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Morgan's Pier: A 'picnic' menu on the Delaware

"Excuse me," said a sweaty dude in shorts appearing with paddle in hand and suddenly burrowing beneath our picnic table. "That's my ping-pong ball!"

"All kinds of melons" is a medley of fruit that's been compressed with ginger beer, grilled or pickled, and tossed in watermelon vinaigrette, tarragon and candied hazelnuts.
"All kinds of melons" is a medley of fruit that's been compressed with ginger beer, grilled or pickled, and tossed in watermelon vinaigrette, tarragon and candied hazelnuts.Read moreDAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer

"Excuse me," said a sweaty dude in shorts appearing with paddle in hand and suddenly burrowing beneath our picnic table. "That's my ping-pong ball!"

I paused my crudo groove - lifting legs for the umpteenth time - then returned to chef George Sabatino's clever two-way riff on squid and smoked corn with an extra nod of appreciation.

Even with storm clouds strafing the Delaware River waterfront that night, the revelry hadn't paused at Morgan's Pier. Beanbags were flying into cornhole boards. A bachelorette party was ramping-up the giggles with every round of sangria and fresh lemonade shandies, while the guys nearby in khakis and Topsiders did their best to act natural with cans of Oskar Blues ale in hand.

It was a surprisingly preppy crowd considering Morgan Pier's reputation, with a deep craft beer list and a lineup of nationally renown DJs, as the spot Indie Philly goes to party by the river. The tattooed hipsterswould surely show when the nightly music kicked in.

But on this eve, as the daylight faded and this sprawling deck's light-strung Linden trees blinked on, a PATCO train rattled past with red, white and blue lights twinkling across the majestic span of the Ben Franklin Bridge overhead. As if on cue, colorful holiday fireworks exploded on the horizon.

I turned back to our table, dove into the rich broth of tiny Manila clams spiced with house-made ramp sausage, and wondered: Is there a more compelling perch to savor the potential of Philadelphia's riverfront?

It's a natural asset that's shamefully been squandered to date. But Morgan's Pier co-owner Avram Hornik and designer Groundswell have shown impressive vision since their "recycled chic" makeover last year of Rock Lobster, now clad in lumber from old shipping pallets, blooming flower boxes, spool tables and trellises strung with hops.

The addition this summer of former Stateside chef George Sabatino has added another layer of culinary intrigue, and potentially another audience. But could a young chef whose star rose over 35 seats in South Philly keep his luster cooking for 1,200 from May through September?

The answer: A resounding "yes!" And while Sabatino's kitchen wasn't flawless, I often found myself in awe of his ability to capture his signature knack for seasonality, wit, and deceptive complexity without seeming stuffy or overdone, for an affordable "picnic" menu that must be turned out in eight minutes or less.

The daily crudo offered some of the most intriguing combinations: a fan of raw scallop over tart tomatillo puree topped with flash-frozen blueberry dust one day; the next, a double-take on squid (both poached and flash-fried) paired with smoked corn, chile oil and creamy sea urchin sauce. Ears of corn came glazed in vivid lobster butter. Boiled peanuts, first brined in root beer and cayenne spice, plancha-roasted and dusted with garlicky smoked salt and chives, were a thirst-stoking sensation.

In a dining scene better known for its mozzarella sticks and cheesesteaks, Sabatino is a fearless apostle of freshness.

"All kinds of melons," a multicolored medley of fruit that's been compressed with ginger beer, grilled or pickled before getting tossed in watermelon vinaigrette, tarragon and candied hazelnuts, may be one of the most quenching things I've ever eaten. Adorable baby eggplants pack a pickled punch with mint, griddled and served over fresh-mashed green garbanzos beside the spicy crunch of sous-chef Mike Blau's sharply fermented kimchi. And there was more produce on the Morgan's Pier sharing-sized vegetable board (roasted maitake, arugula-hazelnut salad, caper-marinated squash dusted with shaved Piave) than most Delaware Avenue club-goers probably eat in a month (jalapeño poppers don't count).

Of course, while Hornik can bring a star chef to the pier, the club's classic appetites must still be sated. And this kitchen obliges, cooking more than half a ton of potatoes every week for its "really good fries" - hand-cut, two-day frites that live up to their name. Chicken wings also get an upgrade, cured overnight, smoked, simmered to tenderness, quick-fried and glazed in a garlicky lemongrass-molasses with salty bits of pickled watermelon rind. And mozzarella sticks have nothing on those cheddar fritters ribboned with kale.

This crew got a little carried away reinventing the burger for speedy mass-production, a high-tech chip of a patty that's vacuum cooked sous-vide (for perfect pinkness), flash-frozen in liquid nitro (for ideal crust), then deep-fried medium-rare and ready in 30 seconds flat. I loved the gamy dry-aged richness of the blend. But the ground meat was left unfortunately mushy from its slow bath in a bag. The highlight was the tangy smear of house-made "American cheese" concocted from a slurry of Grafton cheddar and carrageenan by chef de cuisine Paul Lyons.

It wasn't my only disappointment. A soft-shell crab special was flabbily sautéed, and chewy. And Sabatino doesn't have enough patience for the smoker, eschewing the more profound effect of true low-and-slow in favor of smokey accents assisted by tenderizing steam. The effect, on both the ribs and chicken, was weak.

As a result, an anchor of the otherwise impressive "pork board" - a vast sharing platter (the most expensive item at $30) took a backseat to the potted pork rillettes, the ramp-lined sausage, and a salty-tender slice of pork belly.

The steam oven was kinder to the whole branzino, an exceptionally moist fish stuffed with fennel and mint, served with charred limes.

Our lavishly tattooed and buzz-cut waitresses were cheery and up to snuff on all the details. But things might have played-out differently had the manager's eyes not flickered with recognition at my late arrival, prompting a move from the dark, mosquito-infested corner beyond the bar, where my party initially was seated, in favor of a well-cushioned spot in the lovely raised dining area protected by glowing citronella candles. No, prime seating and a breezy view aren't always guaranteed - especially if you come late, when waits can stretch an hour-plus.

But such are the inevitable drawbacks when the latest hit mega-deck lets one of the Philly's brightest culinary stars to cook up, not down, to the masses.

Even for dessert, when Chinese bao buns became wondrous doughnuts and house-made watermelon syrup transformed "wudder" ice into a delight.

As errant ping-pong balls kept flying beneath our table (legs up!) I tried so hard not to also devour the entire funnel cake. But it was the lightest nest of crispy sweet dough I'd ever eaten. And the Morgan's Pier magic was too strong to resist.