[ review ]
In the Land of Beer Commercials there are three immutable laws. The mountains shall be snow-capped, the streams must run clear, and the only way to drink a malt beverage is from a vessel tricked out with turbulence-inducing ridges or a color-changing logo or some other gimcrack contrivance that might appeal to 16-year-old boys.
City Tap House fails marvelously on all three counts. For starters, forget pseudo-technological cans and bottles; there aren't even any normal ones at this 60-tap temple to craft-beer diversity. From Flemish sour ale to local milk stout, the beer program at this sprawling University City pub is all draft, all the time. Then there's the view from the stone-edged fire pits on the second-story patio. Taking the place of Rocky Mountain clichés, the keg-shaped cap of Wharton's Huntsman Hall rises above the Radian building's roof meadow, whose densely planted succulents and flowering forbs make City Tap House an urban beer garden in a class of its own.
As for the streams, the ones here run unseen, carrying rainwater that's stored in underground storm-water cisterns until the green roof needs irrigation. There's a lot to like about the Radian building, which was completed in 2008, but this mezzanine restaurant space is the best part.
Even if you don't score a table outside, it's is a worthwhile destination for hopheads and barley bums. Thick wooden timbers frame a lofty dining area, and the front room features a copper-topped island bar nearly big enough to park a fire engine inside. Ten-ounce pours are the standard for most of the suds, which tend toward the high-alcohol end of the spectrum and change frequently. City Tap House scored some great stuff during Beer Week — including a phenomenal 31 varieties from Michigan's Bell's Brewery, some of which had been unknown even unto Google — but the selection is outstanding under normal circumstances, as well. I'm tempted to say that if you don't find something that strikes your fancy, you will a week later, but it's more likely that you just don't like beer.
There's food, too. Chef Al Paris runs a lunch and dinner menu that's ambitious by pub standards, covering a broad territory that ranges from french-fry fare (burgers, mussels, wings) to entrées that wouldn't be out of place at a season-driven BYO.
In its first two months, there have been surprises on both ends of the spectrum.
Start with the good ones. Paris' variation on a Reuben sandwich is a curveball for anyone with a mental picture of thinly sliced corned beef between trim slices of rye, but Roy Halladay could hardly throw a sweeter one. Smoked brisket stands in for the corned beef — a great heap of it, cut with lightly pickled cabbage atop thick hunks of toasted rye. If you've got hands big enough to reassemble and hoist this behemoth, I'd hate to take you shopping for gloves. But as long as you get enough cabbage (only half my bites did), this thing's as delicious as a fork-and-knife sandwich gets.
The dinner hour features a weekly rotation of daily specials. Judging from Friday's seared filet of striped bass, this is where Paris is focusing his energy best. The skin was crispy, the flesh flaky and moist, and an accompanying currant reduction had an herbal infusion that elevated it well above a simple tangy-sweet interplay — though the latter aspect was executed skillfully enough to merit praise. Grilled asparagus and a refreshing quinoa salad rounded out a plate that was as healthful as it was tasty. Other nights feature dishes ranging from roasted rabbit to suckling pig.
Back in the high-calorie department, a combo featuring a half-rack of ribs and one of the better chicken quarters around (another score on the herbal front) comes with enough crispy fries that it could easily feed two with an appetizer.
The bad surprises were fixable, but still disappointing. A miniature cast-iron skillet of macaroni and cheese, highly touted by one of Tap House's cheery servers, squandered its perfect textural contrasts by using bland, boring cheese. Too bad; something sharper or more assertive could have made it great. A hamburger was flavorful but overcooked. A side of coleslaw came out as limp as wet socks on a laundry line; it must have been dressed hours in advance.
Yet overall, the kitchen does pretty well considering how many bases it's trying to cover. Its pizzas are about on the level of Zavino's — solid but not stellar. Fennel sausage weighed a little too heavily on one crust, but the tartufo pie, with a fried egg topping off the scattered mushrooms and Taleggio, got the balance right. Mussels in a saffron-hued bath of garlic cream, flavored by a confetti of fennel shavings underscored with Pernod, was as decadent as dessert. If you like your Thai curries more sweet than spicy, this dish should be right up your alley.
Save room for a trio of homemade doughnuts, though. Nothing beats the one weekend in August when the Amish fry hand-rolled dough before your eyes in Reading Terminal, but this effort is a strong runner-up. Plus, City Tap House holds out a pairing possibility that Reading Terminal doesn't. I haven't seen it on their draft list, but Washington, D.C.-based Shenandoah Brewing Co. makes something called a Chocolate Donut stout. A rarity, no doubt, but if any Philly beer temple can scare up an odd lot of it, City Tap House would be a bettor's favorite.