For new restaurants, making a strong first impression matters. But for older restaurants that need to evolve, that strong first impression — even a very positive one — can also pose a vexing challenge.
One of the "Ten Best New Restaurants in America" from GQ magazine? Three bells in the Inquirer? Mica earned those accolades and more in 2011, when Chip Roman stepped beyond Blackfish, his steady BYOB hit in Conshohocken, to open this jewel-box tasting room in Chestnut Hill where multicourse menus ranged from $50 to $120. The contemporary cuisine itself was often stunning. But so were the prices for a neighborhood that, despite its well-to-do pedigree, hasn't always enthusiastically supported contemporary fine dining. And so, although Mica survived, it never shook its reputation as a special-occasion splurge rather than a neighborhood standby.
Enter the airy crab beignets and voracious international inspirations of makeover master Yianni Arhontoulis. The new chef-owner at Mica can bob from Peru to Texas for menu inspirations, with frequent stops at nearby Erdenheim Farm for a monthly local lamb showcase. Actually, it turns out Arhontoulis was already at Mica as its chef de cuisine, then at Blackfish and Roman's catering company before his mentor gave him the opportunity last summer to buy the restaurant. So he brings some insights to the ownership role. And with a series of subtle tweaks and a fresh infusion of culinary spontaneity, Arhontoulis, at just 29, has shown impressive maturity in guiding Mica to a compelling new phase.
In a move that might seem counterintuitive, he shed the revenue cushion of Mica's liquor license to go BYOB. But paired with some subtle adjustments to portion sizes and prices, that shift has given Mica a more reasonable aura of fair value for frequent visits, even if the entrees, which range from $24 to $34, are still plenty upscale. The menu now changes compulsively, with weekly themed tasting menu specials and constant seasonal shifts. As a result, Mica now feels more like a vibrant neighborhood restaurant that's worthy of wider notice as a destination rather than a destination the locals rarely visit.
The 52-seat set of rooms behind Mica's stone facade and storefront window have a familiar minimalist elegance, but the high wainscoting has been painted a deep peacock blue that adds a warm burst of color to the dark plank floors and bare-wood tabletops. The service is professional, pleasant, and helpful without being intrusive. The sound level is usually civilized enough for easy conversation. (A 25-seat back porch has just been opened for alfresco dining.)
But, ultimately, it is Arhontoulis' cooking that makes this fresh edition of Mica so exciting. And though his palate ranges widely, from the complimentary starter of lemony stuffed grape leaves made from his Greek family's recipe to the airy churros that can't be missed at dinner's end, Arhontoulis has a knack for dishes that show focus, novel combinations, and refined technique. I've had tuna tartare a thousand times, but never quite like this, the pink dice of fish glazed in lemon oil, then completely covered by a hydrangea-shaped bouquet of Microplaned carrot chips. The root's delicate sweet snap vividly accented the tuna's luscious softness, and then the whole combination swooned when a dashi broth infused with smoked jalapeños and roasted peanuts was poured over the top tableside. Those crab beignets arrived like hot puffs of sourdough air sealed in a crisp, then collapsed at first bite around a moist core of tarragon-scented crab stuffing. The chicken-liver tart looked like a handsome slice of pie, a precise wedge of buckwheat flour pastry topped with pink custard glazed in a sweet-tart ruby sheen of jellied rhubarb and verjus. The silky liver mousse layered through the middle was so creamy and rich, it's as close to dessert as offal will ever come.
Mica's plates are consistently beautiful, but they're not always perfect. A couple of potentially stunning dishes — the vivid green potato ramp vichyssoise with trout roe and hazelnuts, and an heirloom bean stew with bacon broth and Texas shrimp — were a little oversalted. Another dish on Mica's "From Texas With Love" menu, a crispy pork rind with chili-flared queso sauce, would have been amazing if the rind had retained more of its snappy crunch. On the "From Peru With Love" menu, the salt-cured beef with heirloom potatoes would have been more successful as an appetizer than an entree.
Of course, the globe-trotting $45 tasting menus are a clever way to keep the regulars interested in affordable midweek visits, with recent themes also popping by Morocco and Maryland. But it's not always Arhontoulis' most polished work, even if some my favorite plates here came from the Texas (chicken-fried sweetbreads) and Peru (tuna tiradito in aji limo) jaunts. There were several complete dishes elsewhere on the a la carte menu, though, to compensate for those minor flaws.
Arhontoulis' determination to make Mica more accessible has produced a couple of "safe" dishes, but they were hardly dumbed-down. The roast chicken was a paragon of crispy-juicy poultry craft, with a velvety bonus of Robuchon-inspired potato puree that is literally 30 percent butter. A thick 14-ounce cut of prime-grade rib eye steak was actually a bargain at $34, considering the quality, and Mica takes it over the top by slow-grilling the beef over coals with lots of cracked black pepper and a glaze of garlic caramel, a savory-sweet umami-booster that's one of Arhontoulis' secret weapons. A charcoal-roasted eggplant also gets the garlic-caramel treatment, then gets an Asian twist with a frothy bonito butter and furikake dusting of seaweed and sumac. The pot-roasted cauliflower crusted in vadouvan curry would have been another stellar vegetarian showcase if only it hadn't been cooked a little too soft.
For the most part, though, this kitchen exhibited finesse. A crispy-skinned branzino over cockles with curried coconut broth and carrot juice puree was pure delicacy. A whole pork shoulder, cooked to juicy perfection sous-vide for a day, was brushed with more of that garlic caramel so its mustard rub crusted into a smoky char when it was grilled to order. Sliced into sheer pink rounds on the plate beside a still life of spring vegetables, it took on new dimensions when drizzled with a vivid green cream infused with seafood and licorice root.
A lot of cheffy BYOBs expend their best efforts on the savory courses but pay little mind to dessert. Not Mica, which makes the most of just a few sweets. I ate one of the best pecan pies there since leaving the South that was rich with Erdenheim Farm eggs and blackstrap molasses, then crowned with a melting vanilla balm of house-churned ice cream. But it is Mica's churros that I keep dreaming of. It arrived as a hot coil of deep-fried dough, its grooved surface radiating sweetness beside a deep black puddle of molten chocolate. But when I broke a piece off, it was so delicate that it rarely made it to the cocoa dip, simply dissolving in my mouth like a cinnamon-sugared vapor of a fritter. I tried to be a good tablemate and not eat it all. But it was simply too persuasive. And so, just like that, with a strong finish to a pair of convincingly exciting meals, the new Mica replaced the old one in my mind with the best kind of new first impressions. Now I want to go back.