Philadelphia, as seen through the price tag at the bottom of a whiskey glass, can seem like a disorienting place.
Isn't it strange that the same two-ounce pour of Jefferson's Reserve bourbon can run you anywhere from $15 to $24? Or that a shot of Highland Park 12-year-old Scotch will range from $13 to $22? A tumbler of familiar Maker's Mark will cost $9. Or it might cost $13, depending on where you are drinking.
Few things in the restaurant world fluctuate according to address prestige quite as drastically as a pour of booze. And you can pretty much peg the location of your bar stool based on how much you're (over-) paying for that shot. At the top of the heap are the shiny spirit palaces of Rittenhouse Square - the stunning world-class collection of bottles at sleek Ashton Cigar Bar (my broker's favorite) and Jose Garces' tall wall of top-shelf booze at Village Whiskey.
Bars in slightly less upscale restaurant districts, such as the Twisted Tail in Headhouse Square and Heritage in Northern Liberties, typically land somewhere in the middle. At the bottom of the range, where real whiskey bargain-hunters frolic, are those hidden places at the edgier corners of the city grid, such as the Trestle Inn off Callowhill and the unmarked Hop Sing Laundromat in Chinatown, whose owner, Lê, keeps prices unnaturally low simply to needle his competition.
It might come as something of a surprise, then, that one of Philly's best-priced whiskey destinations is in hyper-trendy Fishtown. But Lloyd Whiskey Bar is not in that part of Fishtown. It sits at the eastern end of Girard Avenue, a walk of far too many blocks for most Frankford Avenue tourists (who pay at least a few dollars more per glass for Fette Sau's stellar American collection).
Lloyd instead occupies the satisfying under-the-radar role of genuine neighborhood gem, where the tattooed locals come to a funky room decorated with relics of owner Scott Coudriet's childhood den, where the Manhattans and signature cocktails are expertly mixed, the deviled eggs are fried, and the soulfully eclectic playlist slides from Joey Ramone to Bobby Womack to Johnny Cash.
Lloyd is co-owned by Coudriet's dad, not coincidentally named Lloyd, who retired as a science teacher from nearby Penn Treaty Middle School just before opening the bar three years ago. (The name also refers to the ghostly bartender in Stephen King's The Shining, and a recurring theme on Lloyd's cocktail list.)
The place had stayed largely beyond my notice for its first three years, however. For one, it took over the forgettable spud of a concept that was the Hot Potato Cafe.
But its food identity was not much to speak of, either, at least until the arrival of peripatetic chef Val Stryjewski just over a year ago helped give Lloyd's menu some real ambition, tackling house charcuterie and finding new levels of decadence for classic comforts.
A crispy pile of deep-fried duck skins zapped with spicy Buffalo sauce? A tender slab of bourbon-glazed pork belly on top of your mac 'n' cheese, English muffin, or your double-pattied "Grand-dad" burger (naturally also topped with a stack of onion rings)? Those pile-it-on indulgences eat better than they might sound when a perfectly executed Sazerac is wafting up anise and citrus winks from your glass. Or just as tempting is the latest sought-after bottle of luxury bourbon - such as Wild Turkey's 17-year-old Master's Keep, which retails for $150 and is priced here about as low as it will go, with the sipper's option for a $18 half-pour.
After Stryjewski's departure two months ago, new chef Ethan Morgan continued the theme, adhering to the philosophy that "whiskey-friendly" food pulls no punches when it comes to fat content, Sriracha spice, and witty combinations.
I did appreciate his colorful and quasi-healthful nod to seasonality with an elaborate ode to baby carrots, which came pickled, roasted and raw in vinaigrette over creamy smears of house-made smoked ricotta, and even scattered with cocoa crumbles for faux "soil."
But in general, Lloyd is not the place to go after perusing the latest report from the World Health Organization. The Sriracha-buttered popcorn here is too irresistible to deal with that kind of guilt. And you've got to love a restaurant with the spirit to embrace a Parliament-Funkadelic-theme special brunch with the same creative gusto as a vertical Glenfiddich tasting with the distillery's red-bearded ambassador.
