Restaurants are often a reflection of our times - not simply as a city or a dining scene, but sometimes also as individuals.
For front-of-the-house veteran Tony Schiro, 45, the 1990s were all about the upscale glitz of Walnut Street's Restaurant Row at Circa. A decade of late-night gastropub revelry off South Street followed as Schiro ran the Latest Dish and its upstairs nightclub, Fluid, known for, among other things, a New Wave dance party called Sex Dwarf that raged until the early-morning hours.
By contrast, the mellow and mature BYOB called Jaxon that Schiro now owns on a quiet Third Street corner in Northern Liberties seems like the polar opposite of his previous go-go existence. With 22 seats in the former Il Cantuccio, no liquor license, and a blackboard menu that evolves daily (since there is no walk-in fridge), he's usually home just down the block by 11 p.m. It's a perfect life shift for a guy with an early-rising young son who also happens to be named Jaxon.
The scenario may be calmer, but the result is no less satisfying in the down-to-essentials way umpteen other Philly BYOBs have become cherished neighborhood cornerstones. And Northern Liberties - undergoing its own restaurant identity crisis now in Fishtown's shadow with a glut of gastropubs - can use all the grown-up dining spots it can muster. And Jaxon is just that.
The setting is pleasantly simple, from the whitewashed brick walls to the low-lit Edison bulbs that illuminate dangling terrariums, and the tiny open kitchen, with the low syncopation of Latin salsa pulsing through the room.
But Jaxon's appeal is all about the focus on food and service. Schiro runs the dining room with his usual enthusiasm and warmth. And you won't mistake the note of prejudiced pride as he recommends the mac-'n'-cheese ("a Latest Dish classic") that brings a bubbling crock of ziti in a creamy sauce noted for its lightness, with no roux thickener, and a subtle tang of added goat cheese.
But that relic of retro comfort really does not quite capture the fluid New American cooking that characterizes new chef Matthew Gansert's cooking. Gansert, 35, a late-blooming career changer who left his six-figure job as an engineer for his passion in the kitchen ("I had my Office Space moment," he says), learned well from his stops at Pub & Kitchen, Rex 1516, and Will BYOB. And his ever-changing menu roams wide through various cultures and techniques while staying rooted in current local ingredients and seasonality.
Charred Brussels, now required on cold-weather menus, come alongside hot chunks of fried haloumi cheese over a sweet and savory smear of smoky maple bacon jam. Pink curls of raw cobia arrive crudo-style in a cool broth of exotic coconut milk and kaffir lime. A pâté of mashed salmon rillettes, turned lush with lemon-poppy aoili and topped with crunchy sheets of shaved black radishes, evokes a hint of France. Crisply seared cod over chickpeas and clams bathed in cuminy orange chorizo broth says "Spain." A crisp and savory okonomiyaki pancake provides a Japanese street food canvas for Gansert's kitchen to play with vegetables, threading the batter with roasted butternut squash and cabbage, then topping the round with shaved raw beets and smoky dabs of spicy chipotle aioli.
There were a few slight misses. The dramatic octopus starter, a holdover from Jaxon's opening chef, brought a smart pairing with salty taramasalata fish roe spread on the bottom of the plate. But the thick octo arm wasn't tender enough. A pig's head terrine with chocolate had a texture flaw - too mushy - and too subtle a cocoa finish for it to receive top ingredient billing. I also would have loved a less shreddy texture for the slow-stewed lamb neck ragù, which twisted up like ropa vieja inside the tubes of garganelli, though it had a fantastically deep flavor. A simple fresh spaghetti tossed in tomato butter topped with sautéed snow peas and zucchini was fine, but as the menu's only vegetarian offering that night, it was less imaginative than the previous visit's okonomiyaki.
For the most part, Gansert's kitchen hit its marks with dishes that made the most of good ingredients with interesting little tweaks. A big Duroc pork chop, tender and flavorful from a cure in fennel-and-herb salt, came with a rustic vegetable ragout over Bloody Butcher grits, the red-flecked corn freshly ground at Doylestown's Castle Valley Mills and vivid with a flavor that almost reminds of popcorn.
A similar vegetable ragout, dubbed "Bolognese" for its coarse-chopped ingredients, brought the right texture and brightness to the creamy pillows of agnolotti Gansert stuffed with smoked ricotta cheese. Another fresh pasta, a square-cut chitarra thread tinted black with squid ink, was also a highlight, tossed with sweet onion cream and prosciutto, then topped with big seared scallops.
Gansert does steak and potatoes, too, though not without subtle twists to keep it interesting. A half-pound hunk of coulotte, a flavorful and tender cut from the top sirloin cap that's becoming trendy, is grilled alongside crispy fingerling "frites" tossed in a light curry, with a zippy side dish of harissa made from pureed carrots spiced with Aleppo pepper, garlic, sherry vinegar, and cumin. At $35, it's by far the most expensive dish on a menu that hovers in the mid- to high $20s.
But it's a fair value for the quality, like most of the Jaxon experience, which ends in a sweet but simple finish of a coffee pot de crème and a little tart stuffed with pumpkin ganache topped with buttermilk whipped cream and a cashew crumble. Dinner here may be a little pricier than at most of the other options in Northern Liberties, and a lot quieter than the pub and club late nights of Schiro's previous existence. But it feels personal, and it feels right - for an owner who's eased with grace into life's next stage, for a notable new chef making the most of an opportunity, and for a neighborhood that's still evolving, too, and that can only benefit from another cozy and grown-up place to eat.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Bait & Switch in Port Richmond. firstname.lastname@example.org