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Society Hill Society inspired by the past

I have long puzzled over the fact that Philadelphia, for such an old city, has too few restaurants that truly connect to its history.

Bar seating and the dining area at Society Hill Society help to set the historical mood.
Bar seating and the dining area at Society Hill Society help to set the historical mood.Read moreDAVID M WARREN / STaff Photographer

I have long puzzled over the fact that Philadelphia, for such an old city, has too few restaurants that truly connect to its history.

Sometimes it takes an outsider such as Reed Barrow, an Alabama-born commercial designer who has lived in Chicago and New York, to fall in love with our past enough to conjure up a fresh morsel of it for brunch.

Society Hill Society, the new restaurant and bar of which Barrow is the managing partner, is very much inspired by that spirit, fueled by the long walks he took amid the colonial bricks of Society Hill after moving here, and followed by a book dive into the shrubs and syllabubs of The Larder Invaded, the exhibition on local foodways coauthored by William Woys Weaver for the Library Company and the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

And so it's no surprise there have been takes on snapper soup, shoofly pie, and Madeira-spiked punches on this cocktail-forward restaurant's early menus. It doesn't take much imagination to channel a historical mood here at brunchtime, perched at a weathered wooden booth and gazing out through the antique windowpanes onto the Sunday bustle of Headhouse Square's blooming farmer's market.

No doubt, these same shambles were alive two centuries ago with a far different group of merchants: the original "heirloom" producers our modern farmers now aim to re-create, and the "Society" of neighborhood artisans the restaurant's name pays homage to. But chef Yun Fuentes eagerly dips into the weekly bounty there to inspire, for example, the omelet I devoured, its tender Swiss chard center drizzled in the creamy richness of sauce tanged with cheddar from the market's Hillacres Pride.

A sense of genuine continuity is palpable in this space, its distressed plaster ceiling and reclaimed wood accents just a few details of an artful rehab for the cozy corner room that's been a working tavern for 150 years (most recently the Artful Dodger.) More important, Fuentes has embraced the back-to-local roots mission without falling into ye olde pewter plate clichés, turning instead to familiar motifs as points of departure for modern updates.

Chicken and waffles gets one of the more memorable revamps, a juicy breast crisped over a waffle earthy with cornmeal and schmaltz, ringed with white gravy studded with carrots and peas, and then topped with a fried egg and a spice-dusted crisp of skin that's been dehydrated into a cracker. Lancaster's "schnitz und knepp," or ham with apples and dumplings, makes a cameo here as a pork belly brined in cider, slow-cooked and crisped beside green apple salad and melty Parisienne gnocchi dumplings.

Fuentes, a former Tinto chef de cuisine who is the second Garces alum I've reviewed in two weeks updating traditional Pennsylvania flavors (following MacGregor Mann at Junto), delivers the sharp flavors and solid technique I'd expect.

His ode to pierogi are delicate, their handmade sour cream dumpling skins stuffed with truffled mashed potatoes over molasses-sweetened Vidalia onion jam. He tapas-izes chicken pot pie, tucking a creamy velouté of leg meat, carrots, and peas into croquette sticks that would please even the toughest Amish Spaniard. His summer peach soup is simply a gazpacho-good tribute to ripe local summer fruit, the sweet pureed peaches tanged with a hint of vinegar and garlic, sparked with salty bits of shaved ham and tiny floating spheres of creamy goat cheese.

Society Hill Society has struggled at times to maintain a sense of decent value, especially during the recent bargain nights of Restaurant Week, when its exclusive offering of a $35 prix fixe menu (billed as a $50 equivalent), passed off potato chips as one of its four courses (albeit with smoked onion dip), then offered an entrée with two modest-sized scallops. The fact that those scallops were delicious, paired with sweet pea puree, roasted carrots, and plugs of seared Lancaster-style corn mush, only stoked a lingering taste of being underfed.

I couldn't blame the couple at the bar who walked out instead of ordering, promising they'd return the day after Restaurant Week's skimpy portions were banished.

I'm not sure the usual three scallops is a much better bargain for $24, either. But I wouldn't mind digging into a larger slice of Fuentes' intensely savory skirt steak, basted with smoked blue cheese alongside tart pickled cherry tomatoes and airy tempura-fried onion rings.

The servings at brunch, though not exactly the kitchen-sink bellybusters popular elsewhere, were substantial enough to sate a hunger stoked by market shopping. My omelet, as noted, was perfect. I'd order the steak and eggs again simply for another bite of those rustic chunks of butter-fried potatoes.

It's a shame that Fuentes, short lately on kitchen help, overcooked our burger. Made as a smaller version of the perfectly puck-shaped, end-grain patty at Village Whiskey, it has potential to be a new favorite, the brisket-skirt meat blend broiled with a zingy glaze of ketchup (doctored up with onion confit) and posed atop a fluffy, house-baked potato bun.

I'd nonetheless return for a do-over burger at brunch, followed by a stack of sticky-bun French toast for dessert, glistening dark with caramel and a melting yellow scoop of house-churned sweet cream ice cream.

To wash it down, I'd not necessarily choose one of the bar's many fascinating-but-tincture-tinted cocktails, so much as a frothy glass mug of Pilsner Urquell, poured here as fresh as I've ever tasted (and sometimes from an unpasteurized keg) through a gorgeous brass tap topped with a hop cone.

Philadelphians have historically appreciated great beer. And history is happily alive and fresh again at Society Hill Society.

Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Dizengoff and Stock.