July 613, 2000
Raising the Bar
by Maxine Keyser
New Wave Café
Third & Catharine Streets, 215-922-8484. Open seven days a week from 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Brunch during football season. Wheelchair access. No reservations. All major credit cards.
So, what of the New Wave Café, you may ask, now that Joe Lazar has opened Toris Brickhouse? When Joe was doing his Italo-Southwestern cooking at New Wave, the little neighborhood sports bar long considered merely a waiting room for Dmitris across the street was making a transition in the right direction. The owners, Sam and Aly Lynagh and Nate Ross, had decided to upgrade their establishment, removing the wall between the bar area and the small restaurant, adding more tables. Neighborhood bar was turning into neighborhood café. But Joes departure slowed things down.
Enter Ben McNamara, the chef who put Isabellas (of Castor Avenue) on the map. Ben was born in Philadelphia, returned here in 1980 to work at the Dickens Inn, then moved on to The Garden and the Monte Carlo Living Room. After honing his skills in these venues, he was ready to open his own place, Isabellas, an outpost of good food in the bleak Northeast. Critical acclaim followed, and Ben and his wife, Marisa, (who now runs the waitstaff at the New Wave) came back to Center City and joined forces with the Lynaghs and Ross.
On a Friday evening, the dark cavern of a bar is crammed with regulars watching TV, shooting pool or just shooting the breeze. The dining room is small, and decor is minimal black-topped tables, metal chairs and autographed photos of celebrities (collected by the owners over the years) on the walls. Do the diners inspecting the limited menu which includes quesadillas and sandwiches as well as standard appetizers and entrees suspect the upscale daily delights that await them?
With fresh lime vodka gimlets ($8.50) we start with choices from the menu: Peking duck spring rolls ($9) and mussels in Asian spiced broth ($9). The rolls are fat and crisp, bursting with sweet barbecued duck and shredded carrots and cabbage, and the soy dip gives the right salty touch. The mussels, too, are fat, and taste fine bathed in the lemongrass-scented broth. Theyre mopped up with "garlic snippets," which are not snippets but large slices of grilled bread, much better than the pedestrian bread on the table.
Then the daily specials, and ah they are decidedly an unexpected departure from the Asian and Southwestern-inspired dishes that dot the menu. A plump little quail ($10) perches in its vinegary sauce on toasted brioche. Ravioli ($8) are stuffed with a tangy mix of Boursin cheese and sauced with a smooth red pepper beurre blanc. Only the wrappers miss; they are either too tough or totally undercooked. Escargots ($10) are presented in a gorgeous Pernod-lemon sauce. They steadfastly surround a puff of pastry, filled with mushroom duxelles earthy flavors and buttery pastry mingling with the tart, anise-tinged sauce. We eschew risotto crab cakes with basil aioli ($10), a signature dish, because I had already tasted them at Isabellas.
Checking the wine list, we find it is short and sweet three French Chardonnays, some Californians, a few from Down Under nothing over $40. A Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($22) suits us for our entrees. From the menu comes a roasted duck breast ($16) with crispy skin, tender meat and the black currant sweetness of a glaze. A heaping dish of spring mix capellini (green, orange and white pasta) bears shrimp, scallops, mussels in their shells, and squid, tentacles and all ($14). The lemon beurre blanc that binds it all together has me licking my fingers of each creamy drop. The daily special of medallions of monkfish ($16) retains the continental flavors of the previous dishes in a smooth red pepper purée that complements the fleshy fish.
Bens French and Italian training are very evident in the purées and beurre blancs, the judicious dashes of lemon and basil and the very fresh ingredients he employs. But another daily special of stuffed pork chop ($16) is trés Southwest. Bursting with a savory filling of cornmeal, chorizo sausage and peppers, it is hearty and satisfying. All entrees come with mashed potatoes that are surprisingly dull, and crunchy pea pods.
Were liking it here, especially when we see dessert ($4). Theres a very good apple crumb pie with a filling thats cooked down to almost applesauce, and a lovely seasonal berry tart with a delicate custard within. A chocolate and Kahlúa cake has an almost too rich molten center, and chocolate bread pudding, which looks like a mound of dirt, is best of all. Its done with breadcrumbs, not cubes of bread, and is differently delicious.
Ben McNamara seems to have a penchant for putting himself in the most illogical spots. His rationale must be that as soon as people taste his food, they will make an effort to find him. We look around at the other diners and the denizens of the bar and wonder if they realize what they have here. Certainly everyone seems to be having a good time, but are they pausing to appreciate the chef?
As he passes by, I ask him if he thinks this all is worthy of his talents. It comes out sounding rather snotty of me, and I want to take back my query, but he smiles and says, "Im having more fun here than Ive ever had!"