March 7, 2011

Philly Mag vs. Village Belle: A Rebuttal.

The recent issue of Philadelphia Magazine has a fairly scathing review of new Queen Village spot, Village Belle. I give Trey Popp, the critic, credit for saying that he did want to like the place, but in the end, he could only say that it has "room for improvement." 

For atmosphere, yes, I agree. On food, I don't. Let's start with the food.

Our friends from the fabulous fashion/lifestyle blog Damn I Like That! invited us to dinner at Village Belle because they loved co-owner Joey Campanaro's the little owl in New York and were psyched to see the Philly-area native return home to open a restaurant locally with his brother. (Pssst... if you like The Four Seasons [the singers, not the hotel], click on that little owl link for a quick smile.)

With that invite came not only lovely conversation with friends and plenty of good laughs, but also a key insider tip for Village Belle: it's not on the menu, but ask for the meatball sliders appetizer. It was our friends' favorite dish at little owl, and the brothers Campanaro do serve it at Village Belle if you ask. It's beef, veal, pork and pecorino mushed into three little sliders that are pretty excellent.

Fortunately for us, when Popp hoped he "was the only one whose crabcakes were plated burned-side-down," he was right. One of our dinner companions and I both opted for the crabcakes and really enjoyed them. Nothing was burnt, and in fact they were perfectly crispy to my liking. Plus that tangy lemon sauce drizzled around the plate was a great compliment to the fish.

Popp also didn't care for the "one-note tomato risotto" which, I have to say, we thought was freakin' delicious. Hey, we've never claimed to be educated or trained food critics, we just know what we like. And we all really liked the tomato risotto.

Bradd had the capellini, which is a mish-mosh of seafood in a light broth. He thought it was good but was more impressed with the waiter's recommendation on how to eat it. Normally with shellfish you go one-by-one picking the fish out, drowning it in the sauce, and eating it. Then repeat. This waiter recommended pulling everything out of the shells first so the pieces of fish could soak up the sauce a little before being consumed. And it's less work as you go. 

What did disappoint us about Village Belle was the lack of a crowd. On this particular Friday night, it was less than half full, which is rare in this town. It's got a great location in Queen Village, parking nearby (and valet), a nice bar area to hang out in and cozy decor. I assume in the nicer weather they'll open the full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows to let a ton of fresh air through. Not sure if they are allowed to spill out into the park along Front Street there, but if so Village Belle would be a welcome addition to the growing list of outdoor eating options in Philly. But, the restaurant must be missing something from a marketing standpoint to draw a crowd. I'd actually never heard of it until the friends invited us, so maybe that's indicative of the problem.

The weirdest thing was the "entertainment." There was a DJ playing upbeat, modern dinner music and we realized after a while was actually singing along. He was talented, yet subdued enough to blend in with the recording fairly well. It was too loud, though, and an older gentleman near us had to ask for the volume to be turned down. Ok, so that's manageable but then the host started singing. It was kind of like a awkward American Idol audition. He serenaded us to a bizarre collection of Neil Diamond, Billy Joel and other adult contemporary hits.

I just didn't get it. The singer was really into it and I appreciated his enthusiasm, but it was an odd, unexpected way to entertain the small dinner crowd. Maybe we would have felt differently if the restaurant was crowded, so the noise of conversation drowned him out a little or people got up to dance. Not happening when half the tables are empty.

Switching back to the positives... for the record, I like the little notebooks they give you along with the check. It was fun to leaf through the pages to see what others wrote and then sign our own page (citing 22nd & Philly of course). I didn't feel obligated to write in it, and if I really didn't like the food I probably would have just ignored the book and moved on.

So, I have to disagree with the Philly Mag take on Village Belle's food, but do think the new restaurant needs to find its groove in terms of marketing and atmosphere. It has all the potential to be a new Queen Village hotspot (like Kennett, the new wood-fired pizza joint that took over Lions Den's spot a few blocks away and was packed this Saturday night) with a few adjustments.

I hope Village Belle makes through the summer, because I would go back if they have outdoor seating, or at least all the big windows open. And to eat more of the risotto.

[All the photos in this post were originally published on the Philadelphia Inquirer website. More in a slideshow here.]

Village Belle on Urbanspoon

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