503 West Lancaster Avenue
Whenever the subject of restaurants pops up in the course of conversation of late, the mention of Autograph Brasserie doesn’t seem to be far behind. There is absolutely no question that this latest entry in Marty Grims’ restaurant stable (which includes three White Dog Cafés, Philly’s Moshulu, and LBI’s Daddy O, Plantation Restaurant & Bar, and Tuckers Tavern) has made quite a splash among Main Line diners; as much for its over-the-top décor as for its cuisine. Indeed… Each area of the restaurant – foyer, the Lounge (bar), “the Boulevard” (corridor with semiprivate alcoves leading to rooms at the rear of the restaurant), Sycamore Room (pictured), and Club Room – offers its own unique take on celebrity veneration.
And the critics, it seems, have been as wowed as restaurant’s regular patrons. Main Line Today’s Ken “I never met a restaurant I didn’t like” Alan, for example, spent a lion’s share of his meager allotted space gushing over the plethoric variety of floor-to-ceiling embellishments – “A myriad of iconic celebrities’ unmistakable faces adorn the walls at Grims’ most stylishly adventuresome endeavor to date” – before finally getting around to the food. And even the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan couldn’t resist a good bit of decorative “name-dropping” along the way (Pictured: Bar/Lounge).
Though Autograph Brasserie is dressed to impress (some would say – this writer included – overdressed); occasionally, such ostentation can generate exactly the opposite effect. And once the oohs and ahhs wear off, sensory overload begins to set in and the “theme park” atmosphere quickly loses its appeal. Like OD’ing on the 181 Renoirs in the Barnes Collection and longing for an occasional Picasso just to break up the monotony, so one begs for a respite from this overblown celebrity saturation.
In many cases, less is more; but Autograph’s extravagantly splurgy décor is simply too much of a good thing… and the restaurant’s cuisine also appears to suffer from similar bouts of obtrusive overreach. Co-owner and power-behind-the-stove Ralph Fernandez is obviously an accomplished chef with the finest of ingredients at his disposal. But there are times when his offerings tend to go astray: some are so artsy-fartsy that form takes precedence over substance; others simply lack proper focus and finesse.
Take his Wild Striped Bass, for example ($34.00). The fish itself is beautifully prepared, moist, flaky and succulent, but its delicate natural flavor is totally eclipsed by a double whammy: a sea of parsley garlic clam chowder emulsion and overly generous tiara of Basque peppers. Finny fare is best served by those embellishments that intrude the least. More judiciously – and imaginatively – applied, the clam chowder emulsion would be a more than sufficient accompaniment.
Other near misses include a starter of Chilled Gulf Shrimp from the raw bar, which was good but not exceptional, and the steak frites ($29.00) – char grilled sliced filet mignon, baby arugula and garlic parsley fries. This latter item seemed like a fairly safe bet; but the two members of our party were unanimous in their underwhelming assessment: The steak was on the dry side and the frites significantly less than crispy.
Then there’s the Autograph BLT ordered from the lunch menu. A prodigious offering, to say the least. But the double-cut bacon is inordinately fatty, the garlic aioli conspicuous by its near absence, and the house-made chips woefully under seasoned and slightly on the soggy side. Outrageously overpriced at $17.00 (by the way, the burger goes for a whopping $19.00).
Fatty bacon is also the culprit in the deconstructed Autograph Wedge ($12.00), which turned out to be more of a feast for the eye than the palate. The Catalan Caesar (pictured), adorned with chorizo sausage and shaved Manchego, is another eye-catcher. Unfortunately, although long on style, it is painfully short on dressing ($13.00).
On the other hand, the Pear Blue Cheese ($13.00), sublime in its apparent simplicity, proved to be the most satisfying among the restaurant’s leafy representatives – especially since it actually resembled a salad rather than a self-conscious work of art. Pristinely fresh autumn greens are adorned with diced poached Anjou pear, Calbrales blue cheese, candied pecans, and splashed with an enticing cider vinaigrette. Yes, less is definitely more.
Entrée-wise, it would appear that the house-made pasta dishes are the most economically feasible and gastronomically fulfilling options. These include Rigatoni with veal ragù Bolognese ($14.00), Gemelli with grilled shrimp in a sherry lobster emulsion ($16.00), Parsley Pappardelle with arugula pesto ($13.00), and the recently sampled & highly recommended Garganelli Nero (pictured). Adorned with shrimp, lump crabmeat & Spanish octopus, the constituents swim to table in a subtle but assertive shellfish emulsion ($16.00).
Anomalously, while Autograph’s appetizers and entrées, as noted above, are something of a mixed bag, the four courses the kitchen served up at the Chateau Ste. Michelle wine dinner in January (2017) were excellent across the board – and, I would add, superior to anything I have thus far sampled on the restaurant’s regular menu. The presentations were infinitely better focused and more restrained in their approach. The ingredients were allowed to speak for themselves, without benefit of a heavy-handed saucier or stilted architectural hocus-pocus.
The Burrata Mozzarella (pictured) set the tone right out of the box. Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. And this was a marvelous presentation; perfectly done… but not overdone. The saltiness of Serrano ham provided a luscious foil to the velvety texture of the mozzarella; while pepitas (pumpkin seeds) added a nice contrasting crunch, and the toasted pumpkin seed oil a rich, aromatic finish.
The Scottish Salmon was also quite memorable. A seabed of lentils that had been stewed in a savory ham hock broth added immensely to the flavor, as did a zippy mustard emulsion. This was followed a perfect-shade-of-pink Herb-Roasted Australian Lamb Loin (pictured). Prepared to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and set on a pillow of potato leek cake & caramelized baby carrots, an addictively assertive lamb jus spiked with a hint of truffle oil provided the unforgettable finishing touch.
Dessert? Pastry Chef Colleen Winston’s White Chocolate Crème Brûlée replete with ginger snap crisp and cranberry orange compote proved irresistible. I should hasten to add that it was also perfectly complemented by Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 2012 “Eroica” Gold Riesling.
The outstanding quality of the Chateau Ste. Michelle wine dinner obviously raises a very important question in my mind. How is it possible for a kitchen that is capable of turning out such an extraordinary feast to be so hit or miss in the execution of its regular menu? Your guess is as good as mine. At the present moment, however, only Colleen Winston’s incomparable desserts can be counted on to invariably hit the mark. (Pictured: Colleen Winston’s Warm Apple Strudel)
“A foolish consistency,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted, may very well be “the hobgoblin of little minds.” In the restaurant game, however – especially in this upscale setting at these upscale prices – inconsistency is simply not a viable option.
There is no question that Autograph Brasserie has a great deal going for it – both visually and gastronomically. And, right now at least, the restaurant appears to be enjoying an extended love affair with its Main Line patrons. However, dining here is not an inexpensive proposition… and a honeymoon doesn’t last forever. Given the restaurant’s Center City prices, as well as the obvious high quality of the ingredients at the kitchen’s disposal, one can only hope that a more consistent approach to the execution of its menu will be high on Autograph’s agenda.