Square Peg may be the perfect name for a restaurant featuring Matt Levin, a chef who's long been one of our most exciting cooks — but one who has also never quite fit in.
From his debut splash at Moonlight, where his contemporary brilliance was a stark contrast against New Hope's touristy scene, to the luxury stratosphere of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, where his cuisine soared but his edgy personality was at odds with the haute hotel (and its bureaucracy), Levin is a unique talent who always has sought to straddle the worlds of "fine" and "fun" dining, but struggled to find the right venue. His turn at Adsum gave a glimpse of his preferred more populist side — a vision for bar food at once sophisticated, playful, and indulgent that won critical acclaim. But it turned out not to be the sustainable neighborhood concept Queen Village really craved, as Tapestry, Adsum's less ambitious but thriving successor, can attest.
So is Square Peg the answer he's been searching for, or just another perch for a restless soul whose inspirations (from Four Loko tasting meals to Kandy Kake burger sliders sandwiched in chocolate-covered peanut butter doughnuts) are just as likely to be found in the aisles of a Wawa as a farmer's market? Whatever Square Peg's future, Levin's work there is not up to his usual incandescence — a former three- and four-bell chef inevitably stokes high expectations. There are brief-but-satisfying glimpses of his culinary finesse, in simple but stunning dishes like grilled salmon over horseradish crème fraîche ringed by lemongrass-roasted beets.
But for the most part, Square Peg is a continuation of Levin's Adsum arc, from gastro wunderkind to junk-food savant, with new takes on everything from fried chicken to poutine, cheesesteaks and Fritos, which arrive spilling out of their original wrapper on a plate with the added delight of tender pork carnitas, vibrant salsa verde, and charred scallions for "tacos in a bag." It's one of the more thrilling dishes on the menu here — killing whatever cravings I've had recently for Sonic's Frito pie. But, unfortunately, it's also one of the few.
Owned by the group behind Cuba Libre, Square Peg is set into a former Marathon Grill in Washington Square West and targets Levin's most mainstream audience yet, the neighborhood's bustling and young medical-complex crowd. And the concept has promise — a sunny bi-level corner space of exposed brick, multiple bars, and bare rafters, with a menu built on reimagined American comforts. And when it goes well, say with the grilled cheese triangles stuffed with mac-n-cheese served alongside cream of tomato soup that's a dead ringer for Campbell's (but fresher, more vibrant), it's tempting to marvel at the bread's impressive crunch and believe the man's a genius. Only an obsessive devotee to downscale indulgence could devise the secret to that crust — a night in the fridge to soak up the slathering of mayonnaise.
But along with Square Peg's many other flaws, too many dishes here went wrong, with poor execution that's uncharacteristic of a Levin kitchen, or just bad ideas. The chewy chicken wings lacquered in an over-spiced glaze of white chocolate-habanero cream was both. The pierogi, one of the highlights at Adsum, were both pasty and greasy. The fried clam belly sandwich was cooked to rubber bands. The shrimp crackers with the fried calamari, meanwhile, were undercooked, with uncuffed corners lodging in my teeth. The fried chicken "Cobb" salad was drenched in an oversweet Asian dressing. An attempt at house-made scrapple — a current rage — was disastrous, a livery gray loaf of dried-out pork pudding that made us long for an old-school slice of Habersett's.
I had far better luck with the breakfast poutine, an elaboration on yet another Adsum dish that brought super-crispy fries beneath oozing cheese curds and a creamy lava flow of sausage gravy. But my genuine enthusiasm was just not enough for our intensely codependent waitress, who simply could not forgive me for ordering it without the fried egg: "You missed out," she said, clearing away the well-eaten plate. "It's so much better with the egg."
Then again, I knew we lacked a connection before our meal when I asked if the Thai egg noodle salad was "like pad Thai" and she replied: "It's not like paté at all," and, adding her highest compliment, "it's not as gross as it sounds."
Our previous server was far better versed in the menu, but just as cloying in her need to narrate the dishes before us — "the black pepper caramel is where you're getting the bite, but a smooth, sweet, soft finish" — then coming back for a mid-plate recap, crouching beside our table with a preschool teacher's grin, begging for positive feedback.
Perhaps if the staff could have stopped continuously yanking plates of half-eaten octopus and half-drunk beers off our table, I would have had more to say — except that the soda-gun tonic in my cocktail was flat.
There were definitely a few dishes worth lingering on, including the fried chicken tacos with kimchi and that black pepper caramel, or the comfortingly soft and complex meat loaf, tinted with homemade Worcestershire, and topped with a ketchup marmalade studded with chewy nuggets of bacon. The cheesesteak "pot pie," a hearty bowl of sliced rib eye lathered in a house-made "Whiz" of garlicky Velveeta cream topped with a puff pastry lid, has potential to become the city's late-night stoner snack of choice. They can then top that off with a carrot cake sundae drizzled in caramel made from reduced carrot juice — a far better dessert option to the chocolate pudding layered with soggy pretzels, or a spiked shake, like our coffee-flavored Little Lebowski, that was thin.
There were some partial successes, too. The juicy brisket burger might have risen into my Top 10 Patties list had it not been for a crunchy Kaiser roll that was a distraction. The fried chicken was also not quite as flavorful as I'd hoped from a two-day marinade in pickle juice, and not nearly as special as Levin's elaborate Adsum bird. But the double-dredged crust was enough to protect the juicy meat from off-kilter garnishes of sharply over-spiced collards and a sunburst of honeyed hot sauce, clashing with the jarringly sweet contrast of soft watermelon chunks pickled in Kool-Aid.
I've tasted and loved those melons before at Adsum, where the bug-juice kiss was more in pickled check, and the fruit more compressed and crunchy. But Levin seems to have lost a precarious sense of balance in his attempt to settle into Square Peg, a talented chef drifting too far from his true gift for haute cuisine. I can only hope that it's a temporary phase, and that the perfect fit still awaits.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Henri's Hotts Barbeque in Folsom, N.J. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 215-854-2682, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan