Roxanne is one of Philly’s hot new restaurants. It’s more interesting than delicious.
Chef Alexandra Holt's palate-bending explorations at Philly’s latest tasting menu sensation challenges norms.
It looked like “Angst on Salami.”
The opening course of my first meal at Roxanne was intended to make people smile. And most of the diners in this tiny Italian Market BYOB got a straight-up happy face traced in emulsified egg yolk atop the charcuterie covering their fennel and persimmon salad. Our salami’s emoji mood? The squiggle-lined uncertainty of squeamish mixed emotions, otherwise known as woozy face.
“It’s OK to not even know how you feel,” says chef-owner Alexandra Holt, 28, whose culinary explorations at Philly’s latest mini-tasting menu sensation are all about tapping feelings. Some of them uncomfortable, palate-bending, and unexpected.
There was, for example, the tiny brain molded from foie gras ganache beside a blood red puddle of intense lamb jus, beets, and lamb head scrapple topped with a nest of amaranth microgreens. It was part political commentary on Holt’s view of the persistent violence in the headlines (“it makes my head hurt”), part cheeky pairing of various organ parts. It might also have been wonderful had the scrapple’s meat itself not been stringy. But the details of execution here are sometimes secondary to the novelty of the nine- to 10-course tasting menus that morph weekly for $85.
Holt, the pastry chef of a two Michelin star restaurant called OLIVO in Stuttgart, Germany, until the pandemic, has a fascination with blurring the lines between sweet and savory. Parsnips infuse the gushingly soft center of a Basque cheesecake. Kombu, yeast, and charcoal infuse various ice creams. Lion’s mane mushrooms get candied over quince parfait (a combo I enjoyed). Perfect croissants get ripped up and crushed below roasted Honeynut squash with calamansi caramel and burnt chocolate.
Bake sale-style treats appear at odd moments in curious combinations. Like the brownies tucked inside a Lego-shaped lunch box to start my second meal alongside a compartment of cured salami from Heavy Metal Sausage Co., plus a side of Holt’s glossy, whiz-like cheese sauce.
“We start with dessert here because we can — and why not?” says server Lauren Salvo, Roxanne’s only employee, aside from Holt. She makes a good point.
The densely rich brownies were fabulous, as was the salami. But what were we supposed to do with that ooze of cheese? It made no sense without the context: Holt, the daughter of a single mom in the Air Force (the restaurant’s namesake, Roxanne Holt), grew up in 15 states and six countries building random snacks for her own school lunches, obsessing over lunch boxes that are now among her myriad collections.
Daring to dip — even without the backstory — is part of the playful, rule-breaking experiment that Holt serves three times a week in the former Sabrina’s. A reservation for one of its 24 seats is among the hottest tickets in town, in no small part because of “Best New Restaurant” accolades within weeks of her mid-September opening from Bon Appetit and Esquire, which called Roxanne “Philly’s Weirdest Supper Club.”
National notice can stoke invaluable buzz, but that hype can also be a disservice, creating unfair expectations for a DIY project that’s a dramatic departure from the polished concepts that traditionally earn such notoriety. And Roxanne’s food, at this early stage, has been more reliably interesting than delicious.
I get the national fascination with Philly’s current crop of tiny, hyper-ambitious tasting menu bistros that have just crossed the threshold from pop-ups to actual restaurants, with stars like Her Place Supper Club and Heavy Metal Sausage Co. leading the way. Roxanne is edgier and more experimental, in part, because Holt views it as an “art exhibit and statement piece” where she relishes doing all the prep, pot washing, and cooking herself. And in the solitude of her creative space, she can work through the process of grieving for an older sister who died and “creating the happiness I need to keep going.”
The slender room itself, lit by the window’s purple neon sign, has become a blank canvas for art she makes. That includes the 24 stuffed animals she’s gathered from flea markets and hung in a grid along the back hallway (like those lunch boxes, a nod to childhood nostalgia), or the darker implications of her other large collection — spent bullet casings — that she’s planning to one day affix to the ceiling “like sprinkles.”
Her focus on the plate has been to reject traditional perceptions of beauty with a relentless gush of iSi foams that obscure her creations with thick waves of sauce, to the point she declared on Instagram after my first meal: “We are a blob restaurant.”
She took the words out of my mouth, though unfortunately not the sticky cloud of house cheese that hovered over an otherwise tasty steak tartare, a raw beef twist on a cheesesteak that I ultimately regretted — and shuddered — at having eaten. I might have liked it better in its later edition as a croissantwich: “Oh, that was a good blob,” counters Holt. “It was so shiny and had such a nice bounce. It looked like a marshmallow.”
The Culinary Institute of America-trained pastry chef spent the early part of her career gilding plates with the flourishes of fussy dots, swirls, and quenelles as she interned at Alinea in Chicago for six months and worked at the Ivy Hotel’s Magdalena in Baltimore on the way to her Michelin-starred perch in Germany. After a short stint at Old City’s Forsythia, she’s taken advantage of Philly’s affordability to go solo and embraced a more “psychedelic flow of sauces.”
It worked well enough in a handful of dishes, like the spider crab salad covered in an orange puddle of Newburg sauce, or the uni-sauced variation on my next visit dotted with shiso oil that came with bird-shaped juicers on the side to squeeze mandarin orange juice into the orange mix. (The tater tots on that plate unfortunately got mushy).
Another winner was also a multicolored confluence of turnip, rutabaga, and broccoli purees that melded with smoked hamachi, roasted broccoli florettes, and trout roe and aligned into what seemed like a strangely delicious chowder. (Holt says it was actually a tribute to Ruby Tuesday’s salad bar.) A bowl of persimmon fluff and yeast-flavored ice cream bent my taste buds to its will in a good way with the earthy contrast of roasted sunchokes and gingery sweet speculoos panna cotta layered beneath.
Too often, though, the compositions hiding under the sauces did not deliver enough flavor impact or textural contrasts to reward the hunt. The orange-on-brown splatters of pureed carrot and black bean sauces covered chunks of pork jowl that had none of the unctuous softness of slow-cooked meat. They were instead crunchy bits that lodged in my teeth as they delivered a sodium overload. A pairing of pistachio mousseline with nixtamalized yuzu (cleverly boiled with binchotan ash to become more floral than bitter) was undeniably delicious over a hat box stack of doughnut-infused ice cream — but only for a moment until it melted into one indistinguishably drab puddle of mush.
The two things I enjoyed most from my first meal — a cannelloni with melted leeks and black trumpets; and a cabbage stuffed with braised pork neck and Pennsylvania chili crisp — the chef has since rejected as too conventional, not pushing the boundaries enough.
Holt’s determination not to let herself (or her guests) get comfortable as she rolls forward with new creations is one I ultimately admire. She couldn’t afford to do this in any other East Coast city with an audience as receptive as the open-minded Philadelphians around me, who, frankly, seemed to be having a great time. She might benefit from time and collaboration by hiring a skilled chef to help her refine her ideas. But Holt says “she really wants to do this alone. I can use help, but I haven’t figured out who I want to be around and who I can trust to really be in this personal space with me.”
The potential here is great. No chef in the city currently is putting themselves out there with as much raw emotion and originality as Holt is right now. Plenty of it is imperfect, an impulse still in search of its most powerful expressions. And yet, I can’t help but wonder what Holt is cooking next. My salami emoji currently reads: still intrigued.
912 Christian St.
Hours can vary but currently serving one seating at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Reservations required via Tock.
There is one small step to enter the dining room and bathroom is not wheelchair accessible. Allergy restrictions can be accommodated with advance notice.