Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Free Meal Report: Amuse

Unlike the majority of our restaurant reviews, the following reflects a tasting that was provided free of charge (to myself and number of other Philly food bloggers). Grateful as I was for the opportunity, I will attempt to prevent the special nature of this meal from coloring my critique.

Amuse is located in the lobby of the recently opened Le Méridien Hotel, located just north of City Hall on Arch Street. Formerly a YMCA, the Starwood hotel chain has refashioned the space into a pseudo-Euro boutique hotel, and Amuse is given the place of honor just beyond the front doors. Hotel restaurants tend not to have a sparkling reputation for quality, with a few exceptions, so I was curious to see if Amuse would distinguish itself when I was presented with the opportunity to sample some of their "Fall menu". Unfortunately, though there were a few standout dishes, I found the food ambitious, but mostly unremarkable.

Our amuse-bouche was a champagne-infused grape, served on a spoon with tiny basil flowers. The fizzy grape sensation was interesting, but the tannins in the grape skin and the size of the grape itself made for a somewhat unbalanced bite. I thought a Caprese salad was an interesting choice for a fall menu; while the "house-pulled" buffalo mozzarella was creamy and delicious, the tomatoes didn't have much flavor, as you might expect given that it's the middle of November. A crown of scallop shells atop a seafood medley with chorizo and sweet peas made for a nice presentation, but under the crown of shells, tough bay scallops and stuck-together pappardelle put a damper on the undersea festivities. Probably the best appetizer we sampled was the pork shank ravioli served with a crispy spiral of decent homemade pancetta, black trumpet mushrooms and a Port syrup, even if the ravioli dough was a little tough.

Luckily, some of the mains were more satisfying. The top dish of the night for me was the giant bone-in veal chop, cooked perfectly to a juicy light pink all the way through, embellished with garlic confit and copious black pepper that complemented the veal's flavor nicely. The honey-roasted chicken was flavorful and boasted a nicely crisp skin, even if the meat was slightly on the tough side.

The vaunted steak frites, proclaimed as the specialty of the house on Amuse's menu, disappointed me somewhat. Perhaps it was a consequence of the steak sitting a little too long while it endured photo sessions from my fellow diners, but despite having a rich color, the steak's exterior lacked the excitingly crackly, salty crust that can provide such a nice contrast to the meat inside (which, in this case, was slightly spongey). The frites were also a tad limp, and no one seemed to care for the intensely green and overly tarragon-y pesto that was served on the side.

The broth for the bouillabaisse was flat and lacking in the richness that makes for a really good bowl, and the vegetarian (actually vegan) dish we sampled, a cylindrical ratatouille that seemed to be attempting to mimic confit byaldi, instead came out looking and tasting more like the vegetarian dish at a wedding. (The "tomato fondue" served on the side of this one was very rich and flavorful, but was uncomfortably reminiscent of tomato paste.)

I'm guessing Amuse doesn't have a dedicated pastry chef, because the desserts all seemed to come out of the "Sweet Cooking for Savory Chefs" file. And in what is apparently a corporate policy, they are served with a spork, which you'd think might be fun, but turns out to be incredibly awkward. The chocolate pot au crème was tasty, though very thick and served a bit too cold and with the distracting crunch of mini chocolate chips on top. The tarte tatin had a crust that was almost impossible to spork my way through to try a bite, and an almost lemony tartness replaced the rich caramelly flavor I was expecting. There was also some sort of berry phyllo Napoleon contraption which I feel bad to even comment on. Bottom line: if you do eat here, skip dessert.

Service was quite friendly, though our servers repeatedly neglected to bring us any sort of serving utensils for the dishes (granted the situation was a little unusual since we were dining family-style).

Although nothing we were served was really outright bad, there is plenty of room for improvement at Amuse. I hate to sound like Gordon Ramsey on Kitchen Nightmares (UK, at least), but some benefit could be gained by simplifying some of the overwrought dishes and really refining the execution of the elements that remain. Things like tomatoes and blueberries in mid-November have to go overboard if you are making any pretense of seasonal cooking. I don't think that out-of-town hotel guests will necessarily be disappointed if they come down to the lobby for dinner, as long as they're unaware of what they're missing at some superior French spots in town. For us natives, certainly not worth a special trip.

Amuse on Urbanspoon

No comments: