pot roast, meanwhile, goes deluxe with thick slices of veal, meltingly soft alongside woodsy portobellos and a rich dark froth of herbed Madeira veal stock.

Cunningham should have dialed back the natural sweetness just a notch in the heirloom tomato sauce that smothered those burger-y Bianchini recipe meatballs. Ditto for the intense birch-beer-coffee barbecue sauce that ringed the massive pork chop, which was also drizzled decadently with cheddar-creamed corn. The biggest issue with that chop, though, was a slight overcooking - a heavy hand at the stove that also held back the lamb burger and the crispy trout with brown butter, wilted endive, and walnuts from being fantastic. With prices in the mid- and high $20s, this kitchen shouldn't be missing the mark so often.

Surprisingly, dessert may be Tweed's strongest suit. Moist carrot cake roulade comes rolled around sweet goat-cheese cream filling ringed by candied pecans and a carrot-juice anglaise. A decadent bar of fair-trade chocolate ganache crunches with feuillantine-praline paste, a crispy peanut tuile, and salted peanut gelato. Toasted pound cake, ice cream, strawberries, and kiwi, meanwhile, give a sweet wink to the savory club.

And was that really an exotic "floating island" - cinnamon-spiced meringue - drifting atop a pool of coconut-milk anglaise? As I said: At Tweed, the time machine is working.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Adsum. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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