It's hard to even know where to begin with Michael Schulson's latest 13th Street blockbuster, except to say there's nothing quite like Double Knot in Philadelphia in terms of a full-drama dining experience.
The moody, bilevel Asia-plex is connected by a back hall (and a shared liquor license) to Schulson's neighboring Sampan. And there are so many things going on in this all-day venue - serious Elixr coffees to go with Schulson's mother's zucchini bread, Viet street food lunches, impressive cocktails, a robatayaki grill, and extraordinary sushi for dinner - that trying to untangle them all can tie the mind back up into knots. Triple knots! Holy mackerel knots!
That's what I was thinking when chef Kevin Yanaga's stunning aji tartare special arrived at my table, the head-on horse mackerel stripped of its fillets but somehow suspended in a curling leap over a mound of its dusky, sweet meat, finely diced and tossed in a citrusy ginger soy.
It was especially impressive in the candlelight of the downstairs speakeasy, a warren of rooms designed by Kate Rohrer as a transporting hideaway clad in singed cedar-plank walls and scrimshawlike murals (designed by Fishtown tattoo specialists True Hand Society), with vintage nautical-theme fixtures that evoke an Asian mood just obliquely enough.
The elaborate cocktails - smoking table-side, floated with maple foam, spritzed with yuzu "air" - keep the fashion-forward crowd well-oiled in their knit caps and porkpie hats. And so does the extensive list of sakes, which arrive with shot glasses snug inside cedar masu boxes to capture the fountainlike overflow of servers' generous pours.
But, most encouragingly, the food - thanks to Yanaga - is still Double Knot's most compelling draw. A meal here can certainly add up if you roam freestyle across this vast menu, as we did. But the $55 chef's tasting, which delivers 10 little plates (and a dessert), is a reasonable way to begin. And you will definitely enjoy the sushi, which is included.
Kawasaki-raised Yanaga, 44, a Morimoto and Zama alum who worked three years at Schulson's Izakaya in Atlantic City, is among the first around here to make sushi with warm rice, cooked in frequent small batches and seasoned in a high-tech Japanese mixer. It doesn't hold together as tightly as cold rice, so Yanaga uses less with each piece and spritzes each fish with seasoning, usually a mist of sweet and kelpy soy, to minimize the need, and potential damage, of additional dips at the table.
The temperature contrast works a subtle but noticeable magic, boosting the natural flavors and textures of cold seafood to more vivid relief - the yellowtail as rich as an Omega-3 butter bomb, the live scallop smooth as alabaster and sublimely sweet, a tasting of three different snappers rising in both delicacy and depth, with the meatiest one, kinmedai goldeneye snapper, touched by a zippy dab of yuzu chili paste.
The live spot prawn is so sweet it's almost candied next to the warm crunch of its deep-fried head and legs. A sheer slice of giant clam with edges sliced into fine fringe snaps between the teeth with a wash of tidal funk. And is there anything more sensual than an orange cloud of perfect Japanese uni cradled in a band of high-grade nori? It melts away like a scoop of cream and surf.
There are numerous other more composed specialties coming off the sushi bar that should not be missed - a seared albacore splashed in onion ponzu; a salmon sashimi sauced in a spicier ponzu and ginger; and sheer baguette crackers topped with lusciously minced toro tuna.
But, of course, Double Knot's menu is far more extensive than sushi, with wildly different personalities for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And though the range of cooked food has plentiful highlights, it also has some weak links.
The exceedingly dense morning "pop tart" stuffed with strawberries and cream cheese was one complete miss. But the clever Vietnamese street-food-themed lunch menu with mix-and-match proteins was a delight. Try the sweet soy-marinated chicken over an herb-blasted cabbage salad, or a banh mi stuffed with crisply fried tofu, which was surprisingly satisfying with pickled veggies and spicy mayo.
Not surprisingly then, the deep-fried cubes of miso-marinated tofu were among the dinner menu's more memorable "crispy" hits, piled over a vibrant green pesto of spicy mizuna. The everything-spiced bao buns stuffed with fusion twists - corned beef or crispy cakes of braised duck scrapple - were easy crowd-pleasers.
