The popularity of Fishtown and Kensington was initially built on gastropubs and beer. But as those neighborhoods north of Girard continue to evolve into one of the city's hottest dining zones, the area has suddenly become the epicenter of Philly's increasingly adventurous thirst for wine.
Wines on draft are now pouring at vino tap pioneer Johnny Brenda's and Kensington Quarters. At Martha Bar in Kensington, you can taste nearly a dozen local wines by the glass. A deep and well-priced Italian list has taken shape at sophisticated Wm. Mulherin's Sons. And at the new Fishtown Social, there are glasses of brisk Basque txakoli and red Macedonian vranec to explore alongside paninis and oysters on the half shell.
"There's more freedom to put different grape varietals on your list in Fishtown than anywhere else I've worked," says Greg Root, a longtime Starr manager who, along with chef-partner Nick Kennedy, hopes to raise the neighborhood's wine bar luster even more at his eponymous new Root.
True to spirit, Root's two dozen wines-by-the-glass globe hop past usual suspects (like pinot grigio and buttery chardonnay) toward obscure but delicious finds like bracing Chignin (made of jacquère) and aromatic Italian ansonica; passing by the typical cabs and soft Cali pinots in favor of earthy gamay and ripe Portuguese baga. A bottle of Greek xinomavro, once aired out for 20 minutes in a gorgeous decanter, was the perfect match for lamb chops rubbed with fennel and Aleppo pepper, not to mention the killer burger and crispy potato cubes dusted in smoked paprika.
There are definitely good things to drink and eat at Root, which you'd expect considering Kennedy's previous positions in renowned Manhattan kitchens like Jean-Georges and Del Posto.
But what instantly sets this newcomer apart as the latest emissary of Fishtown's New Wave is the sleek space by Stokes Architecture. From the intricate gold-and-black box-tiled floor to the teal armchairs, plush leather banquettes, mod glass lights, and rich walnut wood accents, this 50-seat boutique of a room is a polished departure from the reclaimed chic aesthetic that marks many of the neighborhood's projects.
And some surprisingly striking similarities to Rouge - a central bar dominating the chiffon-curtain-draped space, its cafe windows wide open to the Frankford Avenue bustle - are no coincidence. Root aspires to capture the same communal bar energy and open-to-the-streetscape spirit that Rouge pioneered for Rittenhouse nearly two decades ago.
The best news is that Root and Kennedy deliver qualities beyond the design worth praising. The service was polished and professional without being stuffy.
And aside from the many wines I enjoyed there, the bar's small selection of light-minded cocktails is also well-made, especially the four G&T variations made with Fever Tree tonic and vivid infusions of herbs and spice.
Kennedy's Mediterranean-inspired menu, meanwhile, makes the most of some kitchen limitations by featuring prime ingredients. Crisply fried chickpeas rise on the aromatics of a Moroccan seasoning blend from New York's La Boîte and crackly fried sage. A bubbling crock of creamy bagna cauda dip infused with anchovies made for a fun centerpiece to share and dunk a crudité of heirloom radishes, apples and fennel. Gorgeous steak tartare gets one flavor boost layered upon the other - a splash of fish sauce and bonito, crispy shallots, a drizzle of egg yolk vinaigrette, then sheer chips of shaved raw button mushrooms - to make each bite explode with primal raw umami.
In some cases, just a little tweak was all that was needed to elevate a common dish to distinction. Like the subtle trick of warming the mixed olives with rosemary and crushed fennel. Or adding rich butter for the baguettes to both soften and accent the melting piquancy of Sicilian anchovies. Or showcasing honey from the hives of the chef's 94-year-old grandfather in Punxsutawney alongside meat and charcuterie boards that feature great selections like Oma and Nuvola di Pecora, and 1732 Meat's pomegranate lonza.
