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Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft review: The best burger, endless bourbon, reimagined candy bars, and more

With the region's best new burger and 200-plus whiskeys, this bi-level bar is one of most compelling restaurants in the suburbs right now.

The burger is pictured with Ripp Fries at Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft in Ardmore, Pa., on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019.
The burger is pictured with Ripp Fries at Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft in Ardmore, Pa., on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

I will drive far and fast for a burger like the double-patty siren call at Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft. In fact, that was the singular reason I first headed to this whiskey bar and restaurant in Ardmore. I was on the hunt for the region’s best burger for our new dining guide, which is built around cravings, and chef Biff Gottehrer’s master-stack beauty layered with molten Gouda and smoky-sweet pads of fried Lebanon bologna delivered satisfaction in a major way.

I took my time savoring every morsel of my new burger idol — its dry-aged beefy oomph, its pillowy soft pain au lait bun (somehow still able to absorb all that juice!), delicate butter leaf lettuce, tangy pickled red onions, and caper-filled special sauce. Is that an echo of smoked tomato in the background harmonizing the bologna? Oh, yes. Yes, it is.

But what surprised me most — and the reason I went back to Ripplewood for two more visits — is that Gottehrer’s burger is just one of many virtues. In fact, I’m now convinced that this 120-seat, bi-level bar is one of most compelling restaurants in the suburbs right now. And with Gottehrer and his partner, Peter S. Martin, launching another project in Wayne, 118 North, a music club/restaurant concept modeled after their Ardmore Music Hall, this fast-expanding restaurant group is worth some attention.

It is, true to its name, a whiskey bar at heart. There are more than 200 whiskeys available in multiple three-pour flights, from a rye suite featuring locals like Dad’s Hat to a top-shelf bourbon trio (Elijah Craig 23, Jefferson’s Ocean, Woodford Reserve master’s collection); fun riffs on the Citywide (Dickel and pickle juice, Four Roses and sparkling rosé); and a bar overseen by Ian McCafferty that’s producing cocktails with finesse and creativity.

I’ll roll my eyes “no thanks” at the smoothie-inspired drinks infused with carrot (Buzzed Bunny) and avocado (¡hola, guaca-arita!). But Ripplewood has classics down, with a twist — from a Lustau sherry vermouth kiss on the Ripp Manhattan (with overproof Knob Creek) to a gorgeously frothy, lemony whiskey sour spiked with spicy Eagle Rare. I also loved a special called the Thin Veil, which brought a seamless ruby coupe of Rittenhouse Rye and Laird’s apple brandy touched with local Vigo amaro and a minty Fernet.

It was the perfect warm-up to Gottehrer’s wide-ranging menu of indulgences, beginning with a hot cast-iron pan blooming with pretzel-ized Parker House rolls encrusted with sesame seeds and accompanied by a board smeared with whipped truffled butter. (“What is this place?” said my roll-gobbling guest, abandoning her early reluctance to leave the city for dinner.)

At its core, this menu is bolstered by comfort flavors that have “craving” written all over them, from tacos to wings and ribs. But an inventive homemade touch elevates every one of them. Gottehrer’s wings get cured with sage and spice, then confited to tenderness in a hot schmaltz bath. He then crisps and glazes them to finish in the funky spice of house-fermented fresno chile hot sauce with a side of blue cheese and celery mostarda. They’re familiar, but far better than the standard.

Gottehrer even manages to reimagine something as elemental as the crouton, filling a panko-crusted cube like a soup dumpling with gelled Caesar dressing that liquefies in the fryer and lends a brilliant hot-cold contrast to crisp romaine hearts and silvery boquerones.

There are so many seemingly disparate food traditions on this menu — supple fresh tortillas for the tacos, surprisingly deft handmade pastas, cleverly updated pub fare. The only unifying factor is Gottehrer himself, a 33-year-old Lower Merion native and former offensive tackle at University of Massachusetts Amherst who’s worked a winding path of kitchens, including two simultaneously as full-time jobs. El Vez, JG Domestic, Xochitl, In Riva, and the Dandelion, as well as his most recent stop, Stove & Tap (where that double-burger has its beginnings), have all left a mark on Ripplewood’s bill of fare, which goes far beyond pub-food clichés.

