by Len Lear
Even if you never got within 500 yards of any legal or illegal substance that alters one’s view of reality, so to speak, you will still get high while dining at R2L. That’s because the two-year-old fine-dining restaurant is the “highest” restaurant in the city, by far. It is located of the 37th floor of two Liberty Place, 16th and Chestnut Streets. You might say it is “up-up-up-scale.”
R2L (the “2L” stands for 2 Liberty Place, and the “R” stands for Rae, the first name of the owner/chef’s beloved grandmother) was opened two years ago, and it is literally twice as high as the second “highest” restaurant in the city, “Nineteen,” which is on the 19th floor of the Hyatt at The Bellevue.
After getting off the elevator at R2L, you can’t help but be wowed by the ethereal view of the city from the zebra-striped banquettes that are placed so that all diners at your table will face the celestial, panoramic view. Not to mention the glam lounge peopled by well-dressed and coiffed folks who could have stepped out of a fashion magazine. But the restaurant blogs would not be filled with encomiums if the food and service did not match the mesmerizing view. You might say the view is just icing on the cake — and what a cake!
Which brings me to owner/chef Daniel Stern, who is in the upper echelon of area chefs, even though he never went to culinary school and certainly does not have the public recognition of a Marc Vetri, Jose Garces or Georges Perrier. Stern, 42, was born in Cincinnati but grew up mostly in Cherry Hill, NJ, where he began his culinary career as a teenage busboy.
Stern was so committed to the industry that he later worked as an unpaid intern, learning in some of the top restaurants in the U.S. such as Lespinasse in Washington and The St. Regis Hotel, Dava and Daniel in New York. Georges Perrier was so impressed (and Georges is not easily impressed by young chefs) that he hired Stern to be his chef de cuisine at Le Bec Fin in 2003.
In 2005, Stern opened his first restaurant, Gayle. It was followed by Rae in 2007 in the Cira Center at the 30th Street Station. Garnering impressive reviews and media attention, Rae was voted one of the “Best New Restaurants in America” in 2007 by Esquire magazine. Both Gayle and Rae closed in 2009, however, after which Stern opened MidAtlantic Restaurant and Tap Room in University City (also closed now, although it was a 2010 Philadelphia Magazine Best of Philly award-winner), followed by R2L.
In his restaurants, Chef Stern explores the outer limits of contemporary American cuisine. What other local restaurants does he like? “I really like to be home when I’m not working,” he told us, “but recently I’ve had very good meals at Vernick, Il Pittore, Stateside and the Rittenhouse Tavern. It is great to see so many new places thriving.”
R2L recently introduced a pre-theater menu for patrons of the ballet, opera, orchestra and theaters. Seatings are available between 5 and 6:30 p.m. One can even enjoy two courses and return after the theater for dessert. It is a three-course menu for $45 per person plus a complimentary glass of sparkling wine.
A “market salad,” an option on the pre-theater menu, was a ridiculously healthy-looking, aesthetically presented marriage of Romaine lettuce, smoked salmon, lima beans and hard-boiled eggs with a light vinaigrette dressing. A grilled truffle flatbread loaded with arugula was crispy, sublime and memorable, now one of our two favorite flatbreads ever. (The other was at Seasons 52.)
If there is such a thing as a signature dish at R2L, it could easily be the short ribs, very rich with a sybaritic red wine-braised reduction, plated with potato puree and crispy potatoes. As Jennifer Lopez would say, the short ribs “gave us goosies.” (The pre-theater plate portions, by the way, are the same as their higher priced siblings on the regular menu.)
The braised halibut entrée’s translucent flesh was a tour de force of texture and flavor, with judicious application of a subtle au jus cosseting the sweet delicacy of the halibut. Another triumph of workmanship. Anointed with fingerling potato, radish, olives and celery. A gentle tingle at the back of the throat lingering after each morsel. So many bloggers raved about the lobster mac and cheese that we asked for it, although it is not on the pre-theater menu. It was cushiony and textbook perfect, melting on the tongue, and the macaroni was crystalline pure.
For dessert, you cannot go wrong with the peanut butter parfait with a caramel and pretzel crunch from pastry chef Peter Scarola, who has the sweet dancing with the savory. Also the coconut cake with cream cheese mousse and ice cream. A friend of ours who has eaten dinner at R2L four times told us she loves the food as well as a server named Matthew Veltri, who also waited on us. He did not disappoint. He was extremely knowledgeable and fun but not intrusive.
As with almost all upscale restaurants, the wines by-the-glass are expensive for small portions ($10 to $22). Beer is from $5 to $7, and cocktails are $12 to $15.
There is no doubt that you can get a lot more food for a lot less money at most restaurants in the region, especially the national chains, but if you are willing to pay the price for “haute” preparation and presentation of totemic American classics, R2L is definitely a great place to do it. Or you could look at it this way: Daniel Stern has found the master switch that controls obesity — modest portions of pristine, healthful ingredients that basically make overindulgence impractical and unnecessary.
The restaurant entrance is actually at 50 S. 16th St., right next door to the Liberty Place Parking garage entrance. With a validated ticket from R2L, parking in the garage is just $10 after 4 p.m., although it took us quite a while to get our car out of the garage since you have to pay a machine, and the machine refused to take our bills. (We eventually found a very sweet human attendant who helped us get out.) For more information, call 215-564-5337or visit www.r2lrestaurant.com