Erin O'Shea could have been the "Taboon Mistress," queen of the flatbread hearth that is the centerpiece at Zahav, the splashy new Old City Israeli from Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook.
"But I wanted Marigold," O'Shea said. "I didn't want to leave."
She had been working behind the line for two years at Marigold Kitchen, and toiling for nearly a decade in all for the chance to show the world her grits. A longtime Southerner, she had found her drive for cooking in Texas and Virginia before coming North. What better place to introduce us to a sophisticated taste of that first passion than at Marigold, the homey '30s boarding house-turned-West Philly BYOB temple?
But first, she had to make her case, because Marigold Kitchen was in danger of ceasing to exist.
At least, that was one possibility being considered by Cook, who made his name at Marigold, first as a chef, then as an owner, ceding the kitchen to Solomonov's rising star. Making a profit had become increasingly difficult in the tight-margin world of even the city's best BYO's. And as Cook and Solomonov focused on the larger project of Zahav, all options were on the table.
But could New Southern cooking fly in Philadelphia? This town without a twang of Dixie funk in its city limits? Corn bread and country ham and sweetly brined pork chops with collards and raisin vinaigrette are certainly drastic departures from the contemporary Israeli flavors that marked Marigold's previous menus.
But O'Shea's impressive debut in her first months as a head chef is a reaffirmation. It reinforces Marigold's continued standing as one of our most intriguing kitchens. And the mercurial ease with which this 40-seat destination has drastically changed its culinary personality (now for the second time) is a vivid reminder why the intimate Philadelphia BYOB - as a genre - remains the purest stage for an emerging chef to make her creative voice heard.
Whether many folks are hearing it is the question. There was hardly a soul in the dining room during my final mid-week meal, even though Marigold's new menu has dropped its entree prices by nearly $10, to mostly under $20, in an effort to bring the neighborhood crowd back.
With so many distractions from a vibrant restaurant scene, it's harder for the old standbys. But O'Shea's food is among the most interesting I've eaten all year, and she deserves as much notice as any new chef.
Trained under Jimmy Sneed at Richmond's The Frog and The Redneck, O'Shea uses Southern ingredients as a natural motif for modern dishes rather than a heavy-handed rehash of old cliches.
Mashed sweet potatoes come tucked inside mustard-scented pasta raviolis over peppery mustard greens scattered with crisp fried okra. Smoky trout salad mounded in the center of a bowl mingles with a silky puree of asparagus soup poured tableside. Bright buttermilk vinaigrette and fried green tomatoes add a vivacious spark to olive oil-poached salmon touched with a whiff of mesquite smoke.
And great cured sausage from Surry County, Va., lends just the right switch of country swagger to a sophisticated roulade of chicken stuffed with pears and cornbread. Paper-thin shavings of velvety Wigwam ham add a salty luster to the sweet cornbread pedastal topped with creamy collards and a sunnyside-up egg which, when broken, becomes a sunny sauce.
But it is O'Shea's deftly straight-forward interpretation of the classic - shrimp and grits - that sets the tone for her approach, where refined simplicity puts the subtleties of great combinations in full relief.
She simmers the coarse-ground grits from Byrd Mill in Virginia with supreme patience, stirring every ten minutes for five hours over a low flame, letting them set over night, then "attacking" them with a sturdy whisk and butter for the final transformation. The result is a bowl of Southern soul, with swollen grits suspended in a creamy corn essence that recalls a luxurious risotto as much as polenta, with the fresh snap of tender shimp and a snow of shaved pecorino to finish.
That close attention to contrasting textures and vivid flavors is apparent across the menu. A pickled mince of celery added a surprising relish crunch to creamy chopped chicken livers (a Marigold standby) schmeared with sweet apricot marmalade over toast. A vinaigrette of cider-soaked raisins perked up an amazingly juicy thick pork chop, with tender collards and creamy white beans infused with ham stock.
Among the most striking dishes were the big diver scallops and mussels in tapioca sauce, a creamy flow of toothsome pearls scented with preserved lemon that looked seafoam bubbling across the plate. Though O'Shea came of age in the cream-rich kitchens of the South, from Texas to Virginia, the lightening effects of Solomonov's Mediterranean palette - like preserved lemons, olive oil and parsley – have melded into her own.
The red snapper over basmati rice swirled with carrot juice and mesquite-smoked fish fumet was another stellar example of vivid flavors drawn from an elegantly light dish.
I had precious few complaints about O'Shea's menu, or the service, which was pleasantly casual but well-informed, and graceful around the table, bringing fresh rounds of fine stemware no matter how much wine we opened.
And my guest uncorked some sweet treasures (like a 40-year-old Calvados) as we shifted focus to the excellent farmstead cheeseplate, and some catchy desserts, like the Egyptian rice pudding, and the glazed chocoate cake with a malted milk shooter. But I especially adored the apple tart, because O'Shea had slipped between the minced warm apples and buttery crust the most unexpected and delicate crackle of peanut brittle - a sweet nut hum that lingered long after the tart was gone.
With such promising new flavors now flowing from the kitchen, Steven Cook might at last consider doing something more with Marigold's dining room, which feels like a Victorian parlor stripped down to the austere minimum. Perhaps a little warm lighting is all that's needed to suit this old classic's new Southern outlook. Because Erin O'Shea, thankfully, isn't planning on leaving Marigold anytime soon.