Time passes, and even the future gets old.
Such was the fate of Pod, Stephen Starr’s restaurant at the Inn at Penn, 3636 Sansom St. in University City. When Pod opened in October 2000, all white and monochromatic, with a sushi conveyor belt and curved, light-changing dining “pods,” it looked like a sci-fi fan’s interpretation of life two decades hence.
The hence is here, and now Pod — which by many accounts had lost its mojo before its pandemic closure — has returned as Kpod, a sly portmanteau of Korean wave and Pod. It opens Wednesday, Feb. 9.
Kpod’s zeitgeist seems more contemporary, less trend-seeking. Pod’s pan-Asian menu has given way to Korean American stylings from chef Peter Serpico, who is using his birthplace for inspiration, Now, you’ll find banchan and Korean fried chicken, mandu and ramyun, handrolls, and beef tartare zhuzhed up with soy sauce, sesame oil, and honey.
The timing of Kpod is perfect for Serpico, who will release his debut cookbook, Learning Korean in May, in which he tells of his upbringing while offering dishes of home cooking. Adopted at age 2 from South Korea by a white couple from Maryland, Serpico went on to lead the culinary side of David Chang’s Momofuku empire and work as the opening chef de cuisine/partner at Momofuku Ko in New York. Starr brought him to Philadelphia a decade ago. It was later in life that Serpico, now 40, chose to explore Korean cuisine in depth.
Kpod’s layout is pretty much the same as it was under Pod’s original designer David Rockwell. Stokes Architecture + Design did more than a refresh as it applied bold hues, striking patterns, and subtle Korean-inspired design elements, including natural woods and even plywood.
The retro-modern white lacquer is gone, in favor of warmer earth tones. The three pods with their slit windows remain, though they have been reupholstered in pink and festooned with photographs. There’s still a line of “deuces,” snug tables for two, under the Sansom Street window. The 30-foot red rubber “barge,” a communal lounge in front of the bar, has been replaced by tables. The sushi conveyor belt is now a raw bar, with a pink split-flap sign tick-tick-ticking messages on the wall behind it. Flaps of wood decorating the ceiling keep the din to a bearable buzz, just over the cool soundtrack.
Almost from the 2013 opening of the edgy, global-theme Serpico on South Street, Starr and Serpico had been planning to open a Korean-inspired restaurant — going so far as to announce a name (Kyung Ho) and a location (the former Il Pittore near Rittenhouse Square).
But other Starr projects intervened, and the pandemic arrived to crush fine-dining destinations like Serpico. The men turned to Korean food to keep Serpico’s stoves sizzling, and launched a takeout operation out of the kitchen called Pete’s Place. Tagline: “kinda-Korean.” You’ll see vestiges of that food at Kpod, where the dinner tab is expected to average about $45 a person plus alcohol.
The menu’s must-order is honey butter fries, which are as sweet and as rich as you’d imagine. There’s Korean army stew, a dish that originated from U.S. military surplus during the Korean War. Kpod’s version is a spicy bowl of noodles with pieces of hot dogs, slices of Spam, scallion, and American cheese).
Although you could fill up on appetizers and the extensive sliced fish offerings, the ssam platters, served with lettuce for wrapping, ssamjang, sesame oil, and steamed rice, are intended for sharing. The showstopper is a $46 bone-in beef short rib for two that’s marinated in soy, Asian pear, garlic, and sesame, before it is braised and grilled on the bone.
Serpico has retained his old crew from South Street, including his chefs Nick Piwinski and Scott Pillagalli and general manager Julia Tetrow. Josh Noh, last at Starr’s now-idled Alma de Cuba, is also in the kitchen.
Cocktails are just as colorful as before, with drinks like theSeoul Mate (Bacardi spiced rum, sugar cane rum, purple potato, and tiki-spiced honey) and one made withCorazon Blanco tequila, Asian pear, and celery, garnished with a salted pear chip. Natural wines, craft beers, ciders, Korean soju, and sparkling rice wine round out the menu.
It opens at 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Lunch will begin in the spring.