[ review ]
I remember Twenty Manning. I remember the come-hither sofas and the lounge lizards splayed across them. I remember light that felt sexy and food that felt exotic. I remember this was the first place I tasted lemongrass. It was the year 2000, and it was in a martini. Go figure.
"When we opened in 1999, I knew that [Twenty Manning] was a very trendy type of idea that wouldn't be so cool in 10 years," restaurant co-owner and Rittenhouse hospitality doyenne Audrey Claire Taichman told me over the phone. And she was right: When the Asian fusion bomb detonated, Twenty Manning, with its designer dim sum and Peking duck pappardelle, was among the casualties.
How far we've come in just a decade. "At the time we were serving edamame, and no one knew what that was," said Taichman. "Now it's in the freezer section."
In February, Taichman and longtime chef/partner Kiong Banh shut down for five weeks to renovate and re-conceptualize. In April, the restaurant emerged with a crisp new look, an American menu and "Grill" tacked onto its name.
Working with Fury Design — the firm decorated her Rittenhouse-area home — Taichman replaced Twenty Manning's tired effects with clean whitewashed walls, wainscoting, banks of cottage-y windows and blackboards. A 22-foot-long Chesterfield sofa upholstered in banana leather delivers the 58-seat dining room's primary color.
Even the staff is new, a scrubbed young bunch Taichman hired over other, more experienced applicants. Upbeat and energetic as golden retrievers, they bound around in jeans and white button-downs, making the restaurant look like central casting for a Noxema commercial.
There were some survivors in the transition — the three original bartenders, for example, and the delightful outdoor misters, enveloping the corner in a cool curtain of vapor as I approached from 20th Street. Even in the recent heat wave, patrons populated the sidewalk tables, dining en plain air on the braided rattan bistro chairs — including one dude in a backwards Phillies cap. He'd probably have been turned away in 1999, but this is a new era, and Taichman is intelligent enough to recognize it.
Chef Banh is the greatest constant, overhauling the culinary focus reflected on Twenty Manning Grill's new sign, a carved-wood square swaying above the steep black awnings, advertising "Fish, Fowl, Beef, Pork." The food is good, not great. Some editing could change that.
I loved the hand-crushed texture of the heirloom tomato gazpacho, but not its crown of pineapple basil sorbet, a case of dinner and dessert getting their lines crossed. Pan-seared scallops sang in sunny yellow pepper oil, but the "supremes" of ruby-red grapefruit, still connected to their leathery membranes, were really something to chew on.
The mammoth 12- to-14-ounce Pine Hills pork chop protruding from a pristinely frenched, broiler-blistered bone was a most beautifully cooked piece of meat, 2 inches thick and a glistening medium inside. But it was confused by its plate mates: a bog of Gorgonzola fondue (which would have worked were there less of it), allegedly grilled peaches in a puddle of Del Monte-esque syrup and overcooked Brussels sprouts that didn't relate at all.
I don't get the sense Vietnam-born Banh is as confident with these flavors as he is with those of his homeland, so I'm glad some of his old favorites have remained on the menu. He still makes his dumplings every morning, rolling out the flour-and-water dough, stuffing the skins with pig or duck or bison, crimping their edges together into scalloped satchels. They'd been plumped with ginger-y pork, oyster sauce and scallion on one visit, pan-crisped on one side, gyoza-style, and perched on a bed of citrusy cabbage slaw. The staff brings out chopsticks just for these dumplings. Straight respect.
It's troubling that new items paled in comparison to this old holdover — and to the bread, fragrant rye baguettes created and crafted by Le Bec-Fin's bakery. They come in pint-sized brown-paper bags — so cute! — and arrive with the complementary "Daily Harvest," naked local veggies served with thimbles of butter and salt.
The "garden" tomato-and-Di Bruno's mozzarella Caprese diminished that locavore cred right quick, though, with a flutter of torn Israeli basil. The menu makes special mention of the herb's foreign roots — a head-scratching shout-out at best but a cardinal sin at worst in these fresh/local times, particularly for a restaurant that makes a fuss of its "Lancaster Baby Romaine" and "Farmers Market Beets" dabbed with local goat cheese. The ink would be better spent telling us which garden the salad's plum tomatoes came from; they were so bland I've got to think it was Gethsemane.
Like Paula Abdul, the cocktail program also takes two steps forward, then two steps back. For every hip, summery Hendrick's-St. Germain-Cava concoction, there's a Rubi-, Poma- or Acai-tini waiting to strip TMG of nascent coolness faster than an Affliction T-shirt. Fortunately, they've hedged their bets, deploying several other trends in hopes one will stick. Burgers get their own dedicated section. Plats du jour include hot dogs (Monday) and lobster rolls (Friday), trends within a trend. This will please people, no doubt, but begets an unfortunate truism: Twenty Manning Grill, fresh as it looks, isn't terribly original.
Then again, terribly original isn't Taichman's goal. "We just want [the restaurant] to be a happy, bright place," she told me. "You might not love everything — but hopefully you have a good time." The new vibe and warm staff ensured that happened, even as simpleton desserts like a passable strawberry shortcake parfait and a nostalgic-but-too-sweet half-baked tollhouse cookie left me wanting more. It may seem gauche now, but Twenty Manning's pan-Asian shtick was cutting-edge at the time. The new Grill may be relevant, but it isn't giving you a taste of anything you haven't had before.