New faces give fresh life to Philly's veteran gastropubs

New faces in the kitchen at established gastropubs in town (from left): Chef Steven Eckerd at the Pub & Kitchen, Elizabeth Robertson/Staff; Doreen DeMarco at American Sardine Bar, Tom Gralish/Staff; and Joel Mazigian at Standard Tap, Tom Gralish/Staff

Great gastropubs have played a key role in defining the character of Philly’s dining scene over the last two decades, helping to anchor emerging neighborhoods with distinctive casual spaces that showcase both our growing craft-beer industry and handmade foods that go far beyond the old bar-food cliches. With Philly Beer Week revving up Friday, it’s a perfect time to revisit and reconsider three gastropubs that recently underwent big changes in the kitchen. To my delight, each has continued to evolve without missing a beat. Pheasant roulade and homemade sausages? Perfectly crisped soft-shell crab over baby gem salad and avocado-ramp mousse? Asian salmon cakes and creative vegan sandwiches? Yeah, Philly’s culinary gastropub train is still rolling strong. For the delicious details, read on.

Standard Tap, 901 N. Second St.,  215-238-0630; standardtap.com
THREE BELLS 

Standard Tap, a pioneering gastropub that has changed chefs recently. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Most Philadelphians had never heard the word gastropub (originally a British concept) until the arrival of Standard Tap on the eve of Y2K, when Paul Kimport and William Reed converted a centuries-old Northern Liberties taproom into a moody haven for exclusively local beers on draft (a first) and a menu featuring chicken pies wrapped in puff-pastry domes, duck confit salad, and fried smelts. Carolynn Angle came on as chef shortly after, and, over the course of 16 years, helped elevate the ever-changing blackboard menu to three bells, with a talent for seafood and game.

So when Angle left in November, I had concerns. This influential pioneer was in danger of being overshadowed by the growing scene it helped foster, in no small part because Northern Liberties itself has recently been overshadowed by Fishtown and Kensington to its north. The arrival of new chef Joel Mazigian, however, should put any worries about the cooking to rest. Standard Tap’s kitchen is as relevant as ever, diving deeper into its commitment to local ingredients and whole-animal cooking. Venison sausages, just one of several dishes Mazigian crafted from a whole red deer, came hickory-smoked Hungarian-style over a Castle Valley grit cake, pickled okra, and lightly creamed kale.  Crispy housemade pancetta sparked a creamy chowder sauce that glazed meaty razor clams hot off the plancha.  One of the most soulful Bolognese ragus I’ve had all year was served over airy potato gnocchi and made from ground Stryker Farm beef hearts. An amazingly tender heritage-breed pork chop was a celebration of spring over a tumble of sweet peas, morels, and fiddlehead ferns.

The pheasant roulade at Standard Tap in Northern Liberties. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Another seasonal ode with maitakes and asparagus came over crispy puffs of semolina gnocchi sauced with English pea cream. I was equally impressed with a thick slice of juicy grilled swordfish over tender farro, fairly priced at $24. And that pheasant roulade? The deftly deboned game bird was rolled around a puree of its own legs greened with herbal lovage and lemon balm, a lusciously moist and tender seasonal take on the kind of ballotine you might find at a fancy French restaurant.

As expected, Standard Tap’s draft list remains a prime showcase for great local beers, from such breweries as 2SP, Techne, Pizza Boy, Sly Fox, and Roy-Pitz. But the cocktail revolution has arrived at the Standard Tap, too, with sleeper options built on local ingredients, like the sparkling Old Cuban made with Cooper River’s aged Petty Island rum, and the Tap’s own Standard Amaro collaboration with Rowhouse Spirits. That one’s best sipped neat at the end of your meal, as a heady reminder that this gastropub pioneer has grown up, stayed at the top of its genre, and never stopped evolving.

American Sardine Bar, 1800 Federal St.,  215-334-2337, americansardinebar.com
TWO BELLS

Some gastropubs strive to impress with their culinary chops (see above: pheasant roulade, Standard Tap). But for American Sardine Bar, the fun factor has always been front and center as it trailblazed the way for the gentrifiers to northern Point Breeze with a giant sardine can dangling over its front door, an inventive all-sandwich menu, and one of cheeriest beer gardens in the city lighting up a stretch of South 18th Street. Its opening chef, Scott Schroeder, certainly set the tone as equal parts master of cheeky social media and wacky stoner-bar food (spaghetti on a sandwich?) before launching his own venture at Hungry Pigeon.

