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When prepared correctly, the caramelized sugar atop a creme brulee should crack like glass when tapped with a spoon. And while the caramel might be warm when served, the custard below should still be chilled. This delightful effect is achieved — believe it or not — with a blow torch. No restaurant that offers creme brulee should be without one. Any attempt to substitute a broiler for the blow torch will fail. The result is a gummy, sticky caramel that refuses to yield to a spoon, and, after much effort on the part of the diner, a second disappointment in the form of warm or even hot custard. On my first visit to the Restaurant at PSFS, on the ground floor of the brand-new Loews Hotel at 12th and Market streets in Philadelphia, I learned the hard way — or rather, the sticky way — that the blow torch had not yet arrived and that the chef was making do with the top rack of the oven. Had I been warned, I would have passed up dessert altogether, but who thinks to ask such things? Harrumphing to myself, I vowed to take away a whole star. Then I decided to give them a second chance. On a more recent visit, I ordered the creme brulee again after being assured that the proper tool would be used. In fact, I was too full from a delicious dinner (as you’ll see soon enough) to eat any dessert, but this was a test. Crack. Ah. Perfect. Crunchy. Chilly. Mmm. The Restaurant at PSFS had redeemed itself. Now then, if we hadn’t been forced to begin this review with dessert, the most logical place to start with the Restaurant at PSFS is the decor. Longtime Philadelphians remember that PSFS stands for Philadelphia Savings Fund Society and that its headquarters was and is considered one of the finest examples of the International Style in architecture. When the bank merged with Mellon and the name disappeared, the new owners removed the red neon sign from atop the building; it was quickly replaced when the owners heard the chorus of protests from Philadelphians who considered it the most distinctive element of the skyline. Loews embraces the history by adding a smaller neon PSFS at ground level as part of the sign for the Restaurant at PSFS. Step inside, and the room is surprisingly large. The cocktail lounge area consists mostly of gold, stuffed chairs arranged in groups of four or more. And in the middle of the room, a large oval bar dominates and keeps most of the dining room out of view until one is escorted to a table. A huge mosaic hangs on the south wall, and its geometric design is echoed in the carpet. But perhaps the most exciting element of the restaurant design is the banquette that follows the arc of the bar. More than a dozen tables for four are spaced comfortably apart, and each is slightly curved away from the next for added intimacy. Designer Karen Daroff of Daroff Design Inc., whose work can also be seen in the Criminal Justice Center and the Marriott Hotel, says the design for Loews is “inspired by” art deco and International Style but modernized. She calls it “retro chic.” Daroff obviously had a hand, too, in choosing the linens, dishes and glassware. The colors are subtle, and the shapes are fun, such as the rectangular bread plates in various muted shades. The only piece I didn’t like was the soda glass: a cylinder with wide stripes of black and white that makes even a ginger ale look like a diet cola. COMFORT FOODS The dinner menu at the Restaurant at PSFS is a bit pricey, but we found that nearly every dish was both attractively displayed and downright delicious. Executive Chef Thomas P. Kreibel and Restaurant Chef Charles Mereday say they “take high-concept comfort foods to the eclectic reaches of America’s multi-cultural roots.” To begin, I had the mushroom soup ($5), a generous portion of creamy, golden broth that went quite well with the sourdough rolls our waitress kept bringing. My companions ordered the Maryland crabcake appetizer with smoked pepper coulis and frizzled leeks ($14) and the baby spinach salad with walnuts, blue cheese, Asian pears and mustard vinaigrette ($8). The crabcake, which is also available as a sandwich at lunch, is worth writing home about. I’m usually hesitant to order crabcakes because they so often disappoint. But here they use only the choicest fresh lump crabmeat with just a hint of crumb and egg to hold it together. The spinach salad was the handsomest darned pile of perfect, little oval leaves I’ve ever seen. But my friend said that about halfway through, he found the spiciness of the vinaigrette creeping up on him to the point that it was downright hot. For the main dish, I ordered the herb-crusted salmon filet with lobster mashed potatoes and lemon veloute ($24). When the waitress asked how I’d like it cooked, I was a bit surprised. I guess I’m just not used to thinking of fish as something that can be “rare.” I asked for it medium well and was pleased to see that they honored my wish. I was most curious about the mashed potatoes and was surprised to find that there was just a hint of lobster taste and nary a chunk of lobster meat. But the lemon sauce, drizzled below and around the potatoes, was simply scrumptious, enhancing the fish with just a hint of tanginess that never threatened to take over. My companions, both serious meat eaters, opted for the filet mignon with roasted shallots, green beans and potato galette ($34) and the rack of lamb with goat cheese polenta and Brussels sprouts ($34). The sauce that accompanies the filet is thick and dark and beefy, and there was plenty on the plate. The only problem was that the sauce overwhelmed the haricots verts, those skinny little French green beans that are tender but, as we learned, best left undressed. With the lamb, my friend asked that the Brussels sprouts be replaced with green beans, and our waitress cheerfully agreed. The beans, however, were of the larger, ordinary variety. The lamb chops arrived piled atop the bed of goat cheese polenta which proved to be the most unusual taste of the evening. Tasting it, I felt that I had suddenly come to understand what they meant by “high-concept comfort foods.” A highlight worth mentioning from a previous visit is the oven-fried chicken with garlic-pepper collard greens and macaroni cheddar gratin ($20). Here, it’s all about the trio of sauces — a mango hot sauce, a barbecue sauce and a basil olive oil. The chef squirts a lace of the bright orange mango in a chevron shape and then fills in the holes with the deep reddish-brown barbecue and the bright green basil oil. And the chicken breast and leg is cut into thick, juicy slices and spread in a fan. At first, I wanted to try the sauces separately, but that’s impossible. When I surrendered and swiped a chunk of chicken through all three, I encountered a truly exhilarating gastronomic symphony. A word on service: Some may say that the staff at the Restaurant at PSFS tries too hard, that they hover too much, that they ask how everything is a bit too often, to the point of interrupting conversation. I know I said that after my first few visits. But the team who waited on us for the above meal were unobtrusive, efficient and pleasant. They seemed to have a knack for showing up just at the moment we needed something. In addition to the creme brulee, we tried the cheesecake with berries (fluffy, creamy, delicious) and the chocolate tower cake (not too rich, just moist enough). Other appetizers include she-crab soup ($7), lamb chops with mango chipotle chutney ($12) and seared foie gras with grilled Fuji apples and marsala balsamic glaze ($18). Entrees also featured on the dinner menu include San Francisco cioppino with monkfish, scallops, tiger shrimp and littleneck clams ($28), roasted pork chop with pineapple compote and baby beets ($26), muscovy duck breast with braised napa cabbage and mashed sweet potatoes ($26) and the grilled veal chop with garlic mashed potatoes, grilled shiitake mushrooms and madeira sauce ($36).

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