Everyone knows a pig can't fly. But what about a "pabbit"?
The mythical creature has certainly given a charmed lift to Pub & Kitchen, the new gastropub at 20th and Lombard whose creamy brick exterior sports the high-soaring silhouette of a rabbit-headed pig.
More likely, the hour-long waits and endless blogger buzz that's been stoked by this replacement to Chaucer's is due to the presence of Philly's hottest young trick chef, Jonathan McDonald. Thirty-year-old "Johnny Mac," the darling of molecular food groupies everywhere, has attempted things far less natural than a pabbit in his previous posts at Snackbar and Salt.
But those hankering for a throwback to the powdered schmaltz, saffron gels and almond foams of his past might be in for a letdown. There isn't a speck of tapioca-maltodextrin in this pantry. There isn't even a sous-vide machine or a liquid nitrogen station. (Imagine: just pots and pans, a fryer, and a regular old stove!)
But as McDonald turns from futuristic Spain to rustic Britain for his menu inspiration, with "white fish roll mops," "pork scratchings" and "mushy peas," what some might perceive as a step down into pub fare may, in fact, turn out to be the best opportunity of his young career.
Pub & Kitchen's straightforward ambition, simply to serve good food in a neighborhood bar, is a chance for this Brasserie Perrier alumnus to prove that his culinary talents hinge more on true instincts and fundamentals than on novel combinations and gimmicky techniques.
And I've tasted more than a few plates of evidence that McDonald is the real deal, from his mastery of the beer batter to the house-cured bacon that gives his burger luster, to what might be the best gnocchi in town, those airy Parisian choux dumplings tossed with wilted radicchio and herbed mascarpone. His bar snacks show a knack for giving a creative spin to good ingredients, whether it's a silky duck liver pâté, fresh chips dusted with vinegar powder, or blue cheese with caramelized Guinness.
The white fish "roll mops," pickled pollack bits tossed with dilled sour cream and diced apples atop little toasts, are the among best beer-inducing morsels I've nibbled all year. The goat cheese pierogi with arugula-beet salad was a nice dumpling twist on a classic flavor trio.
McDonald's entrees change with such manic frequency, it's impossible to predict if any favorites will ever be made again. But I'd happily reprise the crispy salmon perched over a creamy mound of brandade potatoes mashed with the funky sea twinge of house-cured salt pollack. A coriander-seared tuna evoked the Mediterranean with a silky "winter ratatouille" puree of eggplant, fennel and tomatoes.
There is clearly the potential here, if McDonald ever masters consistency and his wandering focus, for Pub & Kitchen's kitchen to make a pabbit's leap forward for the city's gastropub scene, in the way Standard Tap did when it launched the trend years ago. But McDonald has a ways to go. (Read on.)
Co-owners Ed Hackett and Dan Clark, meanwhile, have already transformed the dour and dingy old Chaucer's into the vibrant neighborhood hangout that any good taproom should be. It's devilishly noisy, especially if you don't snag a church pew in the cozy nook that doglegs off the back dining room. But there's an undeniable pulse of energy to this bilevel space, with its welcoming new cafe windows, that draws all walks of locals to this outpost near upscale Rittenhouse and gentrifying Graduate Hospital. It's completely magnetic, despite some early flaws.
For one, the brew list is still too limited to measure up to the city's better bars. There have certainly been some stellar choices on tap, the Offshore IPA, Allgäuer doppelbock, and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale among them. I also loved the low-fizz licorice-root smack of a Yard's Washington Porter drained from a countertop keg at a Friday-night firkin event. But the presence on such a small list of so many commercial beers, from Miller Lite to Corona, is a glaring shortcoming in a city obsessed with craft beer.
McDonald's issues involve consistency more than anything else. His fish and chips have become a legitimate sensation - their rippling beer-batter crust clinging to flaky white pollack alongside amazingly crisp fries, and a vibrant green mound of buttered "mushy peas" that's become my new comfort-food obsession. But even the most enthusiastic fish-and-chipster would be reluctant to eat his fish half-cooked: twice, mine was oddly pink in the center.
The beer-battered onion rings, on the other hand, were a fried-food wonder, the onion and crust fused into one pure puff of melty crunch.
The other object of public passion has been the Windsor burger. Made of all-natural meat from Painted Hills in Oregon, it has an outstandingly beefy savor, gilded with good Brit cheddar and crispy blades of homemade bacon. But the grind is too fine and tightly packed to quite reach my burger pantheon. In addition, the kitchen's nagging default is to undercook it (i.e. medium-rare equals medium).
There were a few other letdowns. The chicken wings, a mundane item that many a clever chef has reinvented, were puny and boring. The crab-cake sandwich was oversalted. A chunk of grilled lamb leg was too big, leaving it tough and chewy. The soda biscuit alongside the sublimely tender roast chicken could be less huge and lumpy. And intriguing sides - thyme-braised carrots, Brussels sprouts with bacon, and mustard green beans - were uniformly undercooked.
There were some surprisingly elegant desserts, including a decadently moist white-chocolate banana bread pudding with caramelized bananas, a baked-apple confection paired with cinnamon-sugared beignets, and an irresistibly dark Valrhona molten chocolate cake. The doughy cherry clafouti with fennel pollen whipped cream, though, was a dud.
And yet even when McDonald slips with his experiments, burying the bitter spark of dried hops and grapefruit pith beneath his creamy apple-parsnip soup (when it should have been scattered on top), or frying pork skins (mislabeled "cracklins") into British-style "scratchings" so chewy that guests might want to hold on to their teeth, I have to smile.
There are very few chefs in this city who cook with the reckless enthusiasm and curiosity that McDonald still does - even without his foaming science kits. And in a year or so, if he continues to redefine his vision from that of kitchen trickster to model tradesman, this particular pabbit could be flying higher than even a winged pig could dream.