First Bite: Hearthside in Collngswood Needs to Rise in Order to Shine

This American fare introduction strikes a warm and hopeful chord.

Hearthside looks like its name: It is much about wood, from floors to beams, and it is fire-lit, by candles large and small and by the glow of wood-fired grills in the open kitchen. The restaurant that looms large on the corner of Haddon and Frazier avenues in downtown Collingswood is warmed to cozy by a conscious effort to create intimacy.

That effort extends to service that rises well above the norm of the transient conduit of food from kitchen to table. Here at Hearthside, owned by industry veterans Lindsay and Dominic Piperno, who run the new 45-seat BYO with Delise Barron and Aaron Gottesman, the front-of-the-house crew performs with the finesse of fine-tuned orchestra members who have played together for decades.

The opening menu at five-week-old Hearthside, however, doesn’t reflect that same sure-footed professionalism. It’s safe, it’s innocuous and it’s startlingly similar to restaurants nationwide that lean on beets and kale, octopus and duck, day-boat scallops and pork chops in comparable presentations. The all-encompassing classification of “contemporary American restaurant following the seasons” may give license to a globe-spanning bill of fare, but it doesn’t excuse a restaurant from establishing its own voice.

The chefs, Piperno and Gottesman, certainly come with pedigrees: They met while cooking at the vaulted Vernick in Philadelphia; Piperno also worked at Zeppoli in Collingswood, and Gottesman at Sbraga and The Fat Ham in Philly. Touted as city chefs bringing considerable chops to the ‘burbs, the pair came with great expectations.

But mussels in a soupy coconut curry flecked with scallions need to come with more than wedges of lemongrass-flecked focaccia to stand out in a crowded field of Asian-influenced mussel dishes. Good? Yes. But they don’t speak with an original voice.

Mussels

Tuna tartare takes a step in the right direction with sheets of rosy fish extravagantly topped with Asian pear and riffs of sesame and strident horseradish. Pull back on the accents by a good 50 percent, and you’ve got a worthy spin on a standard.

Tuna tartare

I dove for the rabbit ragu, served bundled in tagliatelle. With a backdrop of San Marzano tomatoes and nibs of provolone, I thought this game-based ragu would trumpet fall. But the rabbit was meekly seasoned and the pasta on the too-shy side of subtle. Overall, the dish fell short of achieving even comfort-food status.

Rabbit ragu

The wild mushroom risotto got me going: Billed to be given the zing of preserved lemon and chilies, it had pops of pleasure from both that teased the rice and the mushrooms. There was a nice char on the cippolini that topped the grilled chicken, but only a spare swipe of romesco to play with the overcooked bird meat. The pile of broccolini plopped atop the whole thing did nothing to give it appeal.

Grilled chicken

Skate was a mite overcooked, but the smoky ham broth that bound the collards and the creamy onion sauce nestled in the bowl proved to me that the Piperno-Gottesman team has the vision and the skills to break away from the pack mentality: Here are flavors that form a mutual admiration society, elements that are bold and assured without any one assuming dominance.

Skate in smoky ham broth

This skate-in-ham-brodo, I thought as I ate a kind of free-form carrot cake topped with an almost-curdled mascarpone cream and too many coarsely chopped nuts, is what these chefs can do. And should be doing. Play this one forward, and make Hearthside a household name in New Jersey.

Hearthside, 801 Haddon Avenue in Collingswood. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner. BYO. 856-240-1164. hearthsidebyob.com.

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