Brick & Mortar lifts the Loft District to go-there status
'So, where are you going?" is a question I get asked often when one of my Center City neighbors sees me heading off the street.
"So, where are you going?" is a question I get asked often when one of my Center City neighbors sees me heading off the street.
I tend to be cagey on this topic, even among friends. But for the sake of experiment I decided, for once, to share: "I'm heading to Brick & Mortar in the Loft District. You know where that it is, right? That emerging neighborhood north of Chinatown that apparently inspired David Lynch's Eraserhead."
My neighbor held up her hand to stop me from wasting my breath: "Sorry, that would require me to go east of Broad and north of Market. It's not happening."
Well, so much for the invitation, neighbor. You missed out on some great cocktails, a bowl of serious chick peas and a spit-roasted pork belly I still think about.
But it's no surprise. Philadelphia is a tribal city when it comes to dining. Nothing defines the borders these days as much as our neighborhood restaurants. And most pockets of the city have become so rich in options that leaving the 'hood demands extra-extra motivation.
East Passyunk and Fishtown have clearly made their case as worthy destinations. But now the Loft District - the once-dilapidated industrial zone east of Broad bordered by Spring Garden and Vine - has finally grown enough residents and rehab projects to begin emerging from long-held potential to "get-there-soon" status.
About 75 sweaty members of the Fishtown Beer Runners club even ran the three miles to Brick & Mortar from their tribal clubhouse recently, filling the long concrete space at the base of the newly rehabbed Goldtex building with the kind of boisterous funk you'd expect from a mass of red-cheeked, endorphin-pumped joggers. Noisy! Thirsty! (And fragrant, too . . . )
But the sunny old industrial space - a former shoe factory now reimagined with commissioned graffiti and pictures of a spiral-horned kudu (Brick & Mortar's spirit animal), dark wood tables, half-moon booths, and exposed air ducts - craves a crowd. And there are more than a few worthy brews here to cool one down - a quenching Anderson Valley gose, St. Benjamin Liaison saison, Tripel Karmeliet.
But it would be a mistake not to explore the expert cocktails from Christina Rando, the former Franklin Mortgage Co. mixologista who's working wonders with some revived classics (Tuxedo #2, Bamboo) and a lower-alcohol "session" section of drinks I found particularly elegant and refreshing. They're the perfect palate-prepper for chef Brian Ricci's grill-centric menu.
Of course, the Loft District has several other worthy spots. With Michael and Jeniphur Pasquarello's three pioneering restaurants (Cafe Lift, Prohibition, and Bufad) paving the way, a revitalized Trestle Inn, a thriving concert venue (Underground Arts) and a Dominican steam table (Parada Maimon) for soulful roast chicken and beans, the neighborhood is already eating and drinking well. With plans for the Reading Viaduct rail park almost imminent and Elixr planning a new cafe-roastery in the Goldtex building, too, the boom here has only begun.
Perched on the southern end of the district, Brick & Mortar, as imagined by managing partner Mike Welsh (ex-Franklin Mortgage, Lemon Hill), can be the neighborhood's most visible and polished hub.
Considering that tall ambition, Ricci's menu still feels somewhat like a rough sketch striving to offer a little something for everyone, an eclectic collection of small skewers, sharing boards, seasonal salads, and spit-roasted meats. There's even a full English breakfast (with blood pudding!) for early-Sunday risers determined to watch English Premier League soccer on the restaurant's big screen.
With a neighborhood crowd that still feels like a blank slate, I understand the impulse to let diners define the experience with DIY meals. But it sometimes falls flat. The skewers in the "smalls" section were so tiny (just a couple of cubes of meat), our first reaction was: "That's it?"
The ever-reactive Ricci has already bumped them up with larger three-skewer portions for $11 to $14. And the good news? Ricci can cook: the former Kennett chef (also Django, Pub & Kitchen, Tabla) creates food with full flavor and occasional exotic pop.