Likewise, as though transposing that curatorial charcuterie approach to dessert, Kennedy was smart to simply present a flight of spectacular chocolate "mendiant" wafers from Christopher Curtin at Éclat - and the Aleppo pepper chocolate paired spectacularly with that Xinomavro. (The silky panna cotta topped with minced peaches and crushed amaretti cookies needs a glass of nutty Lustau Amontillado.)
Given Kennedy's Del Posto pedigree, I was let down by the pastas. The spinach-ricotta gnudi were like dense orbs of green pudding. The textural match of shelled mussels and clams against potato gnocchi was odd, though the seafood and bacon flavor of that sauce, amped by bottarga bread crumbs, saved it from a complete miss.
Root likes to remind guests that it's "more than just small plates." But I didn't love the entree-size offerings. The plate of seafood à la plancha featured a couple of good scallops and head-on shrimp, but with only a few thin-sliced rings of calamari, it's skimpy for $22. The three plump lamb chops were fairly priced at $27. But they weren't especially tender.
I've had far worse. But neither of these larger plates could match the simple satisfaction of a grilled Metropolitan Bakery toast spread with a cool crimson layer of grated raw tomatoes laced with good Sicilian olive oil. Or the old-school comfort of meatballs touched with marjoram simmered in bright tomato sauce. Or a couple of delicately fried croquettes stuffed with earthy mushroom béchamel.
None were as compelling, though, as Kennedy's burger riffs. His beef version is notable enough, the well-seared Angus patty layered with shredded lettuce, ripe tomato, and a special sauce zipped up with pickled pepper juice. But the real masterpiece is the duxelle, a patty made of roasted mushrooms inspired by the ChefSteps website. By dry roasting and intensifying the mushrooms, not overmincing, and then setting them with the high-tech help of molecular gastronomy, Kennedy has achieved a rare feat - a veggie patty that doesn't turn to mush at first bite, that has a texture and savor that is at least as satisfying as its beefy counterpart.
It's likely this ambitious new wine bar, with its high design and fine wines, aspires to be known as far more than a burger joint. But, hey, that worked out fine for Rouge. With a veg-forward 2016 update to that model, Root should be so lucky as to become that kind of neighborhood anchor.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Helm South.
1206 Frankford Ave., 215-515-3452; rootrestaurant.com
Fishtown's next-wave makeover continues with this stylishly designed and intimate wine bar restaurant from Starr alum Greg Root, who's partnered with chef Nick Kennedy (a vet of NYC's Jean-Georges and Del Posto) to create a polished tile and chiffon-draped oasis for offbeat wines, outgoing service, and a menu with Italian and Spanish accents that's strongest with small plates. The entrée-size dishes still need work, but Root's burgers - especially the fantastic duxelle patty made of mushrooms – are among several reasons this chic newcomer could become a citywide draw.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Fried chickpeas; warm olives; anchovies with butter; crispy potatoes; bagna cauda; pan con tomate; steak tartare; duxelle burger; beef burger; panna cotta with peaches; mendiants.
DRINKS Light cocktails and wine are the focus. Four refreshing G&T variations are the most notable mixed drinks, with well-balanced but vivid regional riffs highlighting Mediterranean (with rosemary) and Indian (fennel and star anise) moods. The Eurocentric wine list has a strong collection of more than two dozen choices by the glass, ranging fairly from $8 to $12 and leaning toward lesser-known varietals like jacquère, ansonica, baga, and gamay that make for fun exploration. The bottle list follows suit, with good choices from Alsace (Zinck Pinot Blanc), Spain (Compañon Arrieta Viura, Godelia Mencia), Italy (Iuli Barbera) and Greece (Foundi Xinomavro.) Prices hover between $50 and $75.
WEEKEND NOISE The small space and tile floor foster a naturally high noise level, but enough attention has been paid to noise-softening details to keep sound at a manageable 85 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday and Monday, 5-10 p.m.; Tuesday through Saturday, until 11 p.m.
All major cards.
Valet parking costs $9 Friday and Saturday.