December 2010 update:
Fishtown's rising nightlife avenue now has one of the city's more ambitious new gastropubs, a corner beer bar fitted with hop-leaf-carved saw blades, tiger-maple communal tables, and a tool motif that's an ode to industrial days past. The seasonally minded kitchen had its share of small stumbles during the review, but some exceptional sandwiches and charcuterie, plus one of the area's best draft-beer lists and a good-energy room, made this pub a keeper. A new chef, the Sidecar Bar's Brian Lofink, also took over kitchen duties here this fall, and a revisit brought an excellent improved burger, and a house-made bratwurst wrapped in pastry that's a must-order.
Craft ale is the oil that fuels the "Fishtown Express," as Adam Ritter calls it, and the neighborhood is rapidly picking up speed on its journey from blue-collar roots to a present and future as hipster central.
With the addition of Kraftwork, you can now count 25 more taps blasting away with cold brew propulsion at East Girard and Montgomery Avenues, as wee heavy Scotch ales, sprightly Belgian saisons, and powerful Imperial IPAs christen the area's latest gastropub draw in sudsy style.
This beer bar, however, has aspirations to be something a little different, both in design and concept. Managed by Ritter, who also owns the pioneering Sidecar Bar in South Philadelphia, Kraftwork is partly a stylistic ode to Fishtown's industrial past.
Designer-sculptor Andrew Jevremovic hung saw blades carved with silhouettes of hop clusters around the space, dangling from an I-beam over the bar, affixed as sconces to the exterior. Gorgeous long tiger maple communal tables are set next to benches supported by old augers. Bent wrenches become handles for charcuterie boards. Lighting is fashioned from metal disks unearthed from the yard at Joseph Fazzio Inc., the Glassboro industrial supplier that owns this bar. The walls have been peeled away in layers that reveal this building's bones, from patches of fleur de lis wallpaper to horsehair plaster, bare brick, and piping once used for gaslights.
It is, all in all, a handsome and lively space, with a genuine sense of place that also channels the twentysomething lifeblood of its clientele. Ritter has climbed a steep learning curve from the bad-beer days that greeted the opening of Sidecar before he caught on to craftmania.
There's hardly been a bad beer on the ever-changing taps (save for that summer cliche, PBR), and the four-beaker tasting for $8 is a stellar way to get the most out of a visit. I developed an even greater fondness for sour ales such as Ommegang's Zuur and Ichtegem's Grand Cru. I found another tart saison to love from St.-Feuillien, a bitter English IPA from Harviestoun, and rediscovered classics from Russian River, Weihenstephan, and Tripel Karmeliet.
And who knew that Young's double chocolate milk stout was the ultimate umami pour for a blue-cheese burger? If only that burger (made from two cuts of beef and blended with duck fat) didn't have such an oddly tough chew. If only this kitchen, in general, didn't keep hitting occasional road bumps every time it got ambitious, I might be singing the praises of Kraftwork as the city's best new gastropub.
The promise is certainly there, with a seasonally minded sharing menu of nibble plates, slow-roasted sandwiches, and very affordable prices that make it accessible. The consistency of former Bar Ferdinand chef Michael N. Thomas' kitchen, though, has been an issue.
I was thrilled at my first visit to discover bright spring accents like ramps and pickled fiddlehead ferns, and esoteric savory gems such as morcilla sausage and La Quercia prosciutto gracing a charcuterie board anchored by house-made rabbit terrine touched with coriander and brandy. A sandwich of pulled "beer can chicken" meat from poultry braised in PBR (the only thing it's good for) was amazingly tender beneath a lid of molten gruyère with long hots and onions. Crispy-skinned trout, meanwhile, brought a smart new meaning to the "T" in a bacon and lettuce sandwich with a retro gribiche (olive-oil mayo with capers, hard-boiled eggs and tarragon) to keep it moist.
On a second visit, though, the kitchen was melting down in the 95-degree midsummer heat. I absolutely loved my slow-braised short rib sandwich, the tender wine-braised beef piled on a brioche bun smeared with spicy poblano crema and sparked with the crunch of crisp onions. The deep-fried pork croquettes were a study in the pleasures of slow-stewed, picked-over and potted pig parts with pickled onions. The heirloom tomato salad was luscious.
The BLT, though, was served on burnt toast. The ricotta dumplings were doughy. The beet salad was boring (with too many greens). And the falafel was both mushy and drizzled with a Greek yogurt sauce that was all wrong, culturally, for this Middle Eastern classic.
Of more concern were the Fanny Bay oysters, truly gorgeous in their deep cups and pedigreed by Warminster's sustainable purveyor River & Glen, but served at room temperature on the half-shell when they should have been ice-cold.
Thomas reluctantly offered an excuse: a cook sent home sick, an understaffed kitchen overrun by weekend crowds and trying in all the wrong ways to keep up. But the Mystic oysters a couple of weeks later, while significantly cooler, still lacked the icy snap I need from my raw-bar idols.
It's good to know a kitchen's limits - especially when it comes to shellfish. But an otherwise strong showing that night reminded me why I remain optimistic about Kraftwork's future.
A cool cantaloupe soup brought a refreshing contrast of chilled melon puree and the spicy chew of a jalapeño-prosciutto relish. A crisp flatbread topped with house-made sausage, oil-cured olives, and creamy ricotta was a rewarding stab at artisan pizza. The mussels were just standard mollusks piled a bit high and dry over garlicky pilsner broth - the highlight being the herb-dusted frites.
The silky chicken liver mousse, though, was exceptionally delicious, its cider-spiked creaminess demanding extra toast points. A deftly brined pork chop (impressively ample for $17) was wonderfully tender over heirloom tomato salad and lightly smoked bacon jus. I liked the eggplant parmesan sandwich so much, however, its purple-skinned rounds crisped in buttermilk crumbs, then layered with just enough sauce and cheese, I almost preferred it to the meatier options.
For dessert, the selection is limited but satisfying. Thomas has abandoned his daring "pork krispie treats" (chocolate-covered cracklings in marshmallow) for the more conventional pleasures of a dark chocolate terrine dusted in sea salt, and a tart Key lime custard ramekin with a graham bottom.
The best finale, though, might well be the cheese platter, a wrench-handled maple board topped with some of America's best artisan curds, from Bayley Hazen blue to Telford Tomme and oozy Green Hill camembert. Consider it another great excuse to order another round of craft beer to keep that Fishtown Express chugging. It certainly won't be the last.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Twenty Manning Grill. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.