Three years after it was first announced, Keen is now soft-open at 1708 Lombard St., serving what’s termed “modern American fare” in a gorgeously renovated bi-level, 80-seat restaurant with multiple bars, a dining room and a lounge area with couches and games.
Keen is a project from husband-and-wife team Chris and Caitlin Rorer, a pair of 30-something New Jersey natives who met at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.
After first leasing the building in 2014, the Rorers bought it in early 2016, and have since poured their hearts and souls into it. Most recently it housed a few short-lived concepts, including Fish and Brick. But for three decades before that, the restaurant space on the south edge of Rittenhouse was home to an iconic bistro called Astral Plane. That ‘70s hippie haven served as inspiration for Keen’s decor, which is full of original woodwork, quirky art and custom furniture crafted from glass and stone.
The downstairs bar’s theme is “sexy rainstorm.” Sounds like it could be kitsch central, but it turns out not to be gauche at all, just an attractive violet-lit setting for bar manager Tom Danks’ cocktails (no more than five ingredients, made quickly) and six local beer taps plus two that pour wine.
The upstairs has a condom dispenser in it, but it’s something you’re left to discover on your own behind the pulley-operated sliding wood doors. Purse hooks below the copper second-floor bar? They’re vintage glass door knobs, but you’d have to be paying attention to notice.
If the interior is, as Caitlin described it, “a carefully curated art project,” the food is more of a catch-all — shareable snacks, bright veg options, big salads, housemade noodles, slammable sandwiches and a handful of well-executed comfort food mains.
The Rorers called on fellow Walnut Hill alum Antonella Biundo to step in as chef, with Caitlin’s brother Liam Keeney as sous chef (yep, his surname — Caitlin’s maiden name — was inspiration for the name of the restaurant).
Most dishes on their opening menu (view a PDF here), which may change before the official grand opening next Tuesday, Nov. 28, hover between $10-$15 (the most expensive item is $27). Here’s a look at what to expect when you stop in to try it out.
A rotating assortment of dips and spreads (shown here: carrot hummus, lemon squash and whipped beets — the best of the bunch), with toasted Baker Street ficelle and super-tangy pickled carrots ($15).
House-baked savory pies filled with artichokes, bacon and jalapeño, served with a whipped lemon-ricotta — this kitchen loves fresh lemon juice ($10).
Kind of like arancini, but with chunks of root veg hiding inside instead of cheese. The celery-sage pesto is the best part ($10).
Juicy, crispy, salty — pretty much the best chicken tenders you’ve ever had. “Like what a chef would make to eat at home,” said one of the tasters ($10).
If you need something to cut the cider-brined bacon, which is candied with maple syrup, get the optional $5 shot of Old Grandad on the side ($10).
Big A** Sexy Salad
Looks innocuous, or maybe way too healthy, is surprisingly fantastic and satisfying ($16).
A kale Caesar, because of course ($12).
The 7-oz patty has just the right amount of Cooper Sharp cheese on top and special sauce on the bottom, and the pickles add just the right amount of crunch. The Baker Street Bread onion poppy roll holds it all together ($14 with fries). There’s also a very solid veggie burger made of farro and pumpkin (also $14).
Spicy Chicken Sandwich
Not what you think you hear the name. Instead of a battered breast or thigh between the bun, it’s a patty of pulled chicken tossed with Buffalo wing sauce. The kale and pickle toppings cut the heat ($14).
Basically, fall on a plate. A thick, tender chop is apple-cider brined before being seared and topped with apple butter and fried sage over an assortment of root veg ($26). Great for sharing.
Chef Biundo’s housemade noodles are toothy and chewy and silky at the same time, and their flavor, along with that of the the veggies — squash, leeks, mushrooms — is allowed to shine ($15).
Boneless Short Rib
After a forkful of this pull-apart beef dragged through the mashed squash on the side, you’ll never wish for mashed potatoes with short ribs again ($27).
An assortment of vegetables — salt and vinegar beets, glazed carrots, Brussels, cauliflower, shrooms and “bread pudding” — can be ordered as sides or as a vegetarian dish ($5-$8 each).
Rainbow Cookies & Espresso
Just as good as you remember them from childhood, but with the very adult bonus of a La Colombe espresso ($7).
Keen is open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. Hours may change throughout the soft opening.