Almost as a rule, the more complicated and larger the cooked-food presentation, the less I liked it. Branzino may be popular, but it's a poor choice to be deep-fried whole without its bones, the lean meat steaming dry and cottony inside its crispy potato crust. A big braised short rib for two would have been spectacular if there were a hint more spice in its dark lemongrass-sake braise. A dramatic presentation for gyoza dumplings set into one big, crispy sheet would have been better if they were pooled in less sauce.
But for every small complaint, there were a half-dozen successes, including edgy surprises like the big hamachi collar whose firm, sake-roasted flesh came in a cast-iron pan glazed in miso caramel; the ribbons of lightly seared Wagyu beef tataki rolled around crunchy enoki mushrooms in a puddle of white soy; and a surprisingly tasty turkey neck laced with sweet and tender threads of meat that took on a hint of hickory and cherry wood smoke from the robatayaki.
Ultimately, aside from the sushi, that grill is the best reason to come, because its slow-roasting charcoal heat coaxes the essence from everything it touches, whether it's skewered coins of tender octopus, an incredibly juicy lamb chop, or a meltingly soft chunk of eggplant glazed in miso. I loved the gamier skewers of venison and quail, as well as the buttery chunks of Kobe beef and garlicky rolls of marinated rib eye topped with charred scallion relish. The seafood skewers of swordfish belly, scallop, and lobster were simple wonders, shined with a light caramel of yakitori sauce and sparkling with togarashi spice, but they still gushed with natural juice.
And that is what's most impressive about Double Knot. Despite the daunting complexity of its concept, the tiresome crush of trendy customers clamoring for one of its tables, and even the intricate decor that makes it an adventure to explore, the greatest pleasure here lies in the kitchen's minimalist instinct to let the prime ingredients shine.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Saté Kampar on East Passyunk Avenue
120 S. 13th St., 215-631-3868; doubleknotphilly.com
There's a lot going on beyond the understated entrance to this sexy, multilevel Sampan sibling on 13th Street. Elixr coffees flow in the moody ground-floor cafe, which also serves fun Vietnamese street food for lunch and stellar cocktails at night. But the real magic is hidden in the unmarked basement, a sultry, candlelit lair scented by the robatayaki grill, where chef Kevin Yanaga is also serving the most exceptional sushi here since the arrival of Zama and Morimoto. The knit-cap fashion scene is a bit much, and the vast menu has weak links, but the sushi is worth it, and the space transports like few in Philly.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Sushi (snapper tasting, live scallop, live spot-prawns, Japanese uni, giant clam, sea eel, yellowtail toro, Japanese mackerel with ginger, aji mackerel tartare, lobster tempura roll); albacore with onion ponzu; toro baguette; yellowtail sashimi; salmon sashimi; beef tataki; edamame dumpling; pastrami bao bun; Japanese fried chicken; crispy tofu over mizuna pesto; Robatayaki (rib eye scallion; kobe beef; lamb chop; turkey neck; venison; enoki bacon; miso eggplant; octopus; lobster); hamachi collar; short rib for two; chocolate pot de crème; upside-down pear and ginger cake.
DRINKS Cocktails and sake are the focus. Try the boozy house punch, the smoky Double Knot take on a perfect Manhattan, the tropical Singapore Slip or the Gripping Hitch, which floats maple foam over an old-fashioned. There are 70-plus bottles of sake to choose from, including a cedar-aged Kiku Masmune Taru, some fun "cup" sakes from Kikusui, as well as good choices by the glass, which get overpoured into a cedar masu box. Hitichino Nest beers are a plus.
WEEKEND NOISE Some soundproofing downstairs mutes the din just enough, but at 90 decibels (boosted by a pulsing soundtrack), it still qualifies as noisy. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Cafe open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-close; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-close. Lunch Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner Sunday and Monday, 5-10 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, until midnight.
Entrees, $16-$21 (sharing plates, $28-$48). Chef's tasting (9-10 plates, plus dessert), $55.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.
Wheelchair accessible upstairs only.