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At Cadence, bold new culinary talents cook with the seasons

One of the city's most exciting new BYOBs comes to South Kensington from trio of talented alums from Fork and High Street on Market.

A bone-in tenderloin roasts over the live fire at Cadence, a modern American BYOB on West Girard Avenue.
A bone-in tenderloin roasts over the live fire at Cadence, a modern American BYOB on West Girard Avenue.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

There are so many precious seasonal greens showered over the dandelion dumplings at Cadence — shaved raw asparagus, garlic flowers, day lily shoots, ramps, violet greens, stinging nettles — that they're simply referred to as "spring things."

It's an insanely complicated little bowl if you zoom in on the details, from the grilled dandelions that thread those gnocchi puffs whipped creamy with goat cheese to their delicate crisping in rich brown butter to the various shades of green — sauteed into a dark "ragout," shaved raw, plucked fresh, still blooming — each adding a subtle layer of freshness to the composition. But what ultimately matters is the overall effect: Not only is each forkful delicious, it captures the essence of a fleeting moment in Philadelphia time and place, as though this bowl were tracking the season's shift through a forager's microscopic view.

Cadence is very much the "spring things" of the Philadelphia restaurant scene right now: an edgy, earthy atelier of intricate inspirations and live-fire cooking whose 38 seats in South Kensington are highly coveted, after just a couple of months, because it showcases the latest wave of young talents to stake their culinary dreams in a neighborhood BYOB. It's the kind of restaurant phenomenon that still distinguishes Philly as a unique hothouse for rising stars who, with their $120,000 investment, could never have opened such a vibrant showcase in New York or Washington. The former Modo Mio space has been thoroughly transformed into a room that exudes a modern, sophisticated vibe without being stuffy, as diners gather around its live-edge wood tables, kitchen counter, and cushy gray tweed banquettes.

The adventurous eaters at your table will be thrilled by the abundance of obscure ingredients and offcuts like, say, the tender slices of lamb heart grilled pink and fanned over shaved radishes and miso-buttered turnips. There are some good options for slightly more conservative eaters, too,  especially the bone-in tenderloin for two, a three-inch-thick hunk of grass-fed Happy Valley beef crisped over fruitwood charcoal, then carved down with spring onions, exotic mushrooms, and a smoky jus infused with bits of brisket burnt ends. It now resides in my pantheon of destination-worthy local chops.

That should be no surprise, considering the trio behind Cadence arrives with a proven pedigree. Chef Jon Nodler and pastry chef Samantha Kincaid, who are married, have teamed up here with partner-chef Michael Fry, whom they met while working at Fork, High Street on Market, and, where they anchored stellar kitchens that didn't waver after the devastating Amtrak accident that put their mentor, chef Eli Kulp, into a wheelchair. After nearly five years with the company, also launching High Street on Hudson in New York, it was time to forge their own dreams.

"Not a concept restaurant," Nodler tells me, "just a place where we take cues from what inspires us every day. …We opened our passion project."

Grill smoke. Fermented things. Light sauces that rely on natural juices and bright acidity. Little plates inspired by Korean banchan, but built around regional ingredients. Large-format plates for sharing. And a hyper-seasonality that will introduce you to to a gardener's almanac of edible delights, like the pretty little Virginia bluebells scattered like sky-blue confetti bursts across the brooding dark umami of the clever "oyster mushroom on the half shell." This mince of grilled mushrooms stuffed into the canoe-like shells of  hollowed-out "oyster roots" (salsify)  tasted like something wonderful pulled from a campfire.

Ellen Yin, the ever-classy co-owner of Fork, has been unwavering in her support, the trio says, even going over their business plan. And it seems Yin's influence also rubbed off on the seamlessly professional service here that was knowledgeable without being overbearing, as well as an attention to concept details that help Cadence conjure a complete dining experience despite the lack of a liquor license. That includes detailed wine pairing suggestions on the website for bottles available at Bottle Bar East on nearby Frankford Avenue, but also a thoughtful nonalcoholic beverage program built around house-made vinegar shrub sodas, kombuchas, and high-grade teas, which make cameos as inventive pairings for dishes offered complimentary with the tasting menu. A lightly carbonated Nepalese white tea evoking sweet muscat and bay accompanies a seafood salad marinated in smoked mussel liquor. A chilled glass of vibrant matcha green tea foamed on nitro with a softening hint of oat milk came as an intermezzo and added some grassy swagger to a dish of char-roasted escarole wrapped like stuffed cabbage around spicy 'nduja sausage.

