The pace of once-forgotten neighborhoods popping back into the "what's for dinner" consciousness of Philadelphians has quickened in recent years, from Fishtown to Point Breeze and now even Kensington.
But for whatever reason, Philly's sleeping giant - the Great Northeast - has pretty much slumbered soundly through the raucous party of the city's current restaurant renaissance. Until now.
That's the sound of chef Kris Serviss and Joe Callahan's Blue Duck Sandwich Co., sending out a call for their childhood neighborhood to wake up and join the 21st century.
It may come in the form of crispy fries splashed with molten duck fat, shredded meat, and creamy flows of smoked Gouda sauce. Or super-savory burgers with tangy pork roll house-ground into beefy chuck, served breakfast-style with a fried egg on top. Or even something as refined as Moroccan-spiced cobia atop sunchoke risotto ringed by a light tomato broth. But this bright little 40-seat BYOB, set into an anonymous strip mall beside Holme Circle across from the St. Jerome Catholic School where Joe, 30, and Kris, 29, first met as kids, is bound to stir waves of interest well beyond its little bend in the Pennypack Creek.
This is not to say the Northeast is devoid of culinary virtues. Hardly. It's still a destination for authentic international flavors, from Brazilian to Cambodian and Uzbeki, old German butchers, the original Chickie's and Pete's, and the last bastion of honest old-school diners such as the Dining Car, which makes the best chicken croquettes in Philly - moist and meaty inside their rocket-shaped crusts as if it's still 1961.
But it's about time that the Northeast landed a neighborhood haunt with a modern sensibility, and the kind of casual style and creativity you'd find on South Street West or Northern Liberties.
There's the white subway tile near the kitchen and the polished concrete floor in the dining room, busy counter seats beside the cooks that suggest an updated ode to old diners, and a long wood community table up front beside the entrance, where dudes in long beards with cage-topped bottles of craft beer chatted up a table of young ladies nearby going deep into their jug of Barefoot pink moscato (some habits, I'm afraid, will die hard).
Being locals, Serviss, who has worked at pubs (Paddy Whacks, various Iron Hill Breweries) and Callahan (a refugee from Vanguard corporate life) have been careful not to overshoot with their menu concept or prices, keeping almost the entire menu under $20 an entree.
And while Serviss plays with ingredients that would be at home on any trendy Center City menu - black garlic, sunchokes, crispy tri-color cauliflower (very loosely inspired by Zahav) - the core items here are simply the kitchen's whimsical updates to familiar comfort flavors. They up the savor quotient on the classic blue-plate special with meatloaf made from wild boar (delicious, though it could use a little more softness) and earthy, sweet mashed parsnips. Tender gnocchi play sweet on spice, swapping sweet potatoes for the usual white spuds, and adding the hot spark of shaved jalapeño rings to the nutty gloss of sage brown butter.
The Duck's mac-'n'-cheese repertoire is especially strong. One comes enriched with cuminy house-made chorizo sausage, crunchy chips with tangy salsa verde. Another irresistible take brought shredded duck, smoked Gouda cream, sweet-tart dried cherries, and duck fat panko bread crumbs. Even with a name like "Quack & Cheese," I couldn't resist.
This kitchen might be pushing some comfort zones by serving deconstructed French onion soup (inspired by no less than the Dining Car's locally famed cheese-welded metal crocks). But once the server pours a carafe of that deep brown sherried-onion broth onto a bowl of pearl onions, onion foam, sweet onion jam, brioche croutons, and crisply fired Gruyère sticks, the faithful will smile again.
Make no mistake: The Blue Duck still has plenty of rough edges to polish. They might turn off the flat-screen TVs at night and dim the glaring lights just a touch for a hint of softer ambience to match the dinner menu's ambitions.
The kitchen also had some hiccups. A homemade tagliatelle with red sauce was a gloppy mess. A "bruschetta" sauce for the wings (overthought into a cooked-down puree that tasted like strange BBQ) was not an improvement over the expected garnish of fresh chopped basil and tomatoes.
There were also a couple of big execution slips: a forgotten fried chicken and an overcooked burger. But the Blue Duck's outgoing service staff recovered nicely with a mea culpa, a proper bill adjustment, and a redo in the case of the burger. It's a good thing, because when properly medium-rare, the signature grind of brisket, chuck, and prime-rib fat served on a brioche bun with roasted garlic mayo is well worth the trip. So, too, is any fried chicken creation glazed with Serviss' General Tso's sauce, its tangy sweetness balanced with a flicker of spice and a surprising sauce - both on the tacos and wings - that is one of the most bizarre combos I've liked: wasabi blue cheese.
For all the ambitious ideas Serviss actually does land, from delicious roasted cauliflower soup with chewy nuggets of Earl Grey-cured duck bacon, to beautifully seared scallops over corn puree and room-temp barley salad, it's ironic that the Blue Duck's weakest dish is actually its signature duck sandwich. It comes with an ill-advised blueberry-tomato sauce that gives the mound of pulled duck meat a sour and watery effect.
It could instantly be improved if Serviss and his crew decided to make real duck confit with salt-cured, slow-steeped legs instead of just simmering leaner, blander breast meat into all-purpose shreds.
It's likely more a matter of finding prep space and time to get that rolling in the surprising quantity this little kitchen serves. Because the Blue Duck Sandwich Co.'s early achievements are already having an impressive effect. The "Quack!" heard around the Northeast has caused the sleeping giant to stir.
BLUE DUCK SANDWICH CO.
2859 Holme Ave., 267-686-4687; blueduckphilly.com
Co-owners Joe Callahan and chef Kris Serviss have returned to their native Northeast to open a much-needed 21st-century update on the neighborhood restaurant. Their modest strip-mall BYOB, bright with white subway tile and a lively young crowd at the kitchen counter and community table, succeeds with creative updates to such comfort food favorites as "Quack & Cheese," burgers ground with pork roll, and more ambitious dishes that don't necessarily all include duck. Consistency is still an issue, as is fine-tuning the concept, but these eager young restaurateurs did well correcting any gaffes in-meal, and show potential to become pioneers for a new wave in the old Northeast.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Quack & cheese; chorizo mac; General Tso's wings (and tacos); duck fries; cauliflower soup; deconstructed French onion soup; fried tri-color cauliflower; pork roll burger; house grind burger; wild boar meatloaf; sweet potato gnocchi; scallops with barley salad; ras el hanout cobia with sunchoke risotto; Mason jar cheesecake.
BYOB A good craft beer or a hearty red wine are nice choices to pair with the richness of Blue Duck's updated comfort food.
WEEKEND NOISE Hard surfaces and big crowds make for a 92-decibel din on busy nights. Midweek tends to be calmer, in the conversation-friendly mid-80s. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Monday.
Dinner entrees, $10-$20.
All major cards.
Free parking lot.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Brigantessa.
Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at philly.com/labanchats.