They fell in love to the fast-paced rhythm of tapas life at Amada, where he was a sous-chef and she was in management at the front of the house. But like a lot of young couples who connect in the excitement of the city and then begin dreaming about a mellow future, the suburbs were calling. That’s how Mike Jenkins and Melody Lauletta’s BYOB, Keep, landed on Old York Road in downtown Jenkintown.
“It’s nice to be somewhere less hectic," says chef Jenkins, a Frankford native who also worked at Garces Trading Co. and the upscale Volvér, where he eventually became executive chef. “It’s not the same kind of crush as you get in Center City dining here. … You can take more time to really put out perfect food.”
Jenkins had all the time he needed during my first visit in early January, because we were the only diners in the cozy 30-seat room of the former Mirna’s Cafe, which has been transformed by country tables, earth tones, and turning fans into a pleasant bistro of simple elegance.
Yes, there was perhaps a New Year’s hangover still lingering over local restaurants during the first week of the year. But this low-key northern burb has never quite mustered much serious dining scene mojo, despite a cute little downtown strip. The excellent Korean restaurant Dubu and Neshaminy Creek’s Borough Brewhouse are two exceptions to my long-standing food malaise in greater Cheltenham. And in the empty dining room, as the handsome plates of handcrafted pasta, bagna càuda-dabbed scallops and soulful crepes Michelle dusted with crumbled chicken skin arrived to our table, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Jenkintown was ready to support a restaurant with the culinary aspirations of Keep’s.
"I think this is going to freak out Jenkintown,” said my guest, a resident of nearby Wyncote, beholding a stylish black plate traced with lemon aioli swirls beneath warm coins of sweet potato topped with sweet nuggets of butter-poached crab. As I helped gobble them down, detecting the faint marine crunch of dehydrated clam soufflé dusted over top, I could only think that it would be the best kind of freak-out possible.
“'Hey, who ate the rest of my salad!'” a guest at my following meal joked, the Jenkintown resident anticipating his conservative neighbors’ reactions to Keep’s trendy, asymmetrical presentations.
But there was in fact plenty of food on the creative small plates ($12 or less) and entrées (hovering quite reasonably in the low $20s). And all hesitations should be set aside by the substance of the well-crafted flavors on those plates. There were crunchy Brussels sprouts over a cheesy cacio e pepe sauce topped with the smoky shards of chips made from Benton’s ham. Slow-cooked carrots came glazed in mustard with caraway aioli and black bread croutons. A salad of bitter chicories — radicchio, frisée and Belgian endive — was cut by the nuttiness of sunflower seed pesto and the tart, pithy bite of a pureed lemon sauce. An artful ellipsis of beets dusted with an Egyptian sesame spice called duqqa was so aromatic, it carried me to a faraway bazaar. A swoosh of housemade ricotta set beneath it all added a fresh tang and creamy richness.
Jenkins, who also worked at one point as a cheesemonger for Di Bruno Bros., has a penchant for using great cheeses. That’s how Époisses gets whipped into a creamy meringue that tops the Bordelaise-glazed rib-eye steak set over a broccoli puree enriched by beef fat. That’s why the cheese platter carries such uncommon gems as Le Cousin alpine cheese from the Savoie or the Testun al Barolo encrusted with pressed nebbiolo grapes. Jenkins also avoids the Parmesan-fits-all-noodles trap by pairing each of his handmade pastas with a more deliberately chosen cheese garnish. Salty white shavings of ricotta salata add spark to the richness of the airy sweet ricotta gnudi, paired with earthy sunchokes and the creamy ivory puree of onion soubise. Spanish Roncal adds a sheepy tang to the lightly gamey ragù of duck served over toothy cavatelli with sweet cubes of roasted rutabaga. Parmigiano-Reggiano makes a proper cameo, meanwhile, over the al dente pasta twirled beneath an authentic Bolognese of house-ground cured meats, beef and pork slow-stewed with milk and wine.
Lauletta, who worked for Stephen Starr at Barclay Prime and Nicholas Elmi at Laurel and ITV, did a fine job presenting the menu and welcoming guests with personable warmth. There were moments, though, when the limitations of a starter bistro run almost entirely by one couple were apparent. For example, good luck reaching the restaurant during the afternoon should you need to change a reservation. Picking up the phone and returning messages are not Keep’s forté. A physical visit was necessary to change a reservation.
And Jenkins may sometimes take his freedom from Center City’s supposedly torrid pace to an extreme. The pacing of our meals, even with a modest crowd to serve, ranged from slow to glacial, with main dishes for our 8 p.m. reservation still not having arrived by 10 p.m. A menu broken up fashionably into multiple sections for a free-flowing pre-entree feast of charcuterie, small plates, vegetables, and pastas might have had something to do with it. I would have requested a slightly brisker stride, but there were long periods when the dining room was simply missing anyone to ask for help.
