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Restaurant Review: Fairmount: The New and the Old - Best of Both Worlds

Nestled snuggly between Girard Avenue, Broad Street, Spring Garden Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue lies the eclectic neighborhood of Fairmount, home to some of the most delightful bars and restaurants in Philadelphia. While perhaps lacking the buzz, traffic and excitement of Center and Old City nightspots, the Fairmount neighborhood offers a friendlier, more relaxed dining experience.

When you enter Rembrandt's bar and restaurant (Corner 23rd & Aspen Streets), one of the neighborhood's older establishments, you cannot help but feel that you have departed Philadelphia for the old world charm of an Amsterdam Brown Café. The warm, wooden interior, ornate lighting fixtures, stained glass windows and Rembrandt prints (most of which were lovingly collected in Europe by the restaurant's owners) create an inviting, homey atmosphere.

According to Rembrandt's proprietor, Jan A Zarkin, Rembrandt's building was probably built in the mid to late 1800's. His earliest knowledge goes back to 1915 when a gentleman named Harry A. Brogan bought the property and opened a bar. The establishment was well known for a sign that hung over the corner door that read: "Harry A. Brogan - Have A Beer." Although Zarkin admits that Rembrandt's is not the oldest restaurant in Fairmount (this distinction probably goes to London Grill - established in the early 1970's), he does proudly proclaim that he is the longest running owner of any restaurant in the Fairmount neighborhood - celebrating his 20th anniversary next May.

Upon being presented with our menus, my famished party of eight had a difficult time deciding what to order - so tantalizing were the choices. For appetizers we finally settled upon a selection of soups, a spiced walnut salad, pan-seared scallops with crabmeat, escargot bruschetta, and crispy goat cheese and artichoke spring rolls. The spiced walnut salad presented with delicate slices of pear atop a heap of mixed greens and Gorgonzola cheese in a honey-Dijon vinaigrette, was flavorful and tangy. The escargot bruschetta had a rich garlic flavor that was to die for, and the soups (clam chowder, corn bisque and French onion soup) were hearty and creamy. While the crabmeat was scrumptious, the pan-seared scallops were too oily for our tastes, and we found that the goat cheese filling in the spring rolls was so overpowering that we failed, alas, to taste any evidence of a single artichoke.

Our selection of entrees ranged from a succulent wood-fired Cornish game hen that exuded an exquisite lemon-garlic flavor, to a maple-Dijon glazed half rack of lamb in a sweet shallot fig vinaigrette with almonds. While the lamb was tender and juicy, my male guests grumbled that the portion was too small, the sauce too sweet and the couscous too cold. There were no complaints about the European chicken Marsala - it was perched atop a pile of garlic-mashed potatoes and drizzled with a tantalizing sauce that danced on one's palate. The cinnamon-sage salmon filet, fillet mignon and herb-roasted Portobello mushroom were equally satisfying.

Pastry chef extraordinaire, Melissa King, succeeded in tempting us with her delectable array of desserts despite our full bellies. The blueberry peach galette served with crème Anglaise, the chocolate pecan bourbon tart, the flourless chocolate torte in raspberry sauce, and the vanilla Ricotta impostata cheesecake were all superlative; the perfect ending to a memorable evening. Even delivery of the check - $420 (including 18% gratuity and many alcoholic beverages) - had us leaving Rembrandts in excellent spirits.

A block or so west of Rembrandts, at 2321 Fairmount Avenue, a backlit, blue neon sign announces the arrival of the newest member to the Fairmount restaurant scene - Illuminare. Formerly a dead storage facility, the space was purchased in 1993, and painstakingly transformed, over an incredible seven-year process, into the magnificent location it is today.

As you walk in, you stroll through a classy bar area, pass the coal pizza oven and enter a dining area decorated with mustard-colored walls, green terracotta floor tiles, and an unusual tin and mahogany ceiling. The room is infused with light that streams through skylights, hand-blown light fixtures, Frank Lloyd-Wright-styled stained glass windows, and tall glass doors that open onto a charming Magnolia courtyard.

Despite the sophisticated interior, there is nothing snobbish or elitist about Illuminare - service is friendly, and it has the ambience of a relaxed, neighborhood hangout. The restaurant declares in its mission statement that it aims to "maintain a clean, cozy atmosphere, provide courteous and knowledgeable service and use only fresh quality ingredients in its dishes." The truth of this statement permeated all aspects of our experience.

We began our meal with the daily special: delicate red pepper pasta purses stuffed with chicken in a rich, smoked cheese sauce, and also could not resist indulging in a warm mozzarella, roasted eggplant and tomato stack. Both appetizers were delicious. For entrées we both opted for brick-oven pizza, having been captivated by the smells emanating from the oven as we entered the restaurant. My artichoke heart pizza was topped with sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, Fontina cheese, artichoke hearts and mozzarella. While the pizza base was thin and crispy just the way I like it, I found the topping rather dry and overly tart. As for the artichokes, I couldn't tell whether they were fresh artichokes that had been marinated, or the canned variety - either way they tasted vinegary. My companion, who decided upon the five-cheese pizza, was not disappointed. Her pizza was an exquisite combination of Gorgonzola, Provolone, whole and shredded mozzarella topped with juicy Roma tomatoes and fresh basil.

The pizzas were so large (11 inch diameter, 6 slices), that by the time the dessert assortment was brought over for our perusal, we had to reluctantly pass. The array included a decadent banana-chocolate chip peanut butter bread pudding, chocolate cake, pecan pie and a fruit tart that looked rather tired.

It would not be fair for me to pass judgment on the overall merits of Illuminare's menu having sampled only a very small portion of it. Despite my disappointing artichoke pizza, the rest of the meal was most satisfying; the service was good, and the setting simply breathtaking. I would definitely visit Illuminare again - this time to partake of their homemade pasta, fresh fish, chicken, beef or veal entrees.