Many chefs have notions of opening their own BYOB restaurants, and the stylings are familiar: French, Italian, and whatever “American cuisine” is today.
Adam Diltz, opening Elwood this week in a former rowhouse next to a billboard-festooned lot in Fishtown, is going a different way as a first-time restaurateur, with his white-tablecloth 26-seater in gray-toned, granny-ish environs. Diltz, 39, who grew up in modest surroundings (a trailer in rural Columbia County), is delving into his Pennsylvania Dutch roots. It is a style far removed from the food he cooked at such Philadelphia-area restaurants as Johnny Brenda’s, FARMiCia, and the Yardley Inn.
“The South Philly Italian thing is spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna,” he said. “But that’s not my comfort. I don’t crave it. It’s not my thing. My comfort food is sauerkraut and pork. That sort of thing. I grew up hunting, trapping, fishing, and then I love to eat.”
That’s why the menu at Elwood (named after his grandfather, Elwood Andreas) is studded with rustic standards such as snapper soup, catfish and waffles, a cheese plate, and striped bass, as well as entrées of Stryker Farm pork, Earl Keiser’s hay-roasted chicken, and Brooke-Lee Farm whole rabbit, all served with appropriate mashed potatoes, pickles, and sauces. Figure on $50 a person. Bring a Riesling.
His epiphany as a young man was reading Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, the seminal work by William Woys Weaver, the food historian from Devon.
“I read Dr. Weaver’s book and I was like, ‘Oh, wow! Shoo fly pie,' and that’s the stuff I like. But then I went to study the grand cuisine, and I wanted to set off and get into the fine-dining world. But I always thought, 'Why is there no restaurant that celebrates Pennsylvania’s food ways?’"
With design help from his wife, architect Jenny Ko, and financial help from her sister Ying Ko, he is starting to do just that.
My great-grandmother was a farm wife, and she would have a whole room filled with three different cakes, three different pies, doughnuts, yeast doughnuts, cake doughnuts, cookies. All sorts of stuff, apple dumplings, shortcakes, upside-down cakes. Oh, my god, it was awesome.
I actually never even left Pennsylvania until I was 18. We didn’t go on vacations and stuff like that. I wanted to see the rest of the world, so I left. I went to culinary school after high school. I wanted to seek my fortune, but I didn’t find it, of course. I moved to Boston, and then I went to Chicago. And then I went to Tennessee. I’ve always had this idea of the restaurant I wanted to do, since I was working at No. 9 Park. I just started reading and studying. I always liked to read, and I went from place to place with just hundreds of cookbooks and nothing else. I used to live in condemned places, cockroaches floating around, and the water coming through the roof, and all I’d have was books.
The whole time, I wanted something that focuses on Pennsylvania, and the rich food of Pennsylvania. Naturally in Philadelphia, there’s a long history of all sorts of immigrants and cultural food ways. All people think about with Philly is cheesesteaks.
I never figured it would ever be a reality. I figured I’d just be slaving away on the lines and die someday, just cooking for somebody else. Maybe try to get a small loan to open up a super-super-bare-bones place. I never had money in my life, but this one just sort of evolved. It’s all to do with my wife, who believed in me, and her sister. We wanted to do something quiet, something comfortable.
We were thinking about putting it in the back, but why would we put the kitchen back with the garden? That should be the focal point. Also, Jenny hates when you walk into a restaurant, and the doors swinging open in the winter, and it’s freezing out, and then you get cold. And she was also telling me when you walk into someone’s house, you never walk into the dining room.
That’s exactly why I’m doing it, because I think everybody should know what that is. To me, if someone says “chicken pot pie” or “ham pot pie,” it’s a stew with noodles in it. A “chicken pie” would be one with the pastry crust. Neither of those two are wrong, right? It just depends where you’re from, and what you say. Now, there’s two lineages. Dr. Weaver says they are two lineages to pot pie. There’s the one you know, and call pie, as in the English pie, which means, like, two crusts. That came from Amelia Simmons, who wrote the first cookbook in America, in Philly, and it had a literal pie. Then you have the other, the German side, which is bott boi. It got Anglicized to “pot pie.” Pot pie means there’s noodles — those wide, flat noodles.
Way back then, you wouldn’t eat meat every day. You wouldn’t even eat chicken every day. You’d eat it like once a week. So you have your chicken on Sunday, or you’d have a ham on Sunday and then the next day, you would take your ham bone and your chicken carcass, and you’d make pot pie out of it.
I think that’s pretty cool, because Philly is known for catfish and waffles. There was a big restaurant called Kugler’s in Philadelphia that did it, and there were waffle houses up and down the Schuylkill. I use Castle Valley Mills cornmeal in there, and we’re doing that to order. There’s no sugar in the batter. I take the catfish, smoke it whole, and then rub rye in it. What I’m homaging to at Kugler’s is that they used to make a milk cream sauce. They would just chop up the catfish and throw it in there, and do it like that. But I smoke it, because I think that just adds a little extra element to it. I use all the bones from the catfish after I smoke it in the milk, so that it makes a smoky stock, and then I make the sauce with that.
It is. And you know what? There’s a law ... that you have to get a 50-pound crate of catfish. So I’ve got to get a 50-pound crate, gut, skin, and degill them, skin them. I think it’s cool.
Elwood, 1007 Frankford Ave., is open at 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Reservations on Resy.