25th & Aspen
(215) 23 ASPEN

Patrons, mostly Art Museum neighborhood people, all enter through the side Ladies' Entrance. A small sign on the front portal of this glass-doored tappy tells you where to go, with a succinct arrow pointing east on Aspen.

As you enter, it's impossible not to notice a high, patterned tin ceiling above, a mellow vintage '30's mahogany bar to one's right, and a small round table surrounded by wooden long-legged barstools immediately adjacent to one's left elbow. Take twelve steps forward. A framed door leads to a "back room" off to the right. Ten tables exist there covered with neatly ironed white cloths. A tiny candle burns on each table. One daisy and a carnation companion peer from a short shapely vase. Victorian chandeliers glow from above throwing muted shadows upon a painted white wall along the length of one side of the narrow shebang, and upon a brick wall facing opposite.

Paintings of food and "animal kingdoms" in pastel frames abound, making the atmosphere artistically bumptious and orchidaceous.

What's incredible is that this establishment, from the end of Prohibition up until about eighteen months ago, was a "nuisance bar." Then it was bought by its present chef-owner, Robert Patton, who closed it, erased seventy years of sorry, sordid smells, and pampered it with renovations into culinary contention.

Patton had been cooking on all burners after graduation from the Restaurant School a decade ago. He sauteed through stints at the center city Ritz Carlton, Thomas' and Jake's in Manayunk, and Dock Street on the Parkway. He retains a down-to-earth stick-to-your ribs heartiness in all that he brings to the table.

"I'm from Bridesberg," he proudly reports, "where my grandmother had a catering business. I could come home every day from Northeast Catholic blindfolded, finding my way by the smell of sausages baking in my family's oven."

Start here with Peasant Salad of Sausage, Frisee, Potato and Goat Cheese ($7), or Almond Crusted Calamari with Spicy Remoulade ($7). The former is smoky, blackened garlic sausage cut into slices the size of the face of a diving watch. They rest upon mounds of fresh Spring greens. The potatoes, interspersed, mimic the bristling ground pork pieces in circularity and complexion. The goat cheese provides an antidote to your tongue's newly oiled slickness.

Stuff a morsel or two of each ingredient between cheeks. Your mouth's jaws undulate unnervingly as the redolence of the mash swerves upwards through your nasal passages. Your eyes mist, and both eyebrows curl toward each other as you swallow. Thereafter, if you place the finished Peasant Salad platter to your ear as you exhale, you can hear the serf.

The aforementioned Calamari appetizer is a battered nutty concoction that requires some dainty but delightfully dauntless chewing. Rings of spumescent, glistening squid are coated to an auriferous breaded afterglow, with miniscule chips of embedded almonds giving a lambent taste to the mixture.

The toothsome ovals dissolve in a delectable frenzy. Fried Calamari, a la Patton, is elevated at Aspen's peaks, to a new level of bar-food ingenuity. Add a burst of joy by dipping forkfuls of the stuff into the Remoulade, which is as creamily caustic as an agnostic's sworn testimony. Your palate is coated with jolts of fireworks and cooled by gastric juices until your mind is melded into molten reverie.

There are specific entrees, too, never to miss. And certainly if "fish specials" are being offered. For instance, Portuguese Style Pan Roasted Codfish, Chorizo Sausage, Plum Tomatoes and Roasted Garlic ($16) would have kept Magellan in Lisbon. The cod is a silken steaming sable. Slippery, soft wide layers of pearlized opaque flakes dissolve like cotton candy at the touch of your lips. Whole garlic cloves cling to tomato bits while chorizo chunks chasten the mix.

If only there had been a sparkly Vinho Verde on the wine list. But a Loire Valley Vouvray ($22) wrestles amicably with the robustness of the Portuguese adventure.

Likewise Six Sea Scallops With Lemon Grass Vegetable Medley Over Thin Spaghetti In Thai Coconut Sauce ($17) is scrumptious despite its less than laconic description. As you process the various ingredients, the deglutition caresses not only your inner mouth, but radiates to your facial muscles. The aftertaste lowers to cause tingles and warm energy in your shoulders and neck. It's as if a Bangkok masseuse from the venerable Oriental Hotel has decided to visit your table, pushing her palms and fingers with plush parsimonious movements around your upper body.

The scallops are ponderous pantheons on the plate, quivering at the touch of a knife. Each must be quartered to be mouthsize. A soupspoon and fork are needed to twirl frisky linguini soaked to silliness in coconut oils and pungent lemongrass. If this were on the menu at the Highlands of Thailand, Jim Thompson would never have disappeared into the aboriginal woods.

Aspen's manager is Tim Watts, also a Restaurant School grad. He's a lawyer, so expect expert, attentive and knowing care. He exerts as much effort on you as he would a juror. There's no doubt in your verdict of his knowledge of the facts and the law.

You can also, if you desire, eat at the bar of this courtly restaurant, 'til one a.m., discussing the latest Advance Sheets or the Menu, or both, with Mr. Watts.

Parking is always a problem. So head for the inexpensive lot at 22nd and Spring Garden.


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back