Cedar Point Bar & Kitchen: Vegan bar food meets deep-fried Southern comfort
In few Philadelphia neighborhoods is the natural tension of gentrification between blue-collar old-timers and craft beer-obsessed hipsters as palpable as it is in dynamic Fishtown.
I'm guessing the kale cocktail at Cedar Point Bar & Kitchen isn't going to do much to bridge the divide. It's not so much the vague notion of it being either healthy or trendy - the unfortunate love child of smoothie bar and martini madness - as it is simply a repellent thing to sip, with a silty, pond-green texture and a sour-sweet tinge that pushes the boundaries of virtuous drinking beyond reason.
Like much at Cedar Point, the otherwise inviting and casual gastropub with brew taps a-flowing and a gracious deck perched over a corner of the thriving six-point intersection at the northern edge of Fishtown, the drink's downfall may have simply resulted from sloppy execution. Had the kale juice turned? Or had the bartender just not paid much mind?
A basic Old-Fashioned was equally atrocious. When we dared ask for an actual glass for our Sierra Nevada Torpedo, the pint glass arrived still so drenched with dishwater that it rained on our server's hand when he turned it over: "That's how we do it here," he deadpanned.
This surely wasn't how co-owner and chef Shannon Dougherty's return to Fishtown roots was scripted when she and partner Liz Peterson decided to close their popular Northern Liberties BYO, A Full Plate, and open this full-service resto-bar in March, just a half-block from her late grandmother Cathryn Conn's home.
Dougherty's parents left Fishtown for Levittown in the '70s. But with fond childhood memories of soft pretzels from the Fishtown Market and a desire to raise their twins in this resurgent neighborhood, the couple decided the time was ripe to return to the familial stomping grounds.
The restaurant is replete with sweet, nostalgic odes to family - grandmom's pie plates, for example, have been transformed into clever light shades. But the split personality behind Cedar Point's kitchen is 100 percent imbibed in Fishtown's new wave, one part vegan bar food, one part deep-fried Southern comfort, inspired by Dougherty's three-year sojourn through Mississippi and Louisiana.
At its best, this kitchen shows some appealingly creative soul, with an appetizer like its cornmeal Johnnycake, pinwheeled like a hearty crepe around tenderly braised shreds of brisket, scattered with the unexpected crunch of pickled jalapeños. A Cajun twist on corn dogs, substituting skewered links of spicy andouille for hot dogs in something I've dubbed "corn-douilles," is a bar munchie extraordinaire.
Cedar Point's buttermilk-fried boneless chicken over a corn bread waffle, drizzled in maple-sweetened barbecue sauce, is the kind of indulgent comfort regulars would make the trip for. Raw foodies, meanwhile, will surely relish the paper-thin crunch of shaved, uncooked beets folded into "ravioli" around goat cheese.
I can't imagine going to the labor-intensive trouble of prepping fava beans just to grind them into fancy tater tots - but I'm grateful that Cedar Point did. The okra fritters were less successful, so mashed into latke-like patties that the pods' texture was lost to the batter.
The fried catfish po-boy may have been the single favorite dish because it was spot-on traditional, from the greaseless corn flour-fried fish to the light-crusted Leidenheimer's roll dressed with pickles and rémoulade. The same cannot be said for the jambalaya, which was oddly pale and bland, cooked with butter (instead of the usual oil) and only two-thirds of Louisiana's holy trinity (why no onions?), and overall lacking the dish's trademark earthy spice.
Similarly, the special steak Diane that our waiter surmised (incorrectly) had been named for a relative - "the chef's aunt?" - was a far cry from the classic steak dish's richness, a livery piece of overcooked flatiron served with leathery glazed carrots and a drizzle of broken mushroom sauce.
It wasn't overly expensive, at $18 the menu's ceiling, signaling Cedar Point's determination to remain an affordable destination for locals - one many young families were clearly indulging in. Dougherty even begrudgingly put chicken wings on the menu as a sort of peace offering of familiarity to native Fishtowners - though they come subversively nestled with Brussels sprouts and an apricot horseradish coconut cream dip (instead of blue cheese) that just might unravel any chicken-wing goodwill.
That fruity-sweet cream wasn't for me, either. And it was even less so with the "veggie wings," a seitan variation that's something of a standard Fishtown vegan delicacy, but here was fried to a chewy crunch with none of good seitan's faux-meaty spring.
Cedar Point's outdoor deck and craft-beer selection, with 15 drafts and 30 good choices in can or bottle, may be a worthy draws on their own. But good beer is everywhere in Fishtown. And in a neighborhood that's a vibrant district for gastropubs, this newcomer has a long way to go before its kitchen measures up.
In some cases, it was a matter of more careful attention to detail. I would have loved the grass-fed Lancaster beef burger topped with pimento aioli had the medium-rare patty not been scorched black. The "pirogue" of fried eggplant, oddly stacked in slices like a napoleon over crab as opposed to the usual stuffed-boat shape (a "pirogue" is a flat-bottomed Cajun boat), came with giant crab claws that, without one of the restaurant's temporarily missing shell-crackers, were impossible to open.
The special Thursday "Louisiana boil" was a fair value for a generous bowl of fresh shrimp and crab claws. If only the chef had added more crab-boil flavor to the zestless yellow beer broth.
Other items crafted with a specific audience in mind - such as the homemade vegan "cheese board" - can only hope to land in front of vegans who have forgotten what real cheese tastes like. Cedar Point's trio, made from oats, tofu or nuts, more closely resembled plumber's putty.
Desserts are made at Haddonfield's Sweet T's Bakeshop by an alum of the Cake Boss show, but were similarly disappointing. The chocolate shell of the individual mud pie tasted burnt. The cupcake-sized strawberry-rhubarb pie was soggy. The vegan carrot cake spared me the cream cheese, but set my teeth buzzing-numb with sugar. Asked what made the dairy-free icing so creamy, our waitress shrugged, "Sorry, I don't know." Then, like that, she walked away.
CEDAR POINT BAR & KITCHEN
2370 E. Norris St. (at Cedar)
There is genuine neighborhood appeal to this casual and airy gastropub, whose inviting corner deck perches over a six-point intersection in northern Fishtown and makes ideal outdoor sipping for craft beer fans. But the menu from chef and co-owner Shannon Dougherty (formerly of A Full Plate), is an odd mash-up of vegan virtues with deep-fried Southern whimsies that suffers from poor execution. Matters aren't improved by service ranging from friendly-but-clueless to downright indifferent.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Fava tots; Johnnycake pinwheel; andouille corn dogs; chicken wings with Brussels sprouts; fried chicken and waffle; catfish po-boy.
DRINKS An excellent craft beer selection includes 15 drafts (including nitro and cask options), plus 30 in bottle and can, split between great Belgian names (Orval, Rodenbach), Americans (Six Point), and familiar locals (Stoudt's Karnival Kolsch is perfect for summer). A carefully dried glass, though, isn't a given. The small cocktail list has tall ambitions that it couldn't pull off (i.e. kale martini), and craftsmanship on even some basics (Old-Fashioned) was dubious.
WEEKEND NOISE A boisterous 93 decibels in the front bar, but conversation-friendly pockets are in the rear dining room and on the deck. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight; Friday and Saturday, until 1 a.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $8-$18.
Visa, Mastercard and cash only.
No formal reservations, but parties of 8 are advised to call ahead.
Street parking only.
Owner-chef Shannon Dougherty talks about Cedar Point Bar and Kitchen at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews.