At some point between the delicacy of roasted quails and the char-kissed arm of octopus curling over a plate of giant white beans at the new Kanella South, I sensed a presence behind me. It was more a powerful aroma than anything else, and it smelled like a campfire approaching.
I turned around from the long country table that fronts the open kitchen and saw chef-owner Konstantinos Pitsillides bearing a plate of grilled bread.
"I'm very close to the charcoal," he later told me. "It's mostly about the charcoal for me."
The chance to light a real fire, it seems, was one of the big reasons Pitsillides took the considerable risk of moving his wildly popular Cypriot BYOB from its boisterous little corner room in Washington Square West to this rambling space with an unremarkable history at an inconvenient edge of Queen Village.
There was also, of course, the opportunity to double his seating at the new location, plus a handsome barroom outfitted with Cypriot tile and a new liquor license - assets Pitsillides and his wife, Caroline, have made fine use of.
The glass-wall-wrapped dining room of the former Village Belle (and Frederick's before that) has been beautifully transformed into a Mediterranean haven with coffered white wood ceilings, hammered-copper accents, and slate-colored booths. The drink list overseen by general manager Ulises Robles does a fantastic job of weaving Cypriot notes of piney masticha liquor, citrus, herbs, and nuts into creative, well-made cocktails. The wine list is small but smartly chosen, with geo-specific flavors, including bottles from Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, and southern France perfectly tuned to the menu's grill-forward flavors.
Most of Kanella South's excellent service staff are personable veterans of the old BYOB (like Bobby Brinchwirth, an Ozarks-trained wizard at deboning whole fish), and they have done an impressive job of stepping up to sell those beverages with informative, sound advice.
But it's really the addition of that open flame - glowing inside the wood-fired hearth and beneath the grill, where thick goat chops sizzle and thick pork shoulder cooks slowly on a rotisserie spit - that elevates this new edition of Kanella and that has given the entire menu a deeper level of depth, personality, and rustic power.
The grilled whole branzino wrapped in grape leaves that was one of Pitsillides' signatures at 10th and Spruce is exponentially better here, the leaves crisped over the dry heat, the downy flesh so moist inside with lemon and herbs. Sumac and charcoal work in tandem to infuse two semi-boneless little quails splayed over lentils ringed by yogurt with an almost magnetic force. The taste of wood smoke added just a subtle savory backnote to the gamy flesh of guinea fowl, which was then braised with the ginger-cardamom spice of house ras-el-hanout, pulled and baked inside the flaky phyllo round of a bastilla pastry. But that earthy depth is noticeably present, teased out by the sweet-tart contrast of homemade apricot jam spooned atop the folded crust for one of the most extraordinary dishes I ate all year.
The wood oven works wonders on the Armenian-style lacmajun flatbread, too, but it was the soulful lamb stuffing, minced with cinnamon, fennel, and cumin, that made it an irresistible starter. A similar ground lamb filling (albeit more oniony and touched with clove) gets folded inside the pyramid-shape manti dumplings. Set over creamy yogurt and glazed orange with Aleppo chili-infused butter and mint, they are among my favorite new dumplings anywhere.
Naturally, the ever-provocative Pitsillides (whose eyes smolder so intensely fellow cooks describe his gaze as "a Cypriot death stare") views the awesomeness of his manti as a political message to the Turks who invaded his island in 1974 and who still occupy nearly half of Cyprus: "I'm from the Greek side," he said, "and some Turkish people tell me they worry my manti are better than what their grandmothers make."
That intense pride in heritage from Pitsillides, the son of a butcher, tanner, and farmer in the southern coastal town of Limassol, has always marked the flavors of Kanella as a unique and genuine study in the art of elevated rustic cooking. One spoonful of sublimely earthy trahana soup - sun-dried fermented wheat thinned into a creamy porridge studded with tangy cubes of sheep's milk haloumi - and you'll understand how a soup with 2,000 years of tradition can remain relevant today.
Kanella's plates do not bother with precious compositional fuss, usually just a hunk of meat, a brothy mound of alt-grains (like bulgur, barley, or split peas), a crunchy peasant-style salad, and a dollop of thick, strained yogurt. But few cooks in town are able to coax the myriad varieties and deep resonance of flavors that Pitsillides does. The spit-roasted chunks of pork shoulder are tender, but also offer enough texture to slow the teeth and highlight its savory marinade of vinegar and wine, bay and Bergamot orange, accented by the "pikla" crunch of cauliflower pickled English-style with turmeric and mustard. Lamb kofta kebabs mixed with pistachios and apricots come with hearty bulgur wheat and fava beans.
Those kebabs are among the best choices for conservative eaters here - as is the juicy wood-grilled poussin dusted with za'atar over brothy basmati "jeweled" with fava beans, almonds, and raisins.
But Pitsillides is at his best with more adventurous cuts. His braised rabbit is easily one of the best in town, tender over a soft puree of split yellow peas threaded with kale, feta, and dill. And those goat chops, cooked to a perfect medium rare over lentils and pumpkin, were like the best lamb chops ever, but meatier and with a bit more swagger.
Vegetable lovers should adore the thin, grilled eggplant rounds sparked with green olives and pomegranate seeds, and the crispy zucchini fritters fragrant with dill, the flaky bureki pastry filled with feta and drizzled with thyme honey, and the heat-crisped saganaki slices of ouzo-splashed haloumi cheese scattered with salty capers and sweet grapes.
The only misfire? A grilled skewer of head-on shrimp that were small and strangely mushy of texture. Maybe a Greek coffee that was a little too muddy.
Otherwise, from the daily dips to the drinks to the desserts of loukoumades fritters soaked in orange blossom syrup and a galatapoureko pastry that layered semolina pudding between syrupy phyllo sheets, the Pitsillides' new home is an impressive success, as smooth an opening as any this year.
Then again, Kanella South is less a "new restaurant" than a bold reimagining of an established success - more expansive, equipped to grow, and with the unlimited potential to go as far as the Cypriot chef and his live fires will take him.
Next week, Craig LaBan revisits the Year in Bells.
EXCELLENT (3 BELLS OUT OF 4)
757 S. Front St, Philadelphia 19147, 215-644-8949; kanellarestaurant.com
Cypriot chef Konstantinos Pitsillides took a major risk in moving his hit BYOB from its beloved little Wash West corner to a much larger space with a liquor license on the edge of Queen Village, and it has paid off. The new Kanella is better in every way, from the gorgeous white wood and glass-wrapped dining room to the hand-chosen wines and cocktails, and an evocative Mediterranean menu that draws greater inspiration and deeper rustic resonance from the addition of a wood-fired grill and oven. With excellent service that has grown alongside the kitchen, this is easily one of the year's most distinctive openings.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Daily dips; trahana soup; zucchini fritters; feta bureki; saganaki; octopus with giant beans; manti lamb dumplings; keftedes; lacmajun; grilled eggplant salad; grape-leaf-wrapped whole fish; rabbit leg with yellow split peas; goat chops; quail special; whole poussin; kofta kebab; rotisserie pork shoulder; guinea fowl bastilla special; loukoumades; galatapoureko; nut trio.
DRINKS The wine list is small but smartly focused on wines of the region suited to the Mediterranean flavors, including a red and a white from Cyprus (Tsiakkas), several bottles from Greece (including a modern take on retsina from Kechris Kechribari), Lebanon (Hochar), Hungary (Evolucio Furmint), several good choices from Spain (Naia), and French mourvèdre (Château La Roque). The cocktails made with Cypriot liqueurs like Rakomelo and piney Skinos Mastiha are especially creative and fun.
WEEKEND NOISE The glass-wrapped room hits a boisterous 93 decibels, but good table spacing helps. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday, until 10 p.m. Closed Monday.
Dinner entrees, $21-$31.
All major cards.
Street parking only.