December 4-10, 2003

FOOD

Month of Sundaes
With fresh fish and perfectly simple desserts,
August's in the sun.

by Elisa Ludwig

WINNERS' CUP:

August's daintily served vanilla ice cream, with espresso and sambuca whipped cream.

Only a few weeks in, and you can hardly get a table without a reservation. Friday night at 8? Forget it. August already has a loyal crowd of the kind of Philly foodies who swoop down on a new BYO like hovering vultures looking for free-range flesh. Perhaps this is because August took over a prime location in a section of South Philly where the Broad Street Diner: A Place for Ribs was for many years the ruling dinner option in a three-block radius. A more likely theory is that August's immediate popularity is the result of its own warm appeal.

Once a Thai restaurant with a utilitarian decor, the small space August now occupies has become cozy and inviting, with a slate-gray painted tin ceiling, shiny open kitchen and candlelit tables. It's a dark room, but despite its black curtains and black tablecloths, has an intimate glow about it that, besides the typical Philly foodies, seems to have a special magnetic pull for hip middle-aged couples with bottles of Sangiovese.

August dwells in the border-crossing category of other city BYOs like La Bohème, Nan and Figs, most of which have a cuisine-specific starting point but widen the scope to include ideas from other regions. August calls itself "modern Italian," but for every tube of penne or cremini cap we detected as many Asian, American and Mexican notes on the menu. And while the dishes are creative, they do not boil over with overzealous pretension. There are no buzzword ingredients here, no allusions to trendy grandeur. Indeed, some of the offerings -- for instance, the soup of the day, which was beef chili -- are so commonplace that they seem strange.

Service is attentive, professional and accommodating. Nothing arrives in record speed, but that's also the sign that dishes are being made to order.

Our appetizer experience was decent but unremarkable. Baby spinach salad comes studded with toasted pine nuts, small chunks of pear, slices of provolone cheese and shards of hickory-smoked bacon. Sounds great, but the sherry vinaigrette was poured with a heavy hand, and the cheese, too soft and too mild to offset the sweet flavors of the fruit and dressing, struck an odd note. Better were the marinated artichoke hearts in olive oil, served warm with leeks, sun-dried tomatoes and chickpeas, which, taken together, made a rich and rewarding combination and left just enough tang on the tongue. We also tried an appetizer special, "lollipop" lamb chops drizzled with a mango sauce. The baby lamb chops were a bit too charred, and there wasn't quite enough sauce to offset the grill's bitterness.

Things improved significantly with the entrees. Penne pasta with white beans, asparagus and shrimp was simple and straightforward, the ingredients fresh and firm, including the perfectly cooked pasta, but overall the dish could have used a bit more kick. Pan-seared pork chops had the fusion-y combination of sauteed broccoli rabe with ginger and garlic, which in the offing ended up tasting mostly like the standard-issue Italian-style broccoli rabe. The mashed sweet potatoes laced with maple syrup, on the other hand, were right on target, and the pork, tender and pink, was near to perfect.

August really hit its stride with the fish entrees. Grilled salmon in a colorful grape tomato, caper and Gaeta olive sauce was full of robust, juicy notes that complemented both the fish and the accompanying whole wheat pasta. The fish of the day changes, though it is always prepared with a lemon pepper sauce and served on a bed of cilantro scallion risotto. The day we visited the fish was tilapia, and the pairing of mild, milky fish and dense, rich rice was an unexpected pleasure.

Desserts at August are homemade, and we sampled two out of the three available offerings. Aunt Lena's cheesecake, a recipe that straddles the Italian and American styles of cheesecake in taste and texture, respectively, was at once velvety and light, with a thin, barely discernible crust. The real delight was the vanilla ice cream served with espresso and topped with sambuca whipped cream. It's the kind of dish that's almost embarrassing to order because it seems so easy to prepare, but it got vacuumed up out of its little coffee cup almost as soon as it arrived on the table.

Even with a few off-notes, August left a favorable impression. Even if you're not a Philly foodie looking for the next big thing, or a middle-aged couple with a taste for Sangiovese, it's a nice place to have an unharried, interesting and unfussy meal. Just don't forget to make a reservation.

August

1247 S. 13th St., 215-468-5926

Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m.

Appetizers, $5.50-$9; entrees, $12-$23

Not wheelchair accessible. Smoking is not permitted. Reservations suggested. Cash only