Dining Review: Crazy-wonderful food presentations
Peter Serpico wants to burn your apples. He wants to torque your duck. He wants to snatch the sweet peas from their baby pods and swap them when you're not looking with luminous emerald orbs of tiny juicy cucumbers. His vision for new-and-improved lamb ribs? It's so mad-scientist, it's downright unnatural.
And we are going to let him have his way. Because Serpico, who glides behind the counter of his eponymous open kitchen with such quiet intensity that his partner Stephen Starr refers to him as a "monk," is one of the most thrilling culinary minds to land in Philly in years.
Sweet lump crab becomes electric when stained yellow by the spicy tang of pureed pepperoncini, set in a smoky broth of diced potatoes beneath caper-brined trout and salty jewels of orange roe. That old Pennsylvania Dutch country favorite, Cope's corn, is also totally transformed when the dried sweet corn is pureed like polenta and tucked inside perfect ravioli with a Mexican-inspired chorizo sauce and shaved fresh hearts of palm. Thanksgiving will never be the same.
Can Serpico's collaboration with Starr even begin to transform South Street, too? You could almost miss it. The subtly marked "SERPICO" sign and a tiny menu box are fixed to a low black brick facade with a dark porthole door, its windows louvered shut to the glaring head-shop honky-tonk, sneaker stores, pawnshops, and hookah cafes that now line this once-iconic stretch.
But it's all the more magnetic amid the bright lights for the understatement, an aesthetic that infuses designer Thomas Schlesser's broodingly handsome interior, too, a moody box of menu-scrawled blackboard walls and subway tile capped with an aurora of light near the ceiling. Guests wait around the unusual little wooden bar in front, an oval island more like living room furniture than a typical counter, sipping lemony Corpse Reviver No. 2's, Koval millet whiskey, and Laphroaig-spritzed apple-rye Fall Guy cocktails.
Most captivating, though, is the open kitchen that hovers at the rear like a glowing steel spaceship, where guests in the prime-time seats ring the stove and counters to watch Serpico's team assemble their artful dishes with quiet, surgical precision.
The down-low vibe surely suits the painfully shy Serpico, who came here from New York after a long tenure as one of David Chang's top Momofuku chefs, opening the highly touted Ko. His food, delivered by cooks to the table with brief annotations, does all the real talking necessary in a style that is at once edgy, intricate, and beautiful.
His dashi soup, a clear smoked-bonito broth poured tableside over a landscape of perfect greens and lightly gelled cubes of rich crème fraîche, was a stunning display of delicacy and deception. The refreshingly chilled broth suddenly flickered with mustard-oil heat. The tiny "peas" lining the open pods were actually sweet little melon-baller scoops of cucumber.
Bite-sized morsels of raw diver scallop took on extra sweetness beside a tangy puddle of sriracha-spiced buttermilk dappled with chive oil, while a dusting of crunchy poppy seeds slyly accented the ivory meat's lush softness. An exceptional charcuterie of pig's head, sliced into silky sheets, became extraordinary when paired with the rare nutty crunch of fresh water chestnuts and mustard tinted with the carbon sweetness of "burnt" onions.
A small crock of steamed egg "chawanmushi" was more evidence of the kitchen's virtuosic texture play - the soft custard layered with the brown-buttered crunch of potato "pebbles," the snap of rehydrated cauliflower mushrooms, and the luxuriously briny pop of Siberian caviar spooned on top.
Serpico is as fluent as any cook in the ways of the modern kitchen. But all the meat glue, xanthan thickener, and immersion circulator sessions are merely tools for a unique vision of food that never lets technique overshadow good taste.
A sprinkling of Activa adhesive is just a little "insurance," he says, so those deep-fried boneless duck legs - honey-brined, torqued into hot dog shapes, cooked sous-vide for 18 hours - don't explode when they're fryer-crisped to a mahogany finish. Set on pressed hot dog buns with pickled cukes and hoisin, they're the ultimate cool-kid update to Peking duck buns.
That maneuver is just an appetizer, though, compared to Serpico's Frankenlamb for two, which reinvents usually scrawny lamb ribs into hefty slabs by gluing thick hunks of shoulder meat in between the bone and the rib's ample layer of fat. Cooked for 24 hours at low temp and piled high on the plate in a fiery marinade of burnt onions, Sichuan chiles, and star anise, these ribs were among the most intense things I've sunk my teeth into all year. A cappuccino-looking pudding of charred eggplant topped with a layer of minted yogurt was a brilliant touch - though not quite cooling enough to tame a secondary sauce that overwhelmed it all with runaway heat.
It was one of just a few kitchen flaws in a debut that came as close as any to landing four bells on the first try. The relatively small drinks list could also use more depth, although manager Richard Fell did a smart job choosing food-friendly wines, as well as a handful of sakes for surprising pairings, including a cedary Taru that was spot-on with the lamb.
The service staff, though somewhat limited in its role with the cooks delivering dishes, set the perfect tone with its knowledge and explanation of the menu.
A couple of other dishes fell flat: The potential sex appeal of snail sausage for the hand-torn pasta ended up as anonymous, spongy gray cubes; an innocuous roasted duck breast over scrubbed whole carrots lacked much personality.
I found the one deliberately "approachable" dish here, a gorgeous pink Wagyu chuck flap steak - a short loin cut sometimes used in Japanese shabu-shabu - with mustardy mushroom soy sauce and fancy potatoes (sneakily butter-injected) to be more exciting. Serpico's "seasonal vegetables," at first glance a random heap of produce, turned out to be a treasure trove of umami and textures (myriad mushrooms, charred zucchini, stewed onions, wilted greens) sparked by crispy lily bulbs and a surprisingly delicate froth of pureed whole lemons.
The desserts here are rife with Savory Chef Syndrome - a focus less on straight-ahead sweets than curveballs like fried rosemary foam over yuzu curd, or a bracingly tart goat cheese sorbet with tapioca-powdered almond brittle. So perhaps not surprisingly, Serpico's best desserts are marked with his affinity for char - like the toasted meringue smeared beneath candied walnuts and frozen chocolate pudding for his stunning Rocky Road revamp. Or the apples that are literally burnt to give the caramel beside his steamed apple cake a deep gray shadow that adds an elusive depth.
And magnetic mystery, too - like the dark brick facade behind which Serpico is already evolving into one of the city's most compelling restaurants. The unanswered question here: How good can this already impressive restaurant still become?
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Fraschetta in Bryn Mawr.