Audrey Claire

20th & Spruce Streets
(215) 731-1222 (no reservations accepted)

"Audrey Claire" appears in a tiny Times New Roman font almost imperceptibly on a low window pane on a building who's lot in life is the northwest corner of 20th and Spruce. Otherwise, one could not guess that Philadelphia's most eclectic restaurant's premises has a name at all. For, as of this writing, no sign exists; no brightly lettered facade is apparent; and only an outdoor chalk-laden hip-high menuboard proposes an identity. Notwithstanding its marqueelessness, this "BYOB - Sorry, No Credit Cards" shebang draws neighborhood cabals in droves.

I'm not sure there's an ambiance, as the eatery seems to have no walls, no beginning and no end, spilling out onto the streets carelessly. Huge open windows allow for defenestration of everything, including food, conversations and thoughts. Usually, on the half hour, a huge double-bodied Route 17 bus will make a wide arcing left turn at the corner from 20th, to drive west henceforth on Spruce. For a few seconds, the riders are patrons of Audrey Claire.

Wine glasses are at your wooden table as you are seated; not breast-shaped pompous goblets for swirling, sniffing and sipping vintage cabernets, and not those long-stemmed small-topped pipe-bowl shaped containers for pouted, tongue-tasting of chardonnays. The glasses here are tappy fare, four-ounce three-inch-high round wine glasses usually reserved for bars serving from gallon jugs of muscatel. The message from management is clearly for you to bring wine of less than fanciful and pretensions labels. Bring a beverage that can satisfactorily wash down the food that's served here by neighbors.

If you can't feast at Audrey Claire's for less than $20, you're missing the issue. The most expensive "Grilled Flat Bread" menu item is $10, equaling the highest price to pay for those mentioned under "Small Dishes." One choice from either category could fill the belly of a robed but beltless judge.

Flat breads are ample personal pizzas whose dough is flatter, crispier and more crackerlike than those observed in strictly Italian parlors. They are topped with, for example, (a) humus, smoked salmon and mesclun with herb vinaigrette ($6); (b) Anjou pear, gorgonzola and crushed walnuts ($7); or (c) shrimp and scallops with feta ($8). Each is marvelous, rib-sticking with flavor, light to hold, hot and warming, food to be fondled. The point of a slice of a quartered flat bread enters your mouth to rest upon your tongue. As your jaw presses down, a crunch crumples against the inner ears and the tastes of heated humus or cheeses are entered into evidence. Your teeth sever the desired portion even though your lips remain postprandially pursed for another bite. Toppings meld as they are chewed and jostled about, never knarled in deference to the hard crustiness of the bread itself. Gulping is delayed until all sharp edges have dissolved to smoothness, so that one may swallow with scienter. My guess is you'll be guilty of a groan.

Of the "Small Dishes," I pick the Grilled Spicy Squid ($7). For that price, I wouldn't clean and de-vein the cartilage from a squid, let alone seven of them, each the size of a finger on a winter glove. Nor would I know how to grill them whole so that the outside is burnished to tenderness while the inside remains moist and solid white. And never would I even think to submerge the swollen, turgid, grilled bodies into a broth that makes you whimper, and wrestle with an uncontrollable urge to curse filthy puerile words out loud.

Let me repeat, these are not prissy little curls of squid, dipped in flour, sauteed, breaded and served over iceberg lettuce. To the contrary, Audrey Claire's are engorged, full-bodied, whole tubes of sea-dwellers. Imagine the offspring, if they were squid, of Jules Verne and Sally Starr.

Rolls and herbed-cake ryes gratuitously abound for dunking into sauces. "Bigger Dishes" featuring Garlic Crusted Rack of Lamb ($18) or Roasted _ Chicken With Pomegranate Molasses, Fresh Thyme and Lemon ($14) are available and served with pride and joy, usually high atop beds of baby arugula, shaved cheeses or Mediterranean spreads.

Desserts are exceptional. Order both the Blueberry-Peach Pie and the Rice Pudding, to mix and match at will. Say "Extra forks please." Have a few forkfuls ready as SEPTA's 17 bus swooshes through. It's as if you were feeding ducks in a pond, and providing a public service, in an attempt to enliven SEPTA ridership.

The waitstaff is casually attired, very attentive, harried and hurried. The open kitchen bustles to their orders according to the rules of an old-fashioned diner. For you, they are all Spruce'd up.


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back