Chef Michael Brennan was just 24 when he and his father, Thomas, a former casino food-and-beverage professional, opened Cardinal Bistro in July 2016. Back then, service was inept and Brennan’s interesting ideas poorly executed. It was clear the operation needed time to get its act together.
After two recent visits, I can report that the Cardinal has improved. “It’s been a lot of trial and error,” Brennan admits. “It was my first time writing a menu; we had a couple flops. I didn’t know where the boundaries were and played it conservative. This season, we have a bit more liberty to push the envelope.”
Among starters, watermelon cubes compressed in Meyer lemon juice made a refreshing salad with crumbled halloumi cheese and pickled shallots in a sunflower seed-and-basil pesto. Blistered shishito peppers tossed with sesame seeds and sweet-and-sour sauce were a delight.
Before opening Cardinal, Brennan worked at storied Le Bec-Fin and was a line cook at Lacroix, both in Philadelphia. He wanted to bring the élan of those places to his hometown. He’s doing so with dishes like seared, butter-and soy-basted beef strip loin with spicy sunchoke-harissa purée and bittersweet creamed-coffee jam. Equally successful were Carolina shrimp sautéed in crimson chorizo fat with buttery “grits” made from poached, strained popcorn. Seared scallops and Jersey corn were nicely balanced by bracing grapefruit segments.
Venison loin dusted with bay-leaf powder and seared worked well with blackberries, oyster mushrooms, poached pears and rosemary panna cotta. The dish felt straight out of autumn—as did plump gnocchi scented with cinnamon and cardamom and dressed with sage brown butter.
A moist roasted chicken with crisp skin came with morels, apricots and broccoli purée. It was fine but for the spongy texture of the undercooked mushrooms. Brennan’s version of Le Bec-Fin’s famous crab cake bound with shrimp mousse had lots of flavor thanks to mustard, Worcestershire, shallots and chives, but the texture was absurdly bouncy.
Deconstructed corn chowder featured an elegant base of clam juice and celery-root purée, but the clams were sandy and the strip of pork belly dry as jerky. In the cioppino, a complex tomato-seafood stew, the kitchen seriously overcooked its delicate clams, mussels, halibut, shrimp and scallops—a $38 disaster. I skipped the fish and sopped up the nicely spiced broth with the accompanying slices of sweet, cinnamon-swirled brioche toast from Formica Bros. bakery in Atlantic City. Surprisingly, they went well together.
Formica provides all of Cardinal’s bread. Brennan makes interesting compound butters (sweet paprika, for example, or truffle) to go with Formica’s dinner rolls. At one meal, the rolls were warm and soft; at the other, they seemed reheated from the freezer, their cores still cold.
Desserts were inconsistent. I get the idea of a campfire reference in a s’mores spinoff, but the smoked meringue in this one was overaggressive. A huge baked Alaska needed the traditional layer of sponge cake to counter the intensity of vanilla ice cream and whiskey-spiced chocolate ganache.
At one meal, I was dismayed to see no fruit desserts. At the next, there were two, and they proved to be the restaurant’s best: a Meyer-lemon tart with glazed apricots, and a peach tarte tatin under a sheen of caramel and a button of whipped goat cheese. Nearly as good was a chickpea genoise with tahini buttercream.
Clearly, Brennan has imagination. If he can keep refining his technique, Cardinal could fly high.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Vegetarian/Vegan
Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$18; entres, $16-$38; desserts, $9-$12.
Ambience:Simple decor, lively crowd.