Updated: Thursday, November 16, 2017, 10:16 PM
How is it possible for a restaurant to be both brilliant and virtually invisible at the same time?
It’s a question I’ve pondered many times about a.kitchen, the sleek modern bistro on the ground floor of the AKA Rittenhouse hotel, so bent on subtlety they won’t even capitalize the restaurant’s name. But never did I think it more so than recently, when I marveled at the beauty of a stunning Alsatian choucroute feast for two. This glorious platter of sauerkraut, cured for five weeks, then cooked with Riesling and juniper, came piled high with carrots and a feast of four porks — a juicy Berkshire chop scented with allspice and clove; house sausages infused with nutmeg and wine; a tender hunk of mustard-braised shoulder; and thick nubs of rillon-style pork belly whose butter-soft layers of fat and flesh were ribboned by an edge so shatteringly crisp the thrilling crunch of each porcine bite could be heard across the table.
How was it not the cracklin’ heard ’round Rittenhouse Square? How is it that this supremely soulful choucroute — or any of the seasonally inspired, family-style meals chef Eli Collins has been putting out since his arrival at a.kitchen in April — isn’t on the hot list of every local gourmet?
I would have thought Philly’s dinerati would be banging on the cafe windows for a seat after I devoured an absolutely gorgeous soupe de poisson in the spring, an exquisite update of the Provençal classic that paired oil-poached black bass, seared scallops, cockles, and octopus over a Moroccan-spiced broth of fish stock and carrot. It’s been freshened up with gingered delicata squash for fall. But …
No, in fact, we had little problem securing a table at a.kitchen, as has been the case since the restaurant opened in 2011. It’s one of those places that, despite maintaining a consistent record of excellence and a reputation as one of Philly’s most essential wine restaurants, has never quite acquired enough real buzz, making it, to my mind, one of the city’s most consistently undervalued restaurants.
Its determined aesthetic of refined understatement doesn’t help. Architect Ed Asfour created an elegantly modern and efficient use of space, with pale wood banquettes, mirrors, soft Italian lighting, and a chef’s counter wrapped around an open kitchen that serves nearly 60 seats in a 900-square-foot box. There are sidewalk cafe tables, too. But the restaurant’s street presence has long been overshadowed by the glitzier sights at the lively crossroads of 18th and Walnut.
Perhaps, though, it is the chef carousel that has made it hard for fans to finally latch on, as this kitchen cycled through Bryan Sikora, then the duo of Eli Kulp and the talented Jon Nodler, who ended up multitasking between company projects in Philly and New York before finally settling back at High Street in Old City, to make way for Collins here.
In many ways, it’s an ideal match, both for a restaurant still in search of its true identity and a superbly skilled young chef, already well-regarded for his work at Pub & Kitchen, who can finally express his true passion for rustic French cuisine. Yes, I did love a.kitchen’s brief but sooty flirtation a few years ago with a menu entirely dedicated to cooking over Japanese charcoal grills. But it was a logistical problem that’s been replaced with more conventional equipment. And the surprisingly giant 400-label wine cellar, with 15 intriguing glass pours showing the staff’s love of esoteric and terroir-driven Euro wines, ranging from ribolla gialla to listan negro, is a natural match for Collins’ old-world food, arranged into a snacky menu of small seasonal plates, charcuterie, and oysters, along with the option for bigger meals.
Collins, who worked for several years under New York Frenchman Daniel Boulud to become the chef at DBGB, produces a masterful display of house charcuterie served alongside grilled High Street bread that shouldn’t be missed. Lamb cooked almost like pastrami comes set in gelée with roast peppers, olives, and wine. Classic paté de campagne is warmed with the savor of cognac, nutmeg, and bacon. Pig’s trotters stewed to creaminess with whole-grain mustard are fried into warm croquettes. Tender shreds of oxtail are pressed with sweet carrots and parsley. But the true gem here was a flaky tart shell layered with pumpkin (now squash) and topped with a sublimely creamy foie gras mousse.
Though French food is at the root of Collins’ approach, the menu is driven by seasonality and a love of prime ingredients. Baby artichokes in spring were crisped in rice flour and served with rhubarb-tanged harissa. Kale salad draws hearty fall notes from mulled cider vinaigrette, Asian pears, cheddar, and smoky speck ham. Spring lamb was the natural centerpiece for Collins’ family-style meal in May — a stunning paella pan of stewed cannelini beans piled high with rare slices of roasted leg, crispy ribs, tender belly, and a crepinette lamb meatballs kissed with garlic and lavender. A later lamb creation of merguez sausages was tumbled with blistered shishito peppers over minted cucumber yogurt. Sumac-dusted cubes of polenta-like chickpea fritters called panisse bobbed atop garbanzos stewed with harissa and kale.
Of course, Collins’ a.kitchen has also ably maintained a core of popular dishes that transcend any particular passing theme, like the pretty gem lettuce salad topped with chicken, Valley Milkhouse blue cheese and buttermi,lk popcorn dressing for lunch, or a beautiful steak frites of Pennsylvania-raised flank, served with creamy onion soubise, zesty salsa verde, and thick-cut wedge potatoes. I enjoyed the exceptional pepper-crusted strip steak, too, but the brothy plate was uncharacteristically sloppy.
For my beef dollars, the best choice here is the $18 a.burger, a double-pattied blast of juicy ground short rib, chuck, and brisket, layered with oozy American cheese, long-hot pepper relish, and cornichons into one magnetic fistful of carnivorous lust. It is essentially a descendant of the burger Collins worked so hard on at Pub & Kitchen, but graced with the perfect frame of a sesame-speckled potato bread roll baked by High Street on Market. Like all High Street breads, it’s an evolved specimen — soft enough for a luxurious grip, yet sturdy enough to contain every gushing ounce of this flavor bomb without exploding.
It’s just one reminder of the many virtues brought to a.kitchen through the High Street Hospitality group run by Ellen Yin and Eli Kulp. The outstanding service team here is another, as every one of the enthusiastic young servers we encountered seemed to be genuinely well-versed in the details of every menu item, as well as how to navigate the restaurant’s collection of wine. Wine director and acting G.M. Joey Campanella was especially deft at guiding us to smart pairings from the fascinating list featuring small Euro producers with a focus on natural wine, whether it was an Austrian zweigelt rosé for that soupe de poisson, or a German pinot for the meatier bites of that choucroute. If I ever do return for one of the “cellar raids,” held on the first Wednesday of every month, when diners get half off any of this vast cellar’s bottles, I’m confident Campanella and crew will make that bargain splurge worthwhile.
But sometimes, all that’s needed is just one smart drink. And for the honey custard scattered with candied honeycomb that is the restaurant’s best dessert, an Amaro Float — a scoop of seasonal ice cream splashed with Meletti amaro — was a happy choice, bittersweet and creamy, with a lingering smack of intrigue. Just like my recent meals at a.kitchen.
Let’s hope Collins and this new-look French flavor linger, too. They just might become the memorable identity excellent a.kitchen has been searching for all along.