Philadelphia's Dandelion offers classic British food, served in a warren of cozy nooks

Posted: March 27, 2011

Had you told me a few months ago that I'd be raving about fish and chips and warm pints of bitter, I would have said you were a bloody lunatic.

Then again, a few a months ago the Dandelion was still just an odd name for the latest Stephen Starr construction site - a convenient weed metaphor for our irrepressible gardener of concept dining, then hard at work on seedling number 22 at 18th and Sansom Streets. (By April 1, numbers 23 and 24 will have poked their heads through the soils of Florida's South Beach and Washington Square, respectively.)

But something almost magical has transpired inside this ornately detailed corner of connected old townhouses just north of Rittenhouse Square. Over the last few months, what debuted in the eyes of many observers as just as another "Disneyfied" theme restaurant, all-Englanded out with flea-market knickknacks and quaint sayings about "Faith" over the blazing hearth, has quickly become a very real and special Philadelphia place.

Yes, the details still say British country estate sale, from the taxidermy in the rafters to the frilly curtains and bronze bust of Churchill, to the antique cartoons, weathered old furniture, and wooden pub tables. But the locals have quickly made this rambling warren of cozy rooms their own. I see them lounging on the tufted couches beside the crackling wood fire, tucked into secluded nooks for a family meal of Sunday roast, swapping forkfuls of "bubble and squeak" and lamby shepherd's pie beneath the soft light of daffodil-shaped chandeliers and gooseneck sconces gleaming off wood-paneled walls.

When a pal and I flopped into a pair of wing-backed chairs in the upstairs "Dog Room" for an after-work pint of Bombardier and a slate of Mrs. Quicke's cheddar, globe lights over the bar spelling out "Man's Best Friend" behind us, I was starting to succumb. Add to that a charming waitress who couldn't suppress her inner beer geek describing the daily trio of cask ales (eyes especially wide when touting Brew Dog's Scotch barrel-aged Imperial Stout), and I knew I was hooked.

Not only is this pub Starr's most intimate restaurant space to date, the Dandelion is serious in its pursuit of British-style beers. Equally inspiring, though, is the sense of individuality and craft I taste in the menu, thanks to British-born chef Robert Aikens.

I didn't expect to be impressed after my first early visit. The crusty Parc-baked breads were fantastic, of course - one tinted black with chocolaty Victory stout, the other nubby with Maldon sea salt. But the fish cakes were bland, deep-fried balls of potato and cod. The coarsely ground Cumberland sausages were tasty, but with more potatoes pooled in rich gravy, it all seemed so, well, heavy.

The Dandelion, no doubt, has been a work of menu tweaks in progress, with some items, like the fish cakes (now touched with smoked fish) and the handsome special-blend burger going through continuous recipe changes.

But so many dishes of British comfort here are already so well-crafted that Aikens has certainly found enough of his groove.

The all-out embrace of richness isn't going anywhere, whether it's the cheesy root-veggie soup or the sticky toffee puddings with rummy date ice cream for dessert.

As if to punctuate a new chapter in our current rediscovery of once-shunned animal fats, Aikens says the Dandelion's kitchen has been going through a quarter-ton of rendered beef fat each week. But if it's even possible for "molten tallow" and "finesse" to coexist, his masterful fish and chips is Exhibit A.

It is as magnificent a piece of fried fish as I've ever had: a thick slice of flavorful white fish encased in a deep brown pillow of beer-batter crunch. There's such an intense savoriness to each bite; the huge flakes of meaty Chatham cod (no wimpy scrod here) are almost creamy where they cling to the pastry shell, and I pretty much devoured them before even thinking of a malt-vinegar splash or a dab of tartar sauce. The rail-cut chips, also crisped in tallow, are about as good as fries get.

Aikens' twin Tom is a haute-cuisine star back in London (with a Michelin star.) But Robert's heart lies in homier comforts, and his updates to the classics rise high on ingredients and techniques.

I taste the lovely, gamy tang of lamb steeped into the ragu of crumbled meat tucked beneath the shepherd pie's piped mash of cheddar-laced potatoes. Sublimely tender morsels of rabbit are a pot-pie delight in creamy gravy studded with mushrooms, cipollini onions, and bacon below a puff pastry lid. A pinch of curry adds sparkle to the deviled eggs. Beer and grain mustard perk up the cheesy smear of Mornay that gets broiled to a speckled brown glaze over Welsh rarebit toasts made from puffy buttermilk bread.

That same thick-cut bread is too soft to do justice to some of Aikens' excellent charcuterie spreads, the coarsely ground Berkshire pork pâté scented with bacon, brandy, and nutmeg, or the silk of chicken- and duck-liver mousse with gingery grape chutney.

Aikens' few real missteps on this menu were more guilty of boredom than substantial flaws. The Jonah crab salad was dry. The strozzapreti with duck Bolognese was just ho-hum (if a little salty). But who comes to a British restaurant anyhow to eat pasta? Even the much-labored-over burger, handsome as it was with smoked bacon and tomato-horseradish special sauce, seemed an obligatory gesture that was just a bit off-topic.

I'm as big a burger hound as there is. But with so many great options elsewhere in the hood, I found myself far more moved here by smaller, more elegant dishes such as the cured salmon, stained borscht red with beet juice and dolloped with crème fraîche that tingled with horseradish spice. Or the gorgeous seared sea scallops set over crisped rounds of "black pudding," an oaty blood sausage with a touch of cayenne spice. Along with bacon-wilted Brussels sprouts, Guinness sauce, and a tangy apple puree, it brought the fruits of the sea, orchard, keg, and pigpen into perfect harmony, as accessible as this acquired taste will ever be.

Aikens' seven-hour-braised pork belly, infused with herbs, juniper, and clove, is a stellar example of gastropub decadence, the amazingly tender layers of flesh topped with cracker-crisp skin, snug over gravy-soaked lentils with a side crock of mustard-spiked mashed potatoes. The moist roast chicken is most notable for its "bubble and squeak," a kitchen-sink panfry of Savoy cabbage and chunkily mashed root veggies that perfectly melded the homeyness of Grandma Aikens' recipe with a delicacy that somehow retained the character of each ingredient.

The Dandelion is capable of lighter fare, as evidenced by the flaky fillet of flour-dusted hake meunière glazed with lemon caper brown-butter sauce (light, at least, until you pop that runny poached free-range egg). Even the butter lettuce salad, so preciously tiered with Braeburn apples, pomegranate seeds, and crumbled Stilton, shows an artful hand.

But this is clearly a small nod to the pretty tagalongs who need salad, while the trenchermen among us will more likely be angling for a slice of roast - a regular special on Sundays (and "bank holidays," whatever those are in these 24/7 cyber-banking days.)

Aikens slow-cooks whole 10-pound hunks of Pennsylvania sirloin for six hours to an almost fork-tenderness before finishing it with a gravy glaze enriched with Guinness and scraps of dry-aged beef. With half-moons of roasted potatoes, green tufts of watercress, clouds of horseradish cream, and a balloon-like pastry puff of Yorkshire pudding, I could hardly imagine a more classic British repast.

But with the Dandelion's impressively quick, ale-abetted transformation from contrived Starr concept into one of city's most compelling public spaces, it isn't hard to imagine that Sunday roast becoming a Philadelphia tradition soon enough.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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