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Elwood review: A chef boldly revives classic Pennsylvania dishes in a Fishtown BYOB

It's not for the squeamish, though. Once you're past the antler-pierced venison scrapple, expect frogs legs, fresh snapping turtle soup, whole rabbits, and deliciously compelling heritage-pig parts.

House-made venison scrapple dabbed with spruce jam, served on antlers passed down to chef Adam Diltz.
House-made venison scrapple dabbed with spruce jam, served on antlers passed down to chef Adam Diltz.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Most everything you need to know about Elwood is clear the moment the meal begins, when a rack of antlers comes to your table, its prongs bearing crispy brown cubes of venison scrapple dabbed with spruce jam.

Right off the bat, game-phobes, scrapple resisters, vegans, anti-hunting activists, fruit jam purists, and people who simply feel strongly about eating off plates will all be scratching this iconoclastic new Fishtown BYOB off their list. And we haven’t even gotten past the free amuse-bouche!

It won’t get much more comfortable for the squeamish once the frogs legs, fresh snapping turtle soup, whole rabbits, and heritage-pig parts start rolling by on silver platters, with minty scoops of sassafras sorbet in tow to cleanse the palate.

But Elwood isn’t for everyone. Which is precisely why I love it. In this age of trend-tested concepts, there’s a rare clarity of “here I am” rustic passion guiding chef Adam Diltz’s vision — one rooted in both personal and rural Pennsylvania histories. And I find it deliciously compelling.

That scrapple, for example, is made from farm-raised Pennsylvania red deer simmered in broth and coarsely hand-chopped before it’s mixed into a cake with cornmeal, sage, and buckwheat. It’s more like a meaty pâté than the industrial mush of its supermarket counterparts. And it’s emblematic of the nose-to-tail craft of a chef committed to whole-animal cooking long after the “money cut” loin chops are sold and he’s dispatched the other specialty bits. (“Yeah, I eat the hearts.”)

For the record, Diltz didn’t bag the bucks for these serving pieces. But they are definitely Diltz family antlers, gifted to the chef from relatives in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he grew up foraging teaberries in a Hetlerville hollow with his mom and hunting rabbits and squirrels with the restaurant’s namesake, grandpa Elwood Andreas.

Sorry, there’s no squirrel on the menu at Elwood, which Diltz, who previously cooked at Johnny Brenda’s, co-owns with his wife, architect Jenny Ko. (Selling wild game is illegal in restaurants.) But there are plenty of options more timid eaters might enjoy: luscious in-season heirloom tomatoes stuffed with mint and topped with delicate purslane greens; a grilled hunk of grass-fed steak from Forks Farm near Bloomsburg; an incredibly juicy, thyme-basted chicken breast from Earl Keiser’s Pheasantry, served over whole-grain buckwheat cooked like risotto; or the buttery fluff of mashed potatoes that I could eat by the bowl.

But Diltz, who grew up on food stamps before a culinary career brought him to the haute-cuisine heights of No. 9 Park in Boston and Everest in Chicago, is now diving deep into the flavor memories of his grandparents’ farm and reviving local traditions at peril of disappearing. With the complete oeuvre of Pennsylvania foodways historian William Woys Weaver committed to childhood memory and strong relationships forged with independent farmers now stocking his larders, Diltz has the wherewithal here to do something important. And he’s uniquely qualified to deliver.

He lays a deep applewood smoke over his own cured ham for the Pennsylvania Dutch-style pot pies (i.e., pastry-free) served in antique crocks with vegetables and thick noodles enriched with lard, just like his great-grandmother, Leola Idella “Grammy Oley” Andreas, used to do. The many sides Diltz crafts for his family-style meals — apple butter and rhurbarb jam, pickled dilly beans, Christmas-spiced pickled apples, fermented turnips, buttery summer succotash, and salted kraut — evoke a country-picnic goodness that puts those Lancaster tourist-trap buffets to shame. (Oh, did I mention those potatoes?!)

Diltz is just as fascinated with Philadelphia food history, too, beginning with a stellar snapper soup. He steeps local turtles into a rich brown stew aromatic with a colonial trade winds whiff of allspice, with a cruet of chili-spiked sherry on the side.

Not all of Diltz’s efforts were successful. I loved the notion of revamping the catfish and waffles trend that was all the rage in Philadelphia in the 1800s and early 20th century. But something was off with Diltz’s riff on a recipe from the long-gone Kugler’s. Catfish poached in rich bechamel sauce may simply not translate to modern tastes, even with the smart addition of smoke. But it was more a question of execution — the portion oddly puny, the wafer-thin cornmeal waffles not as crisp as they should have been. (But bonus points for pepper hash.)

