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Rooster Soup Co.: Doing good - with room for improvement

This 50-seat slip of a subterranean restaurant done up with retro diner stools, two-seat booths, and orange neon is already generating $500 a week to feed 200 people in need.

The matzo ball soup at the Rooster Soup Co., 1526 Sansom St.
The matzo ball soup at the Rooster Soup Co., 1526 Sansom St.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

"So . . . are you actually going to write a review of the Rooster Soup Co.?"

My wife, who asked the question, was enjoying her bowl of matzo ball soup. And so was I, savoring the surprisingly subtle puff of smoke that echoed each time I took a bite of those fluffy orbs floating in herb-blasted broth. I took a cold slurp of a vividly caffeinated shake. I cracked my fork through the flaky crust of a chicken potpie flavored with Yemenite spice. I eyed the towering fluff of an epic coconut pie in the distance, just behind the diner counter, and gave Elizabeth my best "what, me worry?" shrug. Everything at this early lunch was delicious.

But I know she was concerned that I might spoil my sterling reputation as a decent human being. (At least she thinks I am!) After all, reviewing the Rooster Soup Co., which donates 100 percent of its profits to a charity to combat hunger, is a sticky wicket for any earnest critic. If I complain, readers will think I'm simply a grinch for quashing this inventive philanthropic effort. If I kvell with outsize praise, others may think I'm giving Rooster Soup a free pass because, well, its comfort-food heart is in the right place for a very worthy cause.

The added element of its celebrity pedigree, the Zahav team of Michael Solomonov, just crowned the most outstanding chef in America by the James Beard Foundation, and his partner, Steven Cook, brings yet another layer of fame to the equation. Those two have earned their notices over years of high-quality work. (This Sansom Street diner is tucked beneath yet another of their successful concepts, Goldie, a vegan falafel shop.)

But is Rooster Soup Co. really one of the top 10 new restaurants in the whole United States, as both GQ and Food & Wine magazines recently declared?

No, not really. I liked (and in some cases loved) some of what I ate there. But such lofty national accolades are more an example of a roving out-of-town press picking low-hanging fruit because of a can't-miss story.

And Rooster Soup has more than one important story to tell. The primary thread is the brilliant spark that made Cook and Solomonov wonder whether they could transform all the leftover chicken carcasses from their Federal Donuts fried-chicken chain into soup that could be sold to benefit the Broad Street Ministry. The "Breaking Bread" community meals run by the ministry's Hospitality Collaborative go a long way toward breaking the undignified old cliches of a soup kitchen.

This 50-seat slip of a subterranean restaurant done up with retro diner stools, two-seat booths, and orange neon is already generating $500 a week to feed 200 people in need. That's a four-bell philanthropy concept if I ever saw one. And Cook believes they can eventually quadruple that. The more than 1,500 people who donated nearly $180,000 to Rooster's Kickstarter campaign have already cast their votes of confidence. (Each of their names is written in the mosaics that hang above the larger booths in the diner-car contours of Rooster Soup's back room.)

Chef Erin O'Shea, who was chef and co-owner of Percy Street Barbecue before CookNSolo sold it in November, is an ideal choice for this menu of updated comforts. And she has a knack in particular for those signature soups, from the flavorful matzo ball, whose smoky taste comes from the rendered fat of the smoked short ribs at nearby Abe Fisher mixed into the dumplings to the satisfying vegan puree of cauliflower sparked with capers and almonds to the simple but satisfying vegetable and bean soup that's actually more a minestrone than what the menu calls ribollita (which is usually thickened with bread).

But my meals overall were unexpectedly inconsistent. And here's the catch: The better this enterprise functions as a for-profit venture, the better it can fulfill its philanthropic mission. And Rooster Soup as a restaurant is clearly still a work in progress, with an ever-morphing menu that's also seemingly ever-shrinking - a symptom of its constant struggle with a lack of kitchen space. It also has a surprising weak spot when it comes to sandwiches.

The Vietnamese banh mi rolls were uncharacteristically squishy and poorly used in a broccolini melt, which, aside from the scorched and stringy greens inside, would have been better open-faced. Likewise for the tuna melt, which was made with tasty fresh tuna salad, but topped with a bready lid and a thin veneer of cheese that was hardly melted. A BLT overstuffed with a latke and green tomatoes was a chaotic pile of clashing textures thanks to a less-than-crisp potato cake. An intriguing sandwich to showcase smoky-sweet Lebanon bologna erred by thick-cutting the meat, which turned leathery and dense on the griddle.

One major exception to my sandwich gripes: Rooster's burger is one of the best I've had recently, two incredibly juicy three-ounce patties of coarse-ground beef layered with mushrooms, caramelized onions, melted Jarlsburg, and the caraway-poppy zing of bagel spice melted into an unctuous smear of "everything sauce."

The fate of these sandwiches matters because Rooster Soup Co. is so much more than just a soup restaurant, which is the other important story line here. It's a much-needed tribute to our fading tradition of neighborhood luncheonettes, coffee shops, and diners - and it takes on extra meaning this month when that old standby, Little Pete's, closes Memorial Day after 39 years.

And CookNSolo's effort at Rooster Soup to update that genre and revive it with fresh ingredients and thoughtful housemade cooking admirably retains the democracy of the lunch counter by keeping prices affordable.

There are precious few places near Rittenhouse Square where you can get a solid entree for dinner with a side salad for $16, and O'Shea delivers well on that front with a trio of worthy blue-plate suppers. There are two thick slices of fresh meat loaf, which are crispy on the outside but moist and flavorful with pork added to the beef. A secret trick borrowed from the world of soup dumplings uses veggies reduced in stock set with gelatin to add extra moisture to the interior as it warms. A creamy asparagus lasagna is a hearty vegetarian choice. The salmon croquettes were the most satisfying healthy option, with a mix of both fresh and cured Scottish fish flaked into cakes lightly bound with garlic bread crumbs, capers, and egg. All of the blue plates come with a side salad and a fluffy twice-baked potato topped with cheddar, sour cream, and bacon.

The best of Rooster Soup's entrees, though, has recently disappeared. That flaky Yemenite potpie filled with a chicken stew aromatic with the fenugreek of hawaij curry - a compelling Israeli emigre tucked inside an all-American crust - has been set aside, temporarily at least, due to the crunch of labor costs in an operation that demands ever-tightening economies to meet its goals. That's also the reason the daily breakfasts of sausage-stuffed corn bread waffles with pistachios and mint and sweet potato oatmeal were recently eliminated and consolidated into weekend brunch.

It's worth a weekend visit, though, just to wrap your lips around O'Shea's zaftig biscuit sandwiches stuffed with a pepper sausage patty and a layered omelet stack ribboned with melting cheese.

Order a local craft beer, a can of pinot noir (yup, some canned wine), or one of the clever spicy cocktails - the refreshing Schug-A-Rita or bloody Mary spiked with Israeli salad water - to celebrate with a boozy brunch toast because, hey, it's all for charity.

But then I get that slice of O'Shea's coconut pie and something else important happens. I take a forkful of that generous wedge, a flaky Crisco crust topped with a densely rich layer of coconut custard, unsweetened coconut shreds, and a gravity-defying cloud of dreamy whipped cream. And then I take another. And another. And all thoughts of altruistic eating simply melt away. I really want to be here because this pie is so damn good. And the future of the Rooster Soup Co., and its praiseworthy charitable quest, couldn't have been sweeter.

Next week, Craig LaBan reviews La Maison in Pottstown.

215-854-2682 @CraigLaBan