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Unpretentious Fine Dining at Mémé

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Photo courtesy of Meme, David KatzA new year means new resolutions, and this year my priority is finding good food at reasonable prices.  I don’t care who makes it, a $38 filet and lobster combo entrée is never worth it.  Both are fairly easy to prepare well at home, and the mark up for ordering at a restaurant is just insane.  I carried this notion with me to Mémé, the cozy little corner spot at 22nd and Spruce.

For those unfamiliar with chef/owner David Katz’s  restaurant, Mémé (named after his Jewish-Moroccan grandmother) opened September 2008 to decent fanfare.  Far from pretentious, Mémé can only squeeze 42 into its tight little dining area, but still manages to exude comfort through soft lighting and cherry wood tables (David Bowie wafting through the speakers doesn’t hurt, either).  The menu is chalked along the far wall, and the efforts of the kitchen are put on full display for curious eyes.  There’s a sense of homeliness that Katz strives for, and accomplishes nicely.

I had reservations at 7 on Monday night to sample their $38 prix fixe menu, a full four courses that heartily agreed with my New Years resolution.  No breaking it this night.  There are also special $5 glasses of wine and a raw bar, Hama Hama oysters a bargain at $1.50 each.   My partner and I started with a Pear & Roquefort Salad and, at the recommendation of the folks sitting next to us, the octopus salad.  The green salad was light and springy and seasoned heavily with salt and black pepper.  It was a pleasant way to wake the palate up, particularly with the impact of the Roquefort cheese.  I give it a B.  The very Mediterranean octopus salad, on the other hand, left me disappointed.  The octopus was mostly bland, and completely overshadowed by the powerful zest of the black olives.  The chickpeas managed to hold the salad together, and gave it some considerable weight over its counterpart.  After consideration, I gave it a C-.

Octopus salad aside (and maybe that’s just a matter of preference; I may be a critic but I do have my weaknesses), the rest of the meal was mostly hit.  Shortly after our first courses were tucked away, I heard a loud crash and sizzle from the kitchen.  I knew what it was immediately; my mussels were coming.  I had heard about Mémé’s unique twist on the old, if routine, bar favorite, and I had been looking forward to the dish all evening.  Our server laid the screaming cast iron skillet in front of us, and I was hit immediately with a wonderful, intoxicating aroma.  A generous portion of shelled mussels stared at me, and I longingly stared back.  It was actually painful waiting for the mussels to cool down enough to taste them, but when I finally got the chance, it was worth the wait.  Ever so lightly breaded and seared with lemon and olive oil, these guys lived up to their reputation.  I happily put them away, eager at first but with increasing sadness as I finished.  This was definitely a dish to come back for. 

As our meal continued, I gained a certain appreciation for what David Katz has accomplished.  Mémé’s dishes don’t throw caution to the wind; there’s a certain degree of homemade quality to them, but flavor is hardly sacrificed.  For the most part, Katz finds ways to explore and experiment, with mostly positive results, but not a whole lot of risk.  If that sounds like a negative thing to say, I assure you, it’s not.  The dish paired with our mussels is a prime example.  The butternut squash agnolotti is as simple as it gets, and it’s absolutely outstanding.  The agnolottis are brushed with sage brown butter and taste wonderful. Both dishes deserve an A+.

For our entrées, I decided to forego the catch of the day for the sautéed trout, a pork-heavy double filet served over ham hock and green beans in a mustard sauce.  Not a bad dish, but didn’t particularly stand out, though the fish was cooked perfectly and had a lot of flavor.  The trout deserved a B.  My partner, with her more timid taste buds (her proteins extend as far as “cow and chicken”), chose the Mémé steak, served over brussels and some rather tasty mushrooms.  The steak was what you’d expect, tender and juicy, and certainly not disappointing.  For a potato, the steak was served with a unique horseradish hashbrown, although the too light hint of horseradish left much to be desired, Overall, the steak was a B+.

The deserts were simple but delicious.  An especially fudgy chocolate ganache cake with vanilla ice cream was paired with a pineapple upside down cake, and both treats capped a fine meal.  An A for both.  Great service, better-than-average food, a warm, cozy atmosphere and four courses for $38?  It was an excellent way to start off my New Year, and will be an excellent way to begin yours, as well.  Overall, the experience deserves a B+.  

Address: 

2201 Spruce St

Philadelphia, PA 19103

www.memerestaurant.com

Hours: 

Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.

Friday - Saturday 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.

Sunday 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.

Sunday Brunch 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.

Thursday Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.