But his gorgeous take on bullfrog fricassee felt both current and cutting-edge, even if it targets a niche audience. The fresh legs were dusted in cattail pollen before they were browned, then laid with picked meat into a bowl of blossoms, leaves, and pickled cattail stems that came to life as a tiny pond when green garlic broth was poured over top. You don’t have to be an amphibianado to appreciate the clever beauty of that dish, which also happens to be delicious.

Such naturalistic wonders and throwback nostalgia are all the more striking given the irony of Elwood’s existence in a rowhouse directly beside a razor wire-fenced lot sprouting I-95 billboards for 24-hour check-cashing and private detective services (“Infidelity. Divorce. Criminal Defense.”) just overhead.

But the facade is so discreet, save for a small placard on the door and cheery pots of sunflowers outside, you could easily miss it. The residential exterior is a function of Diltz’s desire to remain low-key after three years of planning, delayed by legal battles with a neighbor over zoning. Once inside, though, you step right beside the kitchen, a gleaming steel hive of activity framed by wood planks and potted herbs.

The dining room is yet another pleasant surprise, located in a rear addition created by Ko, who designed the 26-seat space with comfort in mind, from the cork ceiling to the carpeted floors, cushy chairs, and linen-topped tables that look out through bustled curtains onto a kitchen garden oasis. “She’s the reason behind everything,” says Diltz, who said Ko initially bought the building with her sister as an investment property.

If there’s a retro air to the creature comforts atypical of the mostly noisy BYOB scene, Diltz has doubled-down, going garage-sale crazy with his collection of gilt-edged china. It feels right given the inspiration he’s drawn from Grammy Oley and Elwood, whose name is tattooed in thick black letters across the chef’s forearm.

He’s reveled, though, in the crockery’s various obscure functions. I’m fairly certain Elwood is the only restaurant in Philly using crescent-shaped “bone plates,” designed to hold the remains of all the wings, legs, chops, and rib cages that are inevitably stripped of their meat at a whole-animal restaurant. He’s also made good work of theole celery dish, conjuring up the vegetable’s sexy Victorian days by braising whole heads in pork stock, roasting them with Hootenanny goat Gouda, then serving them up in dark jus, with a steak knife. Celery’s been waiting 100 years for this kind of comeback.

Diltz’s most inspired blitz of dishes, though, is reserved for the family-style meals built around meats delivered directly from independent small farms. Their virtue isn’t merely because they’re local. These sustainably raised animals are simply better ingredients, with a tenderness and integrity of flavor Diltz is smart enough to showcase without overembellishing.

The meaty 3-pound rabbits from Brooke-Lee Farm in Berks County are simply roasted whole with thyme and sage, then cut into primal chunks that make for a magnetic hands-on feast.

If you have a chance to savor one of the birds from Earl Keiser’s Pheasantry, do it. The chicken is an easy single-entree hit. But the shared half-duck, poached in sugar water, then roasted to a deep tawny crisp, was one of the best I’ve had, softening the blow of its $70 fee. Though with enough meat for two, plus all the pickles, sides, and succotash, I’d still call it a reasonable value.

If portion is a priority, the pastured pork from Stryker Farm in Saylorsburg is a good bet. The whole pigs are used throughout the menu. But for the family meal, three preparations came on our platter, with shredded, slow-braised pulled pork set beneath herb-scented bratwurst and a roasted-to-order cut that rotates depending on where Diltz is with the pig. On our night, a huge chop was sliced into thick and tender ribbons, with rich pork jus on the side.

Elwood has one of the better Pennsylvania cheese plates around, with great selections from Birchrun Hills, Doe Run, Cranberry Creek, and Hidden Hills garnished with golden cherry sauce, rhubarb jam, and an almost-caramelized honey from Diltz’s own backyard hive.

But the desserts are also worthwhile homages to country fairs gone by: a hot coil of funnel cake served with sweet fruit dips and fresh ground cinnamon sugar; a dense cheesecake lavished with blueberry compote and sweet corn ice cream; and humble spelt dumplings, zaftig but lovable dough balls stuffed with tangy plum jam.

As you head out the door past Diltz’s kitchen, you’re handed one more treat, a molasses cookie baked to Grammy Oley’s recipe. Just like the family antlers, it’s been happily handed down.