They were probably back there fussing over the plates to make them perfect, taking so long that some arrived not quite as hot as they should be. One such mild disappointment were the otherwise delicious Barnegat scallops with garlicky bagna càuda, butter-poached radishes, parsley sauce and boquerones anchovies. Another dish that would have been fantastic with a few textural tweaks was Jenkins’ take on caldo verde, which was too thin and brothy, with awkwardly large hunks of braised pork for the usually thicker Portuguese greens-and-potato stew. The bold rustic flavors, though, were there.
And there were nonetheless a number of memorable compositions that I’d absolutely return for. The meaty skate wing crusted in masa corn flour was among them, the crispy triangle posed over a refined take on Veracruzana sauce whose pureed tomatoes were piqued with caper brine, the salty crunch of fried capers, the sweet-tart burst of blood orange segments and black olive caramel.
A brick of crispy pork belly, cured in smoked paprika and charred leek oil, was a deeply savory morsel paired with chorizo cubes and tart apple cider gel. A seared kampachi over pureed celery root with bok choy and fish fumet showed a lighter but equally flavorful touch. It’s not all precious restaurant-style cooking here, either. Jenkins pays homey homage to one of his mother’s specialties with the crepes Michelle named in her honor. It features the retro comfort of Gruyère-gratineed crepes stuffed with chicken and béchamel, but is updated with an herbaceous tarragon sauce, extra schmaltz in the crepe batter, and an earthy halo of roasted beech and maitake mushrooms that rings the dish dusted with the savory crackle of crumbled chicken skin.
The crepes spoke to the Euro flavors at the heart of this menu. But other dishes, like the Burmese chickpea “tofu” tanged with Georgian tkemali sour plum sauce and two colors of roast cabbage — your standard Caucasus-Burmese-Eastern Euro fusion — show this couple are simply presenting the full spectrum of flavors they love, minus easy categorizations. Flecked with caraway, allspice, and black pepper, this flavorful Burmese chickpea flour cake was closer to Italian panelle or polenta than the not-so-sexy soybean curd its label might indicate. The Georgian tkemali sauce?
“We’ve fallen in love with Bell’s,” said Lauletta, referring to the Russian market in nearby Northeast Philly.
When it comes to desserts, Keep’s repertoire is limited and less adventurous, but nonetheless well done. The Pastel del Melodia is a simple yellow cake, deftly elaborated with membrillo quince paste, Chantilly cream, and seasonal ripe persimmons. The chocolate tart, modeled after the classic created by Joël Robuchon, was a textbook-perfect round of delicate pastry filled with an almost pudding-like heaven of chocolate ganache so dark, its natural fruit notes harmonized with the amarena cherries on top — and the very good cups of fresh Rival Bros. coffee I sipped for the ride home.
A more unconventional end, perhaps, would be the lost art of a cheese plate for dessert, lately a wedge of that almost fluffy Testun al Barolo pressed with wine grapes or a denser P’tit Basque served over shortbread crumble with aged balsamic and cranberry compote.
“This is a cheese house,” Lauletta says proudly, instantly earning my admiration.
It’s only a matter of time, as this couple settles into their BYOB baby, that Jenkintown comes to embrace Keep, too, as the ambitious culinary bistro it deserves.
417 Old York Rd., Jenkintown, 215-277-7947; keepeating.net
Chef Mike Jenkins and Melody Lauletta, a talented young couple who’ve worked for some of the city’s most notable restaurateurs (Starr, Elmi, Garces), have brought a Philly-style BYOB to Jenkintown. Their collaboration has resulted in a project of refined upscale ambitions, warm hospitality and some adventurous modern American flavors for a suburban downtown district that can use some bright new culinary energy. Once this bistro graduates past the bare-bones staffing typical of a start-up, the potential is here for a special keeper.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Heirloom carrots; beets with goat’s milk ricotta and duqqa; squash soup; pork belly; crab and sweet potatoes; gnudi; cavatelli with braised duck; crepes Michelle; masa-crusted skate Veracruzana; scallops; Burmese chickpea tofu; kampachi with celery root; charcuterie and cheese; chocolate tart.
BYOB The menu occasionally roams wide for some global accents, but is largely European-driven cooking that pairs well with medium-bodied, minimally oaked wines.
WEEKEND NOISE There’s a bistro buzz to this BYOB when it’s bustling, but noise levels have been manageable for conversation.
IF YOU GO Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
Dinner entrées, $16-$28.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.
Not wheelchair accessible. There is one step at the entrance and bathroom is not accessible.