American Sardine Bar,  with its giant, witty tin dangling out front on South 18th Street. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

His successor at ASB, Doreen DeMarco, is a perfect fit. “I like silly food,” says the Willingboro native, 30, who also runs the kitchen at owner John Longacre’s Second District Brewing. That would explain the pile-it-on instincts that will occasionally put tater tots atop the vegan black bean sloppy joe; or scrapple, egg, and cheese on a pretzel bun; or “unicorn” funfetti in the churros. (“We don’t do cupcakes at the Sardine Bar,” says DeMarco. “We think outside of the box.”)

Don’t let the whimsy fool you, though. The ever-changing blackboard menu is full of hand-crafted (and sometimes surprisingly adventurous) flavors that almost always satisfy, from daily soups (Moroccan chicken was a favorite) to big sardines cooked three ways (get them grilled) and to what are still the city’s best onion rings. DeMarco’s spicy chili chicken wings also get my vote for Top 5 in Philly, the tender meat juicy from a star anise brine and its crackly crust shined with a sweet and spicy glaze infused with Sichuan peppercorns, sesame oil, and honey. A braised Korean short-rib sandwich amped with gochujang marinade stands in for any beefy cravings. But it is the nonmeat options where DeMarco’s creativity really shines. Her Asian salmon burger, laced with sesame, soy, and Thai chili mayo, is a satisfying burger alternative. But so was her vegan “cauli-burger” — a variation served on her gluten-free pizza crust — made from mashed cauliflower and tofu glazed in a vegan balsamic mayo emulsified with aquafaba —  chickpea water. And then there was the Burmese green tea salad, a colorful pinwheel of crunchies arrayed over greens — yellow lentils, sunflower seeds, sesame, peanuts, and jalapeño rings — that was mixed with tender threads of fermented tea leaves and a squeeze of lemon into one of the most refreshingly snappy salads of the spring.

The Burmese green tea salad at American Sardine Bar, another gastropub that has changed chefs recently. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

To wash it down, ASB always has a great beer list of cans and drafts, featuring sometimes-hard-to-find local stars, like Saint Benjamin, Tired Hands, Sterling Pig, and a particularly great wild ale fermented with fruit, Mr. Blueberry, from  Highway Manor in Camp Hill, Pa. If ever there was a perfect brew to sip from a lawn chair in South Philly’s beer garden ode to seriously silly food, Mr. Blueberry is it.

Pub & Kitchen, 1946 Lombard St., 215-545-0350, thepubandkitchen.com
THREE BELLS

For some places, there is a thin line between being a gastropub with great food and a serious restaurant with a very good bar. And nowhere has nudged that hard-to-define distinction one way or the other quite as much as Pub & Kitchen, the wildly popular corner haunt in Graduate Hospital whose most ambitious kitchen talent to date, Eli Collins, recently departed for a.kitchen.

At the bar at Pub & Kitchen, 1946 Lombard St. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Collins’ successor is certainly no slouch. Steven Eckerd, 31, has worked at Vetri and at Daniel in New York, and at Little Fish, Le Bec-Fin, and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse. And his commitment to handcrafting seasonal plates here from top-notch local ingredients has not wavered in the transition over the last month. That’s how you end up with smoked heirloom carrots over stracciatella cheese and charred eggplant puree, and a lamb neck terrine cured with chilies de arbol and green za’atar. But the clear message from managing partner Ed Hackett as the P&K heads into its ninth year is that it’s dialing its tone back just one notch to be more neighborhood restaurant than special-occasion destination. A great happy hour — $20 bottles of rosé, $8 burgers, and $6 old-fashioneds — will go a long way to that end.

I’ve also noticed a slight easing in the intricacy of the food, without sacrificing good cooking, that feels a shade more relaxed. A gorgeous soft-shell crab fried in an airy light tempura is tossed with delicate lettuce greens over an avocado-ramp mousseline. A new pasta extruder has given the kitchen a new toy, and some toothy bucatini, to evoke the Mediterranean with tagliasca olives, toasted walnuts, and a bittersweet orange froth of Meyer lemon curd. A beautiful market catch slice of halibut came roasted over curried red lentils. And Eckerd goes full comfort kitchen for his meatballs “alla Galvano” (named in honor of the beverage manager’s meatball hoagie habit) with tender pork and ricotta orbs that, once simmered in Jersey tomato sauce, hover over Castle Valley grilled baby Vidalias and clouds of smoked ricotta.