I like the easy flexibility of this menu to accommodate an a la carte meal (with entrees hovering at $26) or the $60 four-course tasting, which is a great deal considering the unexpected extras sprinkled throughout. Some of these were among the most clever bites, like the warm spheres of hollow ebelskiver pancakes filled with scallion cream cheese and trout roe, and the grilled Argentine prawns wrapped like tiny summer rolls inside sesame-dusted sheets of lightly pickled shaved kohlrabi.

The actual menu, though, had plenty of memorable moments. A bright seafood salad of sweet crab, grilled squid, and asparagus hit another level when my spoon slid into a silky steamed custard at the bottom enriched with yellow crab fat. A ruby dice of luscious bison tartare was sparked by huckleberries brined salty like capers and served beside a slice of fabulous rye bread infused with beets from the Lost Bread Co., launched by another former High Street star, Alex Bois.

Cadence, like even the best young restaurants, still has some fine-tuning to do — and decisions about just how broad an audience it hopes to draw. For now, fans of simple and familiar food should probably take a pass. As much as I appreciated this kitchen's homage to a whole Elysian Fields lamb whose different cuts were served on a platter cooked different ways – slow-roasted like brisket beneath a jujube date glaze, whipped into rillettes, roasted into juicy pink chops, rendered and crisped into an ethereally gamy cracklin' atop local wheat berries turned "dirty" with  sauteed lamb livers — that gloriously bold dish is not for everyone. Even the chicken wings here are a haute ordeal, deboned and stuffed with a chicken mousseline given a Southeast Asian flavor with Thai chilies, herbs and lime. They were nice beside a sweet mango slaw and glazed with a tangy tamarind BBQ sauce. But I preferred the more rustic Cambodian rendition of boneless wings stuffed with lemongrass sausage at the Boba & Co. truck in South Philly.

Other perfectly fine dishes could have used subtle tweaks to become great. Too much of the fermented citrus paste known as kosho overwhelmed the beautiful kampachi crudo. I loved the texture of potatoes riced into a fluffy cloud right over the top a pristine chunk of moist white halibut. But this soft-spoken dish lacked the kind of bold impact of Cadence's other halibut dish, a grilled collar of fish wrapped in crispy skin over fennel. The huge pork shoulder chop for two served with buttermilk ranch and crispy nuggets of kielbasa should have been epic. But its undeniably tender meat – "burst cooked" on an eight-bone rack for 20-minute increments in and out of the hearth over two hours – strangely lacked both texture and juiciness on the plate.

I can't help but admire a kitchen that experiments with techniques and flavor boundaries as it refines its voice. Even if occasionally it fails. For Cadence, which pushes vegetal notes deep into the desserts, the pre-dessert offering of a "sunchoke cannoli" was one of those. This camphorous tube of crispy root was filled with a pasty benne seed miso touched with maple that was billed as tasting "just like Nutella." It was so bitter and funky no one at my table would finish it.

The bonus effect was that, by contrast, Samantha Kincaid's desserts, which always shy away from "sugar bomb" status, brought a pleasant relief of measured sweetness along with her signature savory accents. The chocolate tart's brownie-like texture was touched with smoke and the earthy kiss of beet-prune jam. Trendy shaved ice made from the snow of frozen oat milk was tart with swirls or rhubarb puree, crunchy with crystallized sesame and fruity bursts of ripe strawberries. A classically rich scoop of frozen nougat brought honeyed sweetness to candied kumquats and pecans.

And then came the Nocino, a complimentary digestif Nodler and Kincaid had steeped with unripe black walnuts from Green Meadow Farm along with lemon, brown sugar, and a complex array of spice. We had already settled into a comfortable rhythm at Cadence through a meal of surprises, bold flavors, and delicate "spring thing" delights. But this final gift from the kitchen put it all in sync. As the bittersweet dark brew scented with cardamom and fennel lingered, I couldn't wait to taste what this trio of young talents had in store for the future as this exciting new culinary destination evolves and matures for many seasons to come.