For brunch, there was the "Atomic Dog" inspiration of two hot dogs topped with eggs Benedict, which made a nice slacker before we took on the crisply fried chicken over sweet kernel-studded grits, a taco trio topped with scrambled eggs and house-made chorizo, and some of the best buttermilk pancakes I've had in a long time (with real Pennsylvania maple syrup.)
At Lloyd's Glenfiddich tasting (three different age editions paired with three different nibbles for $30), Morgan turned out a nutmeg-scented wild boar sausage with caraway-braised red cabbage that was spot-on for the extra bourbon barrel spice evident in the 14-year-old whiskey.
He misfired on surprisingly bland boar rillettes for the almost chocolaty 17-year-old Scotch (also misnaming the meat preparation a "roulade.") And it wasn't the only letdown. The braised short rib was far too fatty. The grilled octopus was completely lost between too many other ingredients on their tangy BBQ skewers. Our poached egg at brunch was not hot.
But there were still far more successes that exceeded reasonable expectations for any neighborhood bar, from those crispy rails of chickpea fries over zesty pepper jam to a tender leg of duck confit over silky butternut squash puree.
I wish the roll had been just a bit softer for the delicate curry-spiced fried chunks of pickled Japanese eggplant. But the rustic baguette baked especially for Lloyd by Philly Bread was ideal for the turkey leg sandwich. This open-faced mound of moist braised meat, layered high over sausage stuffing and a vivid pink smear of tangy cranberry mayo (plus a deconstructed side of marshmallow-dotted yams), managed to evoked Thanksgivings past and visions of leftovers to come, all for an extremely reasonable $13. The menu tops out at $18.
With the stereo bopping from Janis Joplin to Beck to Gil Scott-Heron, and our whiskey glasses moving on to brands that were exotic (plummy Japanese Nikka Taketsuru) and recently revived (licorice-nosed I.W. Harper), we rode that nostalgia train straight to dessert. Morgan's take on monkey bread brought chewy nuggets of cinnamon-sugared dough rolling over bourbon cream cheese icing and smoked almonds, and along with it boardwalk memories galore.
But it was the butterscotch pudding dusted with pretzel crumbs that had me hooked, mostly because Morgan had the sense to put a jolt of real Monkey Shoulder Scotch into the mix. At Lloyd Whiskey Bar, where even the custard is playfully boozy, I'd expect nothing less.
Next week, Craig LaBan explores the region's new brewpubs.
VERY GOOD (2 bells out of 4)
LLOYD WHISKEY BAR
529 E. Girard Ave., 215-425-4600; lloydwhiskeybar.com
This funky neighborhood bar at Fishtown's eastern edge has evolved into one of the best cocktail havens in town, with one of the most fairly priced whiskey lists around. The kitchen, likewise, has become increasingly ambitious over the last two years, with house-charcuterie and creative uses of fatty favorites (fried duck skins, pork belly sliders) to complement the booze, plus whimsical brunches themed to the bar's eclectic music playlist.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Fried duck skins with Buffalo sauce; Sriracha-maple Brussels sprouts; Sriracha-buttered popcorn; pork belly sliders; heirloom carrot-smoked ricotta salad; Lloyd burger; curry-fried eggplant; turkey leg sandwich; duck leg confit; butterscotch pudding. Brunch: fried chicken and grits; chorizo-egg tacos; pancakes.
DRINKS The bartenders are sure-handed with well-crafted cocktails, including outstanding classics such as Manhattan, Sazerac, and Blood and Sand, as well as creative signatures (apricot-kissed Wild Turkey of Jack and Wendy). Most impressive, though, is the 150-plus whiskey list with very fair pricing, from great Americans (Willett, George T. Stagg, and Wild Turkey's luxurious new 17-year) to fine Scotch (Ardbeg, Auchentoshan, a vertical of Glenfiddich) and worthy international finds (Nikka Taketsuru.) A solid craft beer list is also available.
WEEKEND NOISE With music pumping and liquor flowing, expect a 93-decibel din. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner nightly 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
All major cards.
Reservations only for parties of six or more.
Street parking only.