The meatballs alla Galvano with creamy polenta, grilled Vidalia onion, marinated tomato, smoked ricotta at the Pub & Kitchen, 1946 Lombard St. in Philadelphia. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

If ever there was a bellwether for the P&K’s mercurial culinary identity, you might as well track its burger, which has cycled through such phases as the thick Windsor with homemade bacon, the marrow-glazed Churchill phase, the Parliament, the thin patty, another fat patty, and now, a return to the double-stacked Windsor that I love most: a juicy pair of 3.5-ounce Debragga rounds layered with iceberg crunch and a house sauce studded with grilled onions, capers, a jolt of sriracha, and house-pickled cornichons. I’ll sip a perfectly blended Penicillin spritzed with smoky Laphraoig, or a Yards Love Stout, to go with that Double Winsdor, and enjoy this Pub & Kitchen phase it while it lasts.

The soft-shell crab with avocado mousse, pickled shiitake mushrooms, Fresno chili, and romaine at the Pub & Kitchen, 1946 Lombard St.  ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer


Meatballs alla Galvano from Pub & Kitchen

8 serving(s)

INGREDIENTS

Sauce:
10 cloves garlic, smashed
1 cup olive oil
1 orange, zest and juice
10 basil leaves, whole
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon chile flakes
Salt, to taste
2 28-ounce cans of Jersey Fresh Tomatoes brand crushed tomatoes (or any high quality canned tomato)
Meatballs:
1 cup milk
5 slices Italian bread, ripped into 1-inch pieces
4 pounds ground heritage pork
1 cup ricotta
1 sprig rosemary, chopped
15 leaves sage, chopped
4 cloves garlic, shaved
3 tablespoons salt
Black Pepper, ground to taste
5 eggs

For garnish: 1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, 1 bunch scallions, chopped, 2 cups ricotta seasoned with 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon black pepper and salt to taste.
Polenta:
2 cups Castle Valley coarse grind grits (or any high quality ground corn)
3 cups milk
3 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt, to taste

DIRECTIONS

1. On very low heat put garlic and olive oil in small sauce pot and cook for 30 minutes. Look for the garlic to be cooked through until soft and a tannish color. Once cooked, the garlic can be smashed into the oil, and add the orange juice and zest, herbs, spices and salt and pepper to the warm oil, let the flavors develop together while waiting for the tomato to cook. Open both cans and place tomatoes in a glass baking pan, and bake at 325 until reduced by half. Stir every 15 minutes, there will be some caramelization on the top as the tomatoes cook. When the tomatoes are reduced by half, add garlic oil mixture. Stir to combine, and let cook slowly in oven for another hour. At the end of the hour remove the sauce and allow to cool to room temperature, then cover the pan and refrigerate overnight.
2. For the meatballs: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add milk and bread to a medium mixing bowl, bread will absorb all liquid and become soft to make a panade, which is a paste with the consistency of a very moist dough. In standard mixer place ground pork, panade, ricotta, and spices, mix on medium speed with a paddle to blend ingredients together for one minute. Mix in eggs, one at a time until well blended. If you wish, you can bake a small piece of the pork mixture to check for seasoning. Adjust seasoning if needed, roll meatballs into 2-ounce. balls. Bake for 12 minutes, until cooked to medium. Cool and drain meatballs of any excess fat and liquid. Cover the meatballs with the chilled prepared sauce.
3. Reheat meatballs at 325-degrees for 30 minutes until heated through, and serve with the sauce together on top of polenta (recipe below). Just before serving garnish the assembled dish with ricotta, sesame seeds and scallions. Meatball recipe should make approximately 50 pieces, enough for a dinner for 8 people and a couple of lunch hoagies.
4. Polenta: Bring milk and water to a boil, and whisk in grits. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 2 hours until the grain is cooked through. Stir occasionally through the 2 hours with a rubber spatula to prevent scorching. When the grits are completely cooked, whisk in butter and oil to blend into the finished polenta. Regular polenta can be substituted for the Castle Valley product, and cooked the same.

