There comes a moment of self-awareness in most chefs' lives when they realize they no longer have the appetite or patience to work for someone else.
"I wouldn't want to hire myself as a sous-chef, either," concedes Scott Schroeder, 40, whose independent streak and brash social-media persona have dovetailed with a true culinary spirit to make him one of the best (and perhaps most underappreciated) gastropub chefs in the city, at South Philadelphia Tap Room and American Sardine Bar.
He still consults for SPTR owner John Longacre. But as he embraced the grand challenge of his own project at Hungry Pigeon, a hybrid cafe-restau-bar serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a Fabric Row corner storefront in Queen Village, he was determined to step beyond his bad-boy image, "to grow-up . . . and not just do stoner bar food."
This does not mean he's stopped wearing overalls every day. They lend him the deliberate folksy veneer of a contemporary Jack McDavid, who, coincidentally, fired him three months into his first Philly job at Jack's Firehouse 20 years ago.
But Schroeder's updated comfort food, showcased in multiple menus for the all-day service at Hungry Pigeon, is hitting another level of ambition, from the gorgeously gamey and tender pigeon with oyster mushrooms to a whey-braised goat Stroganoff tangled up in homey ribbons of egg noodles sparked with tart pickles and a fistfuls of dill, to platters served on enameled trays and iron skillets with hot pads that simply oblige diners to grab hold and share.
With a hot pile of fresh-pressed tortillas stacked over a pan of braised Lancaster chicken in tomatillo salsa with cuminy refried beans and all the fixings on the side (house-pickled jalapeños; queso fresco; radishes; guac), build-your-own taco night has never been so much fun.
Of course, it helps to have a stable working partner and co-chef as supremely competent as Pat O'Malley, 33, one of Schroeder's old ¡Pasion! colleagues who recently spent eight years at New York's Balthazar running a baking department that hand-made 15,000 pieces of pastry a day.
At Hungry Pigeon, where O'Malley has gratefully returned to a more sane pace and the ability to keep his hands in dough, he's turning out some of the flakiest croissants around, with whorling pastry layers tanged by cultured butter and kissed with local honey. They're even better ribboned with bars of intense Valrhona chocolate.
His rolled brioche sticky buns, enriched with ripe bananas, walnuts, and a honeyed vanilla glaze, are the stuff of diner dreams. The crusty sourdough loaves scented with caraway, pure whole wheat, or olives compete with the best of Philly's new-guard breadsmiths, and, when cut into char-grilled wedges, are the ultimate scoop-tools for the deliciously funky molten ooze of baked Red Cat cheese.
A touch of sourdough lent deep resonance, inner lightness, and a delicate outer crunch to the whole-wheat pancakes, which on one recent morning were also laced with cider and tart Stayman apples. Paired with Counter Culture coffee curated by cafe guru Aaron Ultimo, it was one of the best breakfasts I've eaten in a year. And it only got better as I tried not to devour the whole buttermilk biscuit smothered in Schroeder's silky white sausage gravy while balancing an awesome breakfast sandwich in my other hand. With a juicy patty of sagey chicken sausage layered with eggs and jack cheese on a chewy, house-griddled English muffin, the McPigeon was everything the McMuffin wishes it could be.
For that matter, the Big Mac also meets its better in a direct inspiration at lunch, where O'Malley's sesame-speckled bun frames Schroeder's perfect ode to the flat patty, with shredded lettuce, special sauce, and actual cheddar cheese. Its secret, though, is the caramelized sear on that house-ground grass-fed beef, whose savor is heightened by a perfect griddle char, rather than mere juiciness.
This is the kind of casual place - sun streaming through vintage storefront windows onto exposed brick walls and bare-wood cafe tables, a menagerie of birdcages in back clustered over a large and sometimes raucous community table - that exudes a genuine neighborhood ease, filled with the sounds of Motown and classic rock on the stereo, parents with children during the day, and the clink of juice glasses at night brimming with good cocktails and natural wines on draft. The charming and helpful servers are lavishly tattooed and well-informed. Prices are fair, reflecting the quality, though the portion sizes vary widely.
