Even at one of the best restaurants in Philly run by the hottest dining duo in town, this was not the way to begin.
My guest for dinner - Inquirer food editor Maureen Fitzgerald - was late to the new and improved edition of a.kitchen. I had a crisp Fair Trade cocktail - bartender Mariko Honda's vivid coffee-and-tequila riff on a Negroni - in hand. But the coal-fired grill that new chef Eli Kulp had recently installed in the open kitchen was driving me mad with hunger. My stomach rumbled as whole Dover soles and chicken thighs lacquered with barbecue sauce made from pureed eggplant sizzled and smoked over the sparking embers.
It turned out Maureen wasn't far away. She was with the police next door in the attached aka hotel. And they were watching surveillance footage of two crooks slithering into the hotel's lounge, a.bar, at the corner of 18th and Walnut, stooping down to lift Maureen's beloved Kate Spade wallet from her purse, then slipping away with it under a coat.
Brazen pickpockets have become an epidemic in Center City restaurants - a scourge that restaurateurs seem unprepared to battle, and that diners should be on guard against. It is, in some ways, an ugly flip side to the vibrant blossoming of our restaurant scene.
And as far as restaurant progress goes, Rittenhouse Square's already splendid options became even richer when a.kitchen's creator-consultant, David Fields, lured Kulp and Ellen Yin to take over the operation.
This is the first venture beyond Old City for the now-golden team behind Fork and High Street on Market, and they've improved an already good a.kitchen in every way, adding a unique grill focus to the vividly seasonal menu, continuing its pursuit of the city's most fascinating wine list, and working to refine the service. Mostly.
They properly voided the bar tab Maureen's son had paid, but then stumbled a bit by subsequently sending us a clueless waiter in the dining room who greeted us with, "So, how's your evening been so far?" The question became dark comedy when he repeated it to Maureen's husband, who arrived later, agitated and spent after a half-hour marathon of canceling credit cards: "Great!" he deadpanned.
It was a rare tone-deaf moment for an operation that has otherwise had perfect pitch in polishing a.kitchen. And in many ways this spare but elegant blond-wood, open-windowed jewel box has become an ideal model of a modern Philadelphia restaurant - cafe-casual in ambience but sophisticated in the details. It's flexible in format, from snack-sized bowls of tempura-fried Basque peppers and singular diver scallops roasted in their shells with rhubarb and celery-kimchi consommé, to a huge $93 two-pound T-bone for sharing that was the best steak I've eaten in a year - the minerally, 28-day dry-aged beef heady from the 1,100-degree coals.
Sommelier Mariel Wega can enthusiastically guide you to either a blowout bottle (a 2008 A Vita Ciro Riserva Gaglioppo from Calabria, $83) or a spot-on glass (Sorelle Palazzi Sangiovese, $14) for that chop. The esoteric small-producer list for a.kitchen, built-up by ex-sommelier Tim Kweeder (now at Petruce), is a cool-kid romp from cru Beaujolais to Swabia, the Loire, and Lebanon that's big on earthy "low-intervention" wines that will likely be unfamiliar but potentially exciting and taste-bud-recalibrating for the fruity pinot-buttery chardonnay crowd. Or maybe not. But I appreciate the rare wine-list vision here.
The New American menu from Kulp and his talented chef de cuisine, Jon Nodler, is just flat-out exciting - intensely seasonal (creamy burrata ringed by vivid green nettle soup), frequently foraged (thumb-sized morels, sweet woodruff and wild cress beside a grilled whole aji horse mackerel), and unafraid of big flavors, such as the bone-in grilled skate "deviled" with a red guajillo chile-sambal glaze.
The food is surprisingly influenced by Japan, even if its presentation is not overtly Asian, from the indirect coal-grilling techniques to the crispy wild rice cakes topped with lush sea urchin and a translucent ribbon of cured pork jowl. Toothy soba noodles are made from East Coast buckwheat, then tossed with spring bounty (fiddleheads, ramps) in a refreshingly cool, minty cucumber broth steeped with celery and eucalyptus from Nodler's Minnesota uncle.
A gorgeous hunk of tender, mid-rare duck breast came with coal-roasted turnips and mustard greens splashed in funky, garlicky XO sauce made from house-dried scallops and burnt ginger. Even the pork cutlet - an uncharacteristically simple but irresistible item - is a perfect pork katsu, with spicy mayo and pickled little turnips.
But the secret ingredient here is inevitably those coals, which lend a subtle smoky edge to some unexpected dishes. They give a deliberate char to baker Alex Bois' fantastic rustic bread marbled with pickled ramps and the ashes of leek and fennel tops. They add oomph to grilled asparagus that tumble in snappy shaved ribbons with peekytoe crab in spicy Thai vinaigrette. They kiss tender squid tubes stuffed with spicy 'nduja sausage. They even lend an extra primalness to the beef tartare, diced from meat that's rolled briefly on the grill, then amped with the rendered fat of dry-aged beef. No wonder my other guest lunged caveman-style without a fork to eat it.
But the grill's true stars were whole fish for sharing that are different from any others in Philly. That aji, butterflied and grilled over a Japanese grill grate that blistered the skin over dusky, buttery flesh, is a new favorite. The regal Dover sole, vented for the grill with vertical slashes and served over brown butter-lime vinaigrette - will be a bone-in change-up for older diners accustomed to black-tied servers doing all the fillet work. But the crispy skin and luxurious, moist meat was extraordinary. Like the restaurant's unconventional wines, this is an a.kitchen challenge worth embracing.
All those good flavors, I'm afraid, could not entirely soothe the sting of the traumatic theft that began our night as a rude reminder of a city problem that was really not a.kitchen's fault. An awkward mood persisted nonetheless as our waiter - the single employee here who didn't impress me - remained oblivious. But by the end, as Maureen's spoon plunged into a silky goat's-milk cajeta caramel with crunchy almond crumble, maple caramel, and tiny flowers, she declared with unqualified pleasure, "that's amazing."
So I knew: under the most difficult circumstances, a.kitchen had done its job.
Eli Kulp shows off a.kitchen's charcoal grill at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat Tuesdays at 2 p.m. at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Paris Bistro in Chestnut Hill.