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Serpico's kitchen is always full of surprises

Serpico is among Craig LaBan's best of Philadelphia.

The bar at Serpico.
The bar at Serpico.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

As the city's most ingenious modernist chef, Peter Serpico can torque a duck leg into a honey-brined hot dog. He can spin delicious wonders from burnt onions and apples, and transform mere potato scraps into a consommé that, despite a crystal clarity, distills the intense earthy essence of a spud.

Serpico can make frozen foie gras snow down over peanut brittle and chia seed-jellied green apples that, when you take a bite, brings to mind the most extraordinary PB&J. He can also be Chef Frankenstein and stitch together a new species like the "Scallobit," a scallop-crusted halibut wrapped in a crimson cape of jellied kimchi.

It's too bad one trick Serpico and his benefactor, Stephen Starr, haven't been able to pull off is resurrecting lower South Street, a pawnshop honky-tonk as thick as ever with hookah smoke and dodgy denizens.

It's no doubt one reason that Serpico, the restaurant, hasn't become quite the destination dining juggernaut some imagined when the chef arrived from New York's Momofuku three years ago.

The exterior is easy to miss — a low, black-brick facade with a porthole door and windows louvered shut like a private club. Inside the broodingly handsome interior, clever cocktails are crafted at an unusual oval island of a wooden bar that feels more like living room furniture. In the dining room beyond, where the menu-scrawled blackboard and black tile walls are capped with an aurora of light, a rare display of culinary thrills still emanates from the counter of its spaceship open kitchen.

Sliced raw fluke bathed in the tangy heat of charred jalapeño vinegar presses against the pop of tonburi seeds, shaved celery, and kombu. Silky chawanmushi custard accents the twin crunch of hackleback caviar and coral-shape cauliflower mushrooms. Tiny tortellini made of shaved raw turnips come stuffed with creamy foie gras.

Some of those memorable bites came from the stellar tasting menu Serpico discontinued a year ago to focus more on à la carte.

But this kitchen is always full of surprises: a phyllo-wrapped confit carrot caught in a cloud of foamed ginger carrot juice; caper brined trout posed over yellow pepperoncini spice and jewels of orange roe; blackened duck wings; and an epic bowl of chewy ramen with king crab glazed in the buttery fermented funk of a smoked bacon XO sauce.

With detail-oriented, outgoing service that still manages to feel casual, and a drink program that embraces sake and cocktails with as much fervor as its eclectic wines (Hungarian furmint? yum), Serpico delivers one of the most thoughtful contemporary restaurant adventures in town. Diners must simply be willing to brave South Street to find it.