I get the sense these chefs are simply cooking what they like - even if that means a few flaws along the way. With so many moving parts, a few weak links are inevitable early on. The daily changing pastas were an unexpected letdown, the promising 'nduja agnolotti so undercooked they were crunchy; coin-shaped orecchiette were too flabby and flat. A couple of seafood dishes also stumbled - a chewy octopus and a bowl of steamed clams that also lacked finesse.
But these chefs already do so many things right, and with such a spirit of hand-craft and creative quirk that Hungry Pigeon is one of the most unabashedly personal - and lovable - new restaurants this year. I appreciated so many of the little touches: the tiny diced pickles tucked inside the deviled egg stuffing; the flaky house-baked crackers that came with the cheesy crab dip; a roasty whiff of coffee in the tuna crudo's cure; the succulent grilled ham steak ("highly recommended" on the menu) beneath a clever remoulade of shredded mixed roots; the thick blades of deeply smoked John L. King bacon; the intricate, chaat-like textural contrasts of a lemon-poached shrimp salad with sprouted lentils, spicy celery, multicolor potatoes, and a tangy sour cream dressing; or the fresh mint and oil-cured olives that took a beautiful hunk of Atlantic striped bass over tomato-fennel gravy and Bloody Butcher polenta to a convincing Mediterranean place.
Such small details were also key on the larger platters. As much as I enjoyed the thin pads of grilled Mexican steak alongside fresh enchiladas, it was the rice pilaf with avocado, cucumber, and scallions on the side I could not stop eating.
Ditto for the wild rice studded with bacon and green beans alongside the "City Chicken," which, some Midwesterners will know, isn't chicken at all. This is Shroeder's ode to one of his mom's specialties - a Depression-era relic that subbed breaded pork kebabs for what was, in that era, the more expensive treat of chicken drumsticks. And the modern upgrade is compelling, its chunks of moist pork loin so tender from a garlicky herb marinade and Montreal spice, with the light crunch of crumbs from O'Malley's fresh sourdough rye, we basically stripped a pile of those skewers clean.
In a way, they represent the magic of Hungry Pigeon. With some help from an old friend and partner, Schroeder has succeeded in finding an inspired way to "grow up" just enough - without forgetting where he came from.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Malbec Argentine Steakhouse.
HUNGRY PIGEON (three bells out of four)
743 S. Fourth St., 215-278-2736; hungrypigeon.com
What's it like to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a chef's house? Probably just like this lovable all-day corner cafe in Queen Village, where old pals and co-chef-owners Pat O'Malley (ex-Balthazar; ¡Pasion!) and Scott Schroeder (South Philadelphia Tap Room; American Sardine Bar) collaborate for updated comfort menus built on stellar house-baked goods, great local ingredients, and quirky whims, from the city's best new breakfast sandwich to fun sharing platters at dinner (and, yes, some tasty pigeon). The kitchen's prolific ambitions occasionally overreach, but considering all it does so well already, plus the charming service, good drinks, effortlessly casual neighborhood vibe, and serious Ultimo coffee program, Hungry Pigeon is already one of the year's most inspired and original new restaurants.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Breakfast: croissants; sticky buns; breakfast sandwich; biscuit and gravy; sourdough pancakes. Lunch: cheeseburger; chopped salad. Dinner: bread; root vegetable rémoulade with ham; lemon-poached shrimp; baked Red Cat; grilled pigeon; goat Stroganoff; "City Chicken"; braised chicken with house tortillas; Mexican sirloin with enchiladas and avocado rice; grilled broccoli; rice pudding; chocolate cake; banana cream pie.
DRINKS A small but well-rounded bar focused on affordable natural wines (including several on draft), well-crafted simple cocktails (try the Kip's Manhattan ode to the old Southwark bar), and a solid collection of craft beers. Try the lightly effervescent white German Furst Elbling, earthy light Gamay "Reference," and Zweigelt rosé on draft. Tired Hands and Forest & Main rep the cool locals, and Short's, Founders, and Jolly Pumpkin nod to Schroeder's Michigan roots.
WEEKEND NOISE Can hit a lively 89 decibels but tends to be more manageable. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Breakfast, 7-11 a.m. Monday-Friday; lunch, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; weekend brunch, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dinner entrées, $21-$29.
All major cards.
Reservations for parties of 10-14 only after 5 p.m.
Street parking only.