The tender chunks of hanger steak, marinated in hoisin, evoke the satisfying chew and soy sweetness of Vietnamese "shaking beef." The tandoori pork is vivid with ginger, coriander, and cumin.
The pan-roasted chick peas ribboned with purple kale and sparked with preserved lemon, smoked paprika, and Calabrian chilies in yogurt, is another starter not to miss. So is the heirloom tomato salad, lit with anise hyssop from Ricci's garden and topped with a burratalike dollop of creamy fresh house-made cheese whipped with olive oil.
Sharing platters are another great option to begin. The cheeses are always high-grade (including Doe Run's Blow Horn) though a request for extra bread added an unadvertised upcharge of $1 a slice - a surprise even to Ricci when I told him.
I was no fan of the Shoregasm oysters, which were flaccid and not very cold. The vegetable platter, with half a roasted torpedo onion, long beans, and cold eggplant, was skimpy.
The spit-roasted rotisserie entrées, all served with grilled corn and summer squash in chermoula sauce, can also seem spare. But at only $15, the value is still fair. I loved the pork belly, a beautifully tender roulade finished to a crisp. The roast chicken was also juicy and full of flavor. The leg of lamb was redolent of its long marinade in rosemary, garlic, and lemon. The Ethiopian spiced short-rib ends were a finger-licking flanken-like delight - though too fatty for this crowd. It's been replaced with a meatier, slightly more expensive ($22) and more common hunk of short rib with watermelon curry.
Among the other surefire hits: a house-made cavatelli in a peppery Pecorino cacio e pepe sauce I'd crave regularly if I lived in one of the Goldtex apartments upstairs. Also, Ricci's burger will likely win its own following. The Snowflake roll was a bit bulky, but what's inside - great LaFrieda beef slathered in mayo amped by extra tallow fat - has universal carnivore appeal.
Follow that with a warm dish of caramel-drenched sticky toffee pudding - plus maybe another Rando cocktail - and Brick & Mortar has more than enough virtues to anchor its debut while both the restaurant and its neighborhood continue to define their future.
VERY GOOD (2 BELLS OUT 4)
BRICK & MORTAR
315 N. 12th St., 215-923-1596; brickandmortarphilly.com
This ambitious newcomer to the growing Loft District channels the neighborhood's industrial spirit, with a long concrete space dressed up in graffiti, rich woods, and steel, plus a flexible menu targeted at a young bar crowd that likes to graze. Ex-Kennett chef Brian Ricci's grill-centric menu seems a bit minimalist as he finds the proper tone, but it rises on seasonality and vivid, exotically spiced flavors. Soccer fans come for the early-Sunday full-English plate and Premier League games on the big screen. The bar, however, stocked with craft beers and excellent cocktails from Christina Rando, may be the best reason to visit.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Tandoori pork; hoisin hanger steak; roasted chick peas with yogurt; heirloom tomato salad with EVOO whip; fries bravas; cavatelli cacio e pepe; cheese board; burger; rotisserie meats (chicken, lamb, pork belly); sticky toffee pudding.
DRINKS A midsize selection of good craft beers and exceptionally made cocktails from Susan Rando (ex-Franklin Mortgage Co.) are among Brick & Mortar's biggest attractions. The cocktails draw on classic inspirations and do a fine job of presenting hand-made drinks with streamlined restraint - including a refreshing focus on lower-octane "session" drinks using fortified wines, liqueurs, and pre-bottled cocktails (try the Paloma.) Get the Chrysanthemum, Tuxedo #2, or Bamboo. Highlight breweries: St. Benjamin, Anderson Valley Brewing Co., Destihl, Pizza Boy, and Tripel Karmeliet. There is a small selection of food-friendly wines (such as Golem Riesling), including a handful on draft.
WEEKEND NOISE The long room's old industrial concrete bones can become seriously noisy, at 95 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday through Wednesday, 4 p.m.-midnight; Thursday through Saturday, until 1 a.m.; Saturday English brunch, 7:45 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
All major cards.
Street and lot parking only.