Consider the oyster. I've mulled this little pearl of M.F.K. Fisher wisdom often. And it's clear Rob Marzinsky has reflected on it, too, probably more than most chefs.
It's not that his menu at the intriguing new "neo-bistro" called Buckminster's in Point Breeze offers such a wide variety. In fact, he serves just one, the mild-mannered but beautifully fresh Sweet Amalia, a jewel of Delaware