As the strange birds were carried one after the other through the low-lit glow of the rambling dining room at Coeur, I couldn't help but wonder what exactly those jet-black creatures were.
When one finally landed on our table, perched atop a fat-basted tumble of chunky potatoes, onions, and carrots, I quickly realized that what looked like a poultry-shape briquette was actually our rotisserie chicken: "Burnt!" I declared before lifting my fork.
"Whoa," was the next word I mumbled once I'd actually taken a bite. This chicken wasn't scorched; it was kissed by the rotisserie gods.
A honey brine had allowed the skin to bronze to the richest shade of mahogany, and it crackled like deeply caramelized parchment around meat that still gushed with juice infused with juniper, clove, and herbs.
There are more exotic ideas on the menu at Coeur, from wild game terrines and fried snails to a vegan Wellington whose neatly stacked layers of parsnip and carrot are glazed with a surprisingly flavorful, fennel-tinged gravy.
But if partners Brendan Hartranft, Leigh Maida, and Brendan Kelly have a chance of finally turning this curiously star-crossed Bella Vista space (previously the Mildred and James) into a thriving neighborhood standby, mastering a unique $18 chicken entrée is an excellent place to start.
Of course, this team has had proven success pioneering several other emerging neighborhoods with gastropubs (Strangelove's, Local 44, Memphis Taproom, and the now-closed Resurrection Ale House) that combine solid kitchens with beer-geek bait and a little design quirk.
The vintage black-and-white Admiral TV broadcasting Rocky and It's a Wonderful Life behind the long bar is one wonky flourish. And there's a brew list with just the kind of exquisitely curated good stuff - Tilquin Gueuze, J.W. Lees, Dieu du Ciel - we've come to expect. Coveted local breweries like 2SP (malty Delco lager!) and Tired Hands have a showcase here, as do several impressive collaborations between Coeur and Free Will (peppery Eden saison), Manayunk Brewery, and Yards.
But there's also a sense of evolution for this crew at Coeur, where funky ciders have increasingly entered the mix and a rising new interest in wine - particularly low-intervention "natural" wines - has materialized on a list of two dozen bottles hovering around $50 strong on Loire, Languedoc, and the iconoclastic La Clarine Farm from California's Sierra Foothills.
The kitchen, too, is as ambitious as any of their restaurants, with young chef Andy Tessier using his experience in Daniel Boulud's New York restaurants (DBGB, Boulud Sud) to inform a bistro-style menu with classic technique. A charcuterie platter was especially impressive, from a wild boar terrine studded with squab and chicken mousse to a wonderful pâte en croute, a boozy country pâte, well-cured duck prosciutto, and a French picnic-worthy chunk of jellied pork in aspic. With a mason jar of chowchow-pickled cauliflower, turnips, and okra to keep us nibbling, it was a wonderful way to start.
I was less enthusiastic about the big, free-form "tasting plate," which had too many flawed or uninspired elements - less-than-crisp fried snails, boring cucumber cups filled with cucumber salad - to merit $28. A mushy beet salad over a strangely puddinglike pistachio puree was another misstep, as was an overly sweet butternut squash soup dusted with amaretti cookies.
But Tessier delivered far more hits than misses, including one of the best poutines I've tasted south of Québec: a crispy nest of shoestring frites tangled with oozy chunks of cheddar curds splashed in rich veal gravy. A grilled tarte flambée flatbread brought the contrast of sweet apples and caramelized onions beneath the bitter crunch of Treviso. The deep-brown nuggets of crisply fried pork fritters, dabbed with creamy parsnip puree and sweet nubs of fennel jam, are one of the best ways I know to eat a pig's head.
Coeur's kitchen also scored a number of worthy entrée plates. Perfectly sautéed turbot showed a nice light touch over melty tubes of gnocchi parisienne and a lemony butter sauce. A boneless rabbit "porchetta" stuffed with pork sausage showed more charcuterie-skill gusto that I enjoyed, even if it would have been better with more emphasis on the rabbit than the pork. A plate of two-toned gnocchi made from white and purple potatoes came glazed in an indulgently truffled cream sauce showered with more shaved truffles (black Burgundy currently) than I'd ever expect at $18.
The fresh beignets and chocolate pot de crème topped with peppermint bark and white chocolate mousse were more than adequate desserts.
On the other hand, Tessier tripped over a couple of items that could be staples at a place that aspires to be a neighborhood standby. He nailed the hard part of a brisket sandwich - curing and smoking one of the best pastrami-esque meats I've had in town in recent memory. Then he fumbled the easy part by putting it on flimsy, thin-sliced bread. The "poutine burger," meanwhile, made the mistake of trying to do too much. The creative wink of a burger soaked with gravy and layered with cheese curds was wasted on thin patties that were scorched, and a layer of crunchy potato skins that tasted burnt.
Such quibbles are minor points that should be easy fixes. Coeur's noise problem, however, will be a taller task.
I like the aesthetic of Maida's makeover for the multiroom space, warming the footprint with new banquettes and booths that give it a lively, bustling mood. But with no attention paid to soundproofing, all the hard surfaces of this deceptively large 120-seat space quickly ramp up into a roar that, at 98 decibels, is one of the loudest I've measured in a year. If Coeur's goal is, as Hartranft says, to become a local destination for friends to come and linger long over good drink, bistro fare, and conversation, the ear-pinching din is a genuine threat to its mission.
Simply hearing anything our server had to say was a challenge. So I guess it's little wonder I had no idea that strange black bird was the chicken. Good thing for Coeur and all those hoping for a place with some potential staying power that, when I took a bite, I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews South on North Broad Street.
824 S. Eighth St., 215-922-6387; coeurphilly.com
The team behind Strangelove's and Memphis Taproom has ventured to Bella Vista for an appealing gastropub revamp of the former Mildred. The casual vibe feels a notch more accessible to a neighborhood crowd, while Andy Tessier's bistro menu shows strong charcuterie skills, juicy rotisserie chicken, and an occasional Montréal accent. The beers are as great, but there's also more focus on cider and good wine here than at this crew's previous restaurants. The biggest flaw is occasionally out-of-control noise (98 decibels!) that can dampen Coeur's mission as a place to hang out and talk.
Charcuterie; chowchow; poutine; big green salad; pork fritters; grilled tarte flambée; brisket on rye; steak-frites; turbot with Parisien gnocchi; rotisserie chicken; purple and white gnocchi with truffles; chicken salad sliders; rabbit porchetta; vegan Wellington; chocolate pot de crème; beignets.
The beers are exceptionally curated with a lean toward local breweries (Tired Hands, 2SP) and funky Euro delights (BFM Abbaye; De Dolle; Tilquin). Coeur also features a novel collection of unique collaboration brews with local producers (Free Will, Manayunk, and Bullfrog for cider). A rising interest in small-producer "low-intervention" wines offers good options, too, from affordable vino on draft (loved Artisan's Barbera), to a bottle list hovering around $50 with some earthy French gems (Les Chiens-Chiens Chinon; Les Sablonettes gamay; Arpège Aligoté) plus an intriguing albariño from California "natural wine" star La Clarine Farm.
The big room's hard surfaces can stoke a 98-decibel roar that's a conversation-crusher. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO
Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner entrées $13-$26.
All major cards.
Street parking only.