Pub & Kitchen chef Steven Eckerd

Per Serving: 998 calories; 84 grams protein; 40 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams sugar; 56 grams fat; 313 milligrams cholesterol; 3,467 milligrams sodium; 8 grams dietary fiber.


American Sardine Bar’s Asian Salmon Cake

6 serving(s)

INGREDIENTS

For the cake:
2 pounds salmon
1 teaspoon soy
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 eggs
2 tablespoons mayo
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon scallion, sliced
1 tablespoon cilantro
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon hot mustard
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
Soy mayo (yields 1 cup):
1 cup Kewpie mayo
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons minced Thai chilies
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon hot mustard
For the slaw (yields 1 quart):
1/4 head sliced purple cabbage
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lime
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
12 pieces of pumpernickel (or bread of choice)
Cilantro to garnish

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat salmon well with sesame oil and soy. Lay it out on a baking tray and bake it 8 to 10 minutes until it flakes away. Let cool.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and fold in flaked fish. Form 5-ounce patties and let set overnight for best results.
3. Sear off the cakes in a greased nonstick skillet 2 minutes on each side until hot throughout.
4. For the soy mayo: Mix all ingredients.
5. For the slaw: Combine juices with salt and sugar, pour over cabbage, lightly toss in sesame oil until incorporated. Allowed at least 2 hours for flavors to marry.
6. To assemble sandwich: toast thinly sliced pumpernickel bread and build the sandwich with soy mayo on the bottom, the seared cake, slaw, and then garnish with fresh cilantro.

chef Doreen DeMarco

Per serving: 654 calories, 39 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 135 milligrams cholesterol, 1,171 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Standard Tap’s Semolina Gnocchi with Seasonal Vegetables and Pea Sauce

8 serving(s)

INGREDIENTS

For the gnocchi:
11/4 cup water
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup semolina flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
5 whole eggs
For the sauce:
1 cup English peas, boiled in salted water for 1 minute, shocked in ice water, then drained
1/2 cup rough-chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 mint leaves
1 shallot, sliced and cooked in 1 teaspoon butter until soft, about 3 minutes over medium heat, set aside to cool
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 cup heavy cream
For final assembly:
1 tablespoon olive oil
Seasonal vegetable garnish, such as 2 ounces maitake mushrooms, 2 stalks of asparagus cut into one-inch pieces, and 2 spring onions cut into one-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
Parmesan to taste

 

DIRECTIONS

1. Bring water and butter to a boil. Once it’s boiling, slowly add both flours and salt. Reduce heat to medium and cook over medium heat for about 4 minutes. Place hot mixture and Parmesan cheese into bowl of mixer with paddle attachment. Turn on medium speed and slowly add eggs one at a time. Once all eggs are added, let mix for about 2 minutes until slightly cool.
2. Place mixture into a reusable piping bag fitted with a half-inch round tip and place into refrigerator until cool, about two hours.
3. Make the sauce: Puree the peas, parsley, mint, shallot, and vegetable stock in blender until smooth. (It can now be refrigerated until needed.) Transfer directly to sauce pot, with the heavy cream, bring to a simmer, and season with salt to taste. Once hot, stir in about 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter.
4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once gnocchi dough is cool, squeeze it into the pot of boiling water, cutting it with a small paring knife into half-inch pieces, squeezing and cutting intermittently. Squeeze, cut, squeeze, cut. Poach in boiling water until gnocchi float and feel firm when skimmed out of the water. If they give when you push on them, they need more time.
5. Once they’re cooked, remove with slotted spoon and place on a lightly oiled tray. If not using immediately, toss the gnocchi in a few drops of olive oil and store them in a resealable container in the refrigerator for up to three days.
6. To prepare dish: heat saute pan over high flame with olive oil. Add gnocchi and cook until just starting to get golden brown. Add whatever vegetables you like, sauteeing those ingredients with 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter and garlic, until tender, about 3 minutes. Place sauce in bottom of a wide bowl, then place gnocchi and vegetables on sauce, and finish with grated Parmesan cheese.

From Standard Tap chef Joel Mazigian

Per serving (based on 8): 415 calories, 11 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 33 grams fat, 184 milligrams cholesterol, 812 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

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