As the food at Stateside begins arriving at my table in a seemingly endless train of Mason jars, I can't help but be reminded of the hipster satire cable series Portlandia.
"We can pickle that!" is the famous refrain of that IFC show's brine-bedazzled characters, though, of course, they go on to preserve old shoe heels, among other odd things, in jars.
The specimens under glass at Stateside, the new tavern at East Passyunk and Cross, are considerably more appetizing. Carrots tinged with cumin and ginger; fennel and butternut squash with toasted red chiles and orange zest; celery root and kohlrabi, simply dilled.
"We go through a lot of vinegar," concedes chef George Sabatino, 30, the former chef de cuisine at Barbuzzo, who's been giving this red-hot South Philly neighborhood an exciting taste of his DIY kitchen talents.
There are also creamy shreds of rabbit rillettes, with house-made pear preserves. Homemade mustard, touched with honey, sparks a wonderfully rustic pork liver terrine spiked with applejack. A jar of foie gras whipped with butternut squash would have been fantastic if the unset orange "mousse" hadn't been runnier than a pot of queso.
Sabatino's ever-experimental kitchen still has some wrinkles to smooth out in its small-plate study of great American (mostly local) ingredients. But my visits to this surprisingly engaging and industrious four-month-old restaurant make me excited to see where Stateside goes.
Launched by the owners of the popular Green Eggs Cafe brunch restaurants, Stateside represents in many ways another refining step for the gastropub movement: presuming it doesn't need to be singularly defined by a focus on beer. The drink-forward attitude is apparent from the moment you step into the little space, a long-defunct dry cleaner's, where a stool-lined bar flanked by more than 60 American whiskeys traces the windowed front corner walls like a cocktailian cockpit, gazing out onto East Passyunk's "Singing Fountain."
To be sure, there are plenty of great beers on the blackboard menu, too, but they gravitate slightly more toward familiar hits (Dogfish 90 minute; Yards Love Stout; Victory Prima Pils) than to the novel rarities that are the lifeblood of neighboring beer bars. Stateside's focus is a bit more well-rounded, with Jenn Conley's smart twists on classic cocktails with homemade mixers (house-steeped sweet vermouth for the Martinez and Negroni; house grenadine for the egg-frothed Clover Club), and more than a few good wines, from Duckhorn chardonnay to Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant.
And then there is a domestic whiskey list stocked with four dozen American greats (Pappy Van Winkle, Four Roses, Eagle Rare, and High West among them). The good stuff is pricey, of course, but reliably $2 to $3 less per two-ounce shot than at Village Whiskey.
Manager Anthony Gualtieri and his crew do a nice job describing the many nuances on both the drink and food menus - the suggestion for Death's Door white whiskey was a good one. And they won't hesitate to retreat to the kitchen for answers if they don't know a detail - which can be challenging given the ever-changing nature of this menu, inspired by seasonal shifts and continuous tweaks to dishes.
With only 28 seats at butcher-block tables amid the whitewashed brick walls and antique neighborhood photos in the rear dining room (to supplement the 12 bar stools), the considerable energy spent crafting the food here is unexpected. The focus on the kitchen should blossom even more as the weather warms, especially if plans for an additional 50 seats outside materialize.
Whether Sabatino can more than double his kitchen's already labor-intensive output remains to be seen. But he'd better start stuffing more of those homemade sausages right now - because I loved the duck link seasoned with sage and cinnamon. And I was especially taken by the truffled sausage with molten rich marrow, set over vibrant green Brussels-sprout puree with pickled sunchokes, which more than any of the other celebrated ingredients was the dish's brilliant spark.
There were a few dishes that still need fine-tuning. The bourbon-brined chicken was a pinch salty, with a side of beans in foie gras vinaigrette that lacked much obvious foie richness. The braised beef cheeks were tender enough, but lacked a little depth of flavor. What I remember most from the dish was the tart pop of house-pickled mustard seeds on top. (Give the brine chef a raise, please.)
Stateside would also do well to be a shade more delicate with its daily fish. Wonderfully fresh fillets were slightly overcooked on two separate visits, dimming seasonal sides of mushroom and barley one cool night and a vivid, fennel-infused seafood broth the next.
These are mild criticisms for a kitchen that could rise to a three-bell rating by year's end. There were glimpses of that already in a concept - suited for either thoughtful nibbles or a larger, more ambitious meal - that is settling into a comfortable groove.
You can start your meal with some truly sensuous delights: a half-dozen briny East and West Coast raw oysters with a sweet-tart splash of pomegranate mignonette; the luxuriously silky texture of minced beef tartare, truffled, cool, and glossed with raw quail egg, then studded with the surprise crunch of toasted hazelnuts; or a ripe wedge of spruce-wrapped Harbison cheese, oozing its creamy curds beside a streak of pureed almonds.
Sabatino makes his own cheese, too, a ricotta-like herbed goat cheese breaded and fried over escarole. Just don't ask for marinara with the fried cheese like the old-time locals, to Sabatino's chagrin. Gentrifying East Passyunk isn't the Italian enclave it used to be.
It's much more - and Stateside adds a sophisticated new angle. House applewood-smoked trout? Stateside has that, served with a beautiful salad of arugula and citrus. Grilled tri-tip steak (super-trendy in L.A.) comes here beneath an ivory pat of melting marrow butter. A steamy bowl of tiny Manila clams hits a new level with smoky, spicy chunks of house-made andouille sausage.
That hands-on creativity with charcuterie doesn't stop at dessert, though I'm so over the pig-with-sweets craze, the apple fritter with house bacon caramel was already a bit ho-hum. The re-engineered s'more, however, was a fascination - a cube of smoked chocolate ganache sitting atop a graham cracker and a sticky vanilla smear of house-whipped marshmallow fluff. My favorite, though, was the maple panna cotta, layered with pecan nougatine and crunchy cocoa nibs. Purists may balk that this panna had no shimmy because it was potted, of course, in a Mason jar. But I'm willing to call it awesome pudding, book an outdoor table when it gets warm, and eagerly wait to taste what Stateside pickles next.