Updated: Thursday, November 30, 2017, 5:49 PM
Step inside Hearthside, and all the senses are sparked. The crackle and smell of burning oak fills the air. The room glows amber with candles and smoked-glass lights. The open kitchen hums with energy, a hive of chefs in ash-gray aprons tending food over the embers. It’s a magnetic scene framed by charred white bricks, steel, and a geometric grid of wood rafters that extends over the dining room.
Diners’ heads turn as a sizzling cast-iron pan of huge prawns in chili butter leaves a plume of fragrant steam across the room.
Eyes swivel back to the kitchen at the sound of steel wheels turning — winch, winch, winch — as a chef cranks an iron grate high above the wood-fired grill so a giant dry-aged porterhouse can be set directly atop its glowing coals. And, oh my, what a porterhouse! An artful char can do wonders for such a gorgeous hunk of meat — not to mention an already heated dining scene like Collingswood’s that’s been awaiting its “next level” star. Hearthside is just the kind of destination restaurant (sophisticated in every detail, up to date and seasonally inspired, not Italian) that this South Jersey town has been waiting for.
The steak-on-ember trick is one Dominic Piperno learned while cooking in Chianti during his yearlong stint in Italy, and it works campfire magic on this 35-ounce slab of richly marbled 30-day dry-aged beef, whose juicy tenderness — edged in crusty char, paired with a deeply complex and long-lasting savor — took the prize for the best steak I’ve eaten all year. (Walnut Street Cafe and Merchantville’s Park Place came close.)
But Hearthside is not really a steak house at all. It’s a very much a modern American BYOB, with the now-obligatory four-part menu divided by size — small, medium, large (once called “entrées”) and large-format sharing platters, and chefs who are equally versed in crudos, pasta, and advanced vegetable cookery, fluidly drawing on Asia, Mexico, and, of course, Italy for inspiration. That steak takes yet another step up when ringed by a medley of roasted heirloom vegetables and a zippy salsa verde, and then another when accompanied with an additional plate of whole maitake mushrooms set over miso aioli and topped with crispy bits of puffed black rice and tricolor quinoa. Carrots tiered over housemade ricotta and crispy chickpeas resonated with a gloss of smoked cumin oil and the singe of the hearth.
If this sounds vaguely familiar to Center City eaters, you could say this kitchen is cooking in the Vernick-ular. But it comes by that pedigree legitimately. Piperno, a Cherry Hill native, followed a few years at Joey Baldino’s Zeppoli by cooking for three more at Vernick Food & Drink, where he rose to sous-chef and also met his eventual Hearthside co-chef in Aaron Gottesman, a Fat Ham alum. That is also where he learned the art of high-heat wood cookery, as well as chef Greg Vernick’s masterful approach to dishes that appear simple but that in fact are quite labor-intensive.
“If I could ever cook like that, I’d know I made it,” Piperno says of Vernick.
Piperno, 33, is not quite yet in his mentor’s league. But Hearthside, which he co-owns with his wife, Lindsay, 30, is very much at the stage where he can get to that lofty place. Like any new restaurant, there are issues to calibrate — a tendency to oversalt in my early meals (far less by a third visit), some dish compositions that were drier than I prefer (like the Mexican-inspired octopus dotted with dabs of sauce and refried beans), and an overly complicated multistage process that left my duck breast both a little chewy and not quite hot enough by the time it got to the table. But these few hiccups were the exceptions in an overall stellar display of satisfying and thoughtful flavors.
Hearthside is already as complete a restaurant, in terms of ambience, food, and service, as any Philadelphia BYOB. The young service team is graceful, outgoing, and well-informed. The space, with natural materials composed beautifully by Old City’s Ambit Architecture, hits a perfect tone of casual intimacy and special-occasion buzz. There’s even attention to the details of comfort, like the gentle spots that light the cherry wood tables, and the $10,000 worth of soundproofing tucked behind the diamond-patterned grid of rafters that trace the room and tame the ambient noise.
It sure helps to be able to create your half-million-dollar dream restaurant from scratch in a building built from the ground up by the chef’s father and prime investor. “He’s … in the arts and crafts business,” said Dominic, somewhat sheepishly, before conceding that his dad, Adolph “Pepe” Piperno, is the CEO of A.C. Moore.
But suffice it to say Dominic has trained well for this moment. And the couple and their team have not squandered the opportunity to create something special. This is most apparent in the food, which is often intricately layered and always built on handmade ingredients — from the excellent house breads that remind me of Zeppoli to the complex Thai green curry paste of galangal, lemongrass, mustard seeds, coriander, and chilies that makes Hearthside’s steamed mussels in curried coconut milk so much more vivid than similar versions I’ve had.
The inventive pastas here are especially compelling. The frilly edged agnolotti dumplings are stuffed with creamy smoked celery root that’s both indulgent and earthy. The deep grooves that ring the whole-wheat radiatore grab at the finely ground wild boar ragù so that you get a gamy burst of that stew in every bite. An opening-menu bucatini evoked late summer in a brandied tomato sauce intensely steeped with lobster. A toothy fusilli topped with crumbles of fennel sausage channeled the fall with toasted pine nuts and pureed squash for sauce.
Some of my favorites were raw, like the cobia crudo, whose firm flesh snapped against the tropical triangles of pineapple that had been compressed with chili oil for texture and heat. And the tuna tartare, which rose above mundane with the cool spice of an Asian pear puree spiked with jalapeños, then lifted off with a whiff of green shiso and fresh raw horseradish shaved over the top. A classic beef carpaccio drew deep umami from the addition of shaved raw button mushrooms and a mushroom vinaigrette.
The “large” plates that are the closest things here to traditional mains were my least favorite section of the menu. The chicken was juicy, with tasty grilled broccolini, but was also one of those early oversalted dishes. The scallops with chanterelles, sweet potato puree, and apples were perfectly delicious, but it was not an especially distinctive dish.
Gottesman and Piperno really hit their groove in the large-format sharing centerpieces. The steak is obviously a big deal at $90, but it’s a two-pounder easily shared by three as a main feature. The two-pound branzino ($56) was pure ocean treasure, deboned through the middle and stuffed with herbs, then roasted at 900 degrees, leaving the skin crisp and the downy flesh inside incredibly moist. The bed of fingerlings, caper berries, and olives luxuriated in a wine and chili butter broth that was almost better than the fish.
Unlike a lot of new restaurants, there is no easing up when it comes to dessert. House-churned semifreddos brought creamy scoops infused with dark chocolate or candied pecan and maple. The classic carrot cake is reinvented with the lovely light touch of mascarpone (instead of cream cheese) piped between layers of cake studded with candied walnuts and streaked with carrot caramel.
And then there are the apple fritters, whose batter is made from oven-dried apples, house-dehydrated ginger, and cider. They are, no doubt, reminiscent of the hot zeppoli fritters that Piperno used to woo Lindsay with when she was a bartender at Treno in Westmont and while he was still a young cook at Zeppoli. I guess the old hot-doughnut trick worked. Five years later, the two have begun to take all those great experiences and turn them into something special that is all their own.