Matt Zagorski is haunted by burgers.
He knows how to cook other things, of course. But his prowess with the patty, ratcheted up to great renown during his previous stint at Rouge, has become something of a professional burden. True, his blazing hot cast-iron pans can sear such a crust on a 10-ounce beauty that one bite can make a grown man sing. But his rep as one of the city's undisputed gurus of ground-meat goodness had also generated its own kind of inescapable gravitational pull.
He found himself getting up at 6 a.m. to talk burgers and cook them on TV. He competed in burger-offs. He traveled to Aspen to sear burgers on those ritzy slopes alongside a national cast of celebrity chefs. He worked as a burger consultant.
If his recent move north from Rittenhouse Square to a new venture at Hickory Lane in Fairmount, just across from Eastern State Penitentiary, was in any way a bolt for freedom beyond the burger border, it clearly hasn't been a clean break.
"Yo, chef! Chef!" said one reveler, trotting out from a Fairmount Avenue bar to stop Zagorski with a little zinger as he strolled by one Sunday afternoon. "Awesome burger!"
As a businessman, he appreciates the exposure. But such one-note fame is likely not what Zagorski had in mind when he arrived on the line at Striped Bass in 2003, and then Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, after graduating from culinary school in Pittsburgh.
"I can do other stuff. I promise," he says. "I've got all my chemicals downstairs."
Those chemicals (or at least a dose of soy lecithin) are presumably responsible for the purplish pouf of beet foam that has, at times, appeared at Hickory Lane atop pedestals of seared scallop and tuna. It didn't add much to my dish, other than an airy echo to the earthy sweetness of marinated beet chunks that harmonized with the tuna and bacon-braised purple cabbage. Such accents, quite simply, have become the obligatory trappings of ambitious young chefs who want to be known as "serious" — no matter if the results looks like a soapy hair treatment.
I know Zagorski wants to experiment. But I also hope he waits a while before unleashing the Mr. Science kit in his cellar to deconstruct terrines into nine little piles on a plate or mentholate all his herbs. Such tricks can be fun, but are never the true measure of a chef.
The real value and potential at Hickory Lane — and one he's certainly already begun to explore with partners Jack Henderson, Amy Mahoney, and Jim Kernaghan — is the transformation of this 47-seat space into a sophisticated neighborhood bistro where great ingredients are cast into sensible, if familiar, combinations that are served with style and consistency.
The former L'Oca space has never been more handsome, the spare corner room, with its bustling open kitchen and exposed-metal air ducts, warmed by eggplant-colored trim near the floor-to-ceiling windows and a wall of multicolored and fluttering ribbons.
Some of that area will be swallowed by a new bar once the anticipated liquor license is in place this summer. Hopefully by then, they'll have some ice cubes, which were noticeably absent when my mixologist pal Gene showed up with all his cocktail fixings but found no ice to shake or stir.
Warm BYO cocktails in hand, we nonetheless found plenty on the menu to distract us. Good, plump mussels came steamed in a classic garlicky brew of fennel, wine, and butter. The chef's salad of peppery arugula greens was topped with a hearty shred of good saucisson sec, house-roasted turkey, and tangy, firm cheese. And then there was the steak tartare, a wonderful dice of organic Montana filet tossed with sherry vinegar, capers, and truffle puree. It would have been perfect had the dark puree not turned the meat a strange gray, instead of the ruby hue that always gives raw beef its primal allure.
I did not love the white asparagus soup, whose creamy puree was overwhelmed with garlic. A gratin of cauliflower was cooked to mush and drowned in too much cream and cheese (just 'cause it's a "gratin" doesn't mean it can't have texture). But it was overall a solid and satisfying beginning, not unlike the appetizer course at my earlier visit.
Perfectly seared scallops came medium rare over silky turnip puree and diced squash, which offered nice textural contrast. Oysters fried in a micro-thin cornmeal crust were perched atop a deceptively spicy rémoulade. I would have preferred the somewhat predictable tuna tartare (tossed in Asian ponzu) if I hadn't needed to chew through a hedgerow of microgreens to taste the fish. But the top-grade quality of the fish was clear. I even enjoyed the gazpacho, perfectly tanged with sherry vinegar and well-infused herbs, despite the fact that it was completely out of season.
Zagorski, momentarily besotted by the brief spring heat wave, had far less luck with the whole tomatoes that, sliced down into rounds, were a flavorless pedestal for an otherwise majestic chunk of wild striped bass. At $23 to $28 an entrée, he's not going to have much opportunity for such misses if he hopes to woo a steady neighborhood crowd.
When this kitchen's in its zone, though, presenting simple bistro dishes with quality ingredients, smart accents, and solid technique, it is hard not to see the appeal. A beautifully seasoned pork tenderloin came over super-silky sweet potato puree and swiss chard ringed with a honeyed citrus caramel and garlic oil blushing red with paprika. Seared king salmon was paired with creamy polenta and crackly leaves of aromatic fried oregano. A roasted breast of wing-on chicken, the ultimate neighborhood bistro dish, had tawny crisped skin and a full juicy savor, with creamy Yukon potato puree flecked with green garlic butter. The NY strip, meanwhile, was exceptionally tender and flavorful, basted with herby maître d'butter and rich red wine jus. I only wish those house-made frites had been crisper.
There were no limp fries riding shotgun on the plate at my last meal, however, when we finally ordered Zagorski's secret trump: the Hickory burger, 10 ounces of custom-ground brisket, filet, and deckle, seared to a cast-iron crisp and then snugged in the embrace of a brioche bun between delicate folds of bibb lettuce and a molten lid of tangy Cabot cheddar. It was as if the Rouge burger had traveled a few blocks north, and picked up some extra beefy swagger along the way.
It's hard to imagine a burger this tasty as a burden. Then again, it's so good that it's also become clear: No change of scenery or molecular tricks will ever let Zagorski truly escape. The power of his patty is simply the best reason to visit Hickory Lane.