As singer Peter Gaudioso rapped a hand-drum and leaned into the mic, guitarist Chris Farrell kicked a musical loop to set a groove for their set of 1970s "acousti-funk" on stage - just as the pig head landed on our table.
There were also crusty slices of homemade bread with herbed butter, a creamy scoop of house-smoked trout pâté, and a garden-fresh bushel of peas poached in bacony whey on another plate, too. With a topflight glass of Hirsch bourbon in one hand and Jolly Pumpkin's excellent Luciernaga pale ale (one of 36 draft beers) in the other, it was a challenge, quite frankly, to know which way to turn.
There's a lot going on at Heritage in Northern Liberties - a lot of good things, considering I'm talking about great drinks, handcrafted seasonal food, and live music. But how often do all these good arts coexist in harmony?
Not often. And that's partly the reason there are so few venues in Philadelphia where serious musicians and serious kitchens perform together rather than at odds with each other.
At Heritage, you only need to look at the refreshingly diverse crowd - equal parts chewing, chatting, and lending an attentive ear - to know this supremely ambitious new Northern Liberties venue is on the right track. Co-owners Jason Evenchik and Terrance Leach have been honing their music-presenting restaurant concept for several years at Time, though that much smaller venue on Sansom Street can easily "blow up" when the music surges in, says Leach.
Inside the much larger Heritage, a breezy, 90-seat space with roll-up garage-door walls, an al fresco patio, a live garden blooming over the 40-foot whiskey bar and exposed cedar-plank walls to help the acoustics pop, music manages to fill the air vividly without being overbearing. The sets are deliberately toned back just enough for meal times. But when the later crowd settles in, the horns are unleashed, and the band can swing hot, if Zach Mama's group was an indication.
All the while, former Time chef Sean Magee, 32, is stretching his own culinary chops, presenting good local ingredients in hearty, full-flavored plates beneath rustic tumbles of fresh produce.
At his best, Magee is a master of the Artful Pile school of cooking. Exhibit One is his big platter of succulent whole chicken, a brined and roasted Mennonite-raised Lancaster bird finished on a coal-fired grill, that arrives glossed with gravy beneath a green halo of string beans, favas, snap peas, and soft, herbed dumplings. A butterflied whole trout comes in similar pile-it-on fashion, and the grilled romaine heads and shaved radishes over top somehow did not overpower the delicacy of the sweet white fish below. Even the giant mound of the inevitable kale salad - baby greens shaved fine and tossed in garlicky dressing beneath a blizzard of shaved sheep's-milk cheese - transcended its inelegant presentation to become irresistible.
There's no questioning Magee's eye for good ingredients and his willingness to tackle labor-intensive cooking, from the crusty whole-wheat breads to whole-animal butchery and charcuterie. Sometimes, the details of more refined presentations, though, tripped him up.
The delicate pink snap of those thin-sliced sheets of sous-vide-poached pig-head torchon, for example, are overwhelmed by the jammy sweetness of a cherry sauce. The innate lusciousness of Texas Wagyu beef was lost on a tartare that was chopped too coarsely, oversalted, and distracted by tart green strawberries. Likewise, while I admire the kitchen's initiative to make its own goat cheese, its intense sourness took away from the subtle vegetal meatiness of the broad Romano beans.
More often than not, however, his efforts added up to success. I loved the sublime tenderness of his grass-fed brisket, cured a day, then sous-vide-poached for two, that picked up a mind-tricking BBQ cue from its side of deeply smoked cabbage. Smoke also does wonders for his take on patatas bravas, crispy hunks of hickory-smoked spuds over garlicky aioli. And his rabbit sausage also drew deep satisfaction from an unlikely smoked garnish, creamy stone-ground Castle Valley grits with shaved pickled turnips.
Magee can lean too much on his sous-vide machine. I'd have preferred an old-school big-vat-style poach of duck confit to the firmer bag-cooked leg he presented here. But it was delicious, nonetheless, over silky celery-root puree with cherries, favas, and peas.
Aside from some underperforming desserts (soggy pastry on the rhubarb handpie; peanut-butter semifreddo too soft to survive the squeeze of a frozen cookie sandwich), my least-favorite dishes involved shellfish. The mussels were too large for my taste, and a little dry. An otherwise wonderful dish of seared pork and potatoes was dimmed by clams that were just a little overcooked and sandy. The raw bar's oysters were expertly shucked with lots of residual juice, but the Virginia mollusks were flaccid, and weak on brine.
But for every mild misfire, there were two solid hits. The striped-bass crudo was silken and fresh, the pristine slices of raw white fish sparked with fennel, lemon, white soy, and chilies. The creamy-centered chicken croquettes were a comfort classic cleverly reinvented with a blast of frozen blue-cheese crumbles and the funky heat of a house-fermented hot sauce.
Magee's true talent, though, may well be his elevation of vegetables to a starring role. The tangy whey from that homemade goat cheese is used to poach sweet peas that, served generously with crispy nubs of bacon in broth, is an uncommonly savory ode to the common bean. His fresh mushroom pasta, meanwhile, is one of the most satisfying vegetarian dishes I've eaten all year, with fresh noodles ribboned through a mushroom ragu full of hearty textures and deep umami, the surprising pop of toasted quinoa adding a roasty crunch.
Our friendly and well-informed servers did a nice job guiding us through the meal - especially with the beers. There are more than enough to choose from on the rotating chalkboard of 36 taps, with many of the farmhouse ales I love (Oxbow Grizacca; Boulevard Tank 7; Brooklyn Sorachi Ace), plus local brew stars (Hop Devil on nitro; Dogfish Head Festina Pêche; Evil Genius' "Shut Up, Meg!"). And since there are only a handful of cocktails, the extensive list of 100-plus whiskeys (with both bourbon and Scotch) is best drunk nearly neat.
With great music beaming off the stage before us, serious food on our plates, and a glass of boozy happiness by my side, it's a recipe that works. Heritage manages to remind us how three such elemental pleasures of life - when presented in finely tuned balance - can add up to an experience that's greater than the sum of its parts.