A tentacle of octopus, which arrived as long and thick as a billy club, goes through a veritable spa treatment — an oregano-salt rub, a massage with whole garlic cloves, then a slow olive oil bath — before it emerges tender and crispy over over black puddles of kalamata-infused olive oil, charred apples, smoked tomatoes, and a creamy swipe of house-made ricotta. The plantain- and tortilla-encrusted mahi mahi tacos are a worthy homage to the El Vez, while his many Italian moves channel his days as chef at In Riva.

A special of house-made cappelletti pasta stuffed with beets and fresh ricotta, which came over a poppy seed-dusted cream sauce infused with Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue cheese, showed not just pasta craftsmanship, but a sensibility for uniquely rich and surprising combinations. Similarly, I loved his idea for another pasta special that was essentially a roast pork sandwich over spaghetti. The bold Hatch chile heat inspired me to keep going, even if the dish overall was a shade dry.

Ripplewood’s kitchen isn’t perfect, because it occasionally doesn’t know when to stop. The Ripp Fries — which are essentially a fried-potato version of nachos topped with queso fundo, jalapeño, and shredded brisket — are the definition of excess, especially beside that already over-the-top burger. Onion rings on an otherwise beautiful salad of compressed watermelon, heirloom tomatoes, fresh tiger figs, and house burrata were an unnecessary flourish. If you’re going to make great onion rings (to which I say, “yes, please!”), they should never be a salad garnish. The unwieldy gnocchi beside the otherwise tasty filet mignon should have been smaller than fingerling potatoes. The un-fried eggplant-zucchini Parm is a nice idea, but a mess of mushy textures on the plate.

But these seem like small quibbles when you get a beautiful roast chicken over creamy Castle Valley grits with tender baby artichokes. Or a perfectly crisped fillet of branzino sparked with a zesty Georgian adjika pepper sauce and chimichurri with farro and green pea salad. Or sweetly seared Barnegat scallops paired with tender shredded beef cheeks braised in dashi.

Biff’s riffs on ribs are also memorable. He confits pork ribs to tenderness before crisping them in the fryer, then glazing them in honey spiced with chiles de árbol, fresh Calabrian chilies, crushed peanuts, and crunchy scallions. A special of lamb ribs and bacon-like belly took a gamier Mediterranean turn. They were cured with coffee and oregano, slow-cooked until the rendered meat feathered apart, then glossed with pomegranate molasses and dusted with fragrant fennel pollen. Not exactly your standard bar fare.

The tacos are surprising, too, especially because they come over hand-pressed tortillas made from masa harina ground fresh in the Italian Market. They bring a range of fusion options, from crispy rock shrimp at lunch to a witty offal duo with a Jewish twist at dinner. The “tongue & cheek” tacos pairs tender beef cheek marmalade with coffee-rubbed veal tongue, horseradish aioli, and pickled mustard seeds. They speak for themselves.

The dining room and bar staff do an outstanding job communicating all the culinary details, among other erudite subjects. The personable McCafferty, who doubles as a server on weekends, fell into a deep conversation about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series with my fantasy book-loving son. He then effortlessly shifted into brownie-recipe shop talk with my baker daughter while dropping off a hot “Brookie” — a half brownie, half chocolate chip cookie hybrid dessert served in a cast-iron pan.

That Brookie, topped with a melty scoop of vanilla ice cream, was a bake-sale dream inspired by a long-ago meal Gottehrer had at Barclay Prime, where he encountered a four-way cookie: “I said then that I’ve gotta have a deep-dish cookie when I do my thing,” he said.

Even better, Gottehrer has fulfilled his lifelong quest as a Seinfeld fan to recreate the scene where Mr. Pitt eats a Snickers bar with a knife and fork. I doubt Elaine’s boss would recognize the glam candy the chef has conjured here, a fudgy fantasy bar of layered chocolate mousse and peanut nougat coated in dark chocolate ganache and dusted with sea salt. It’s set over swipes of maple peanut butter and a drizzle of dulce de leche. My knife and fork scraped it clean. And I’d drive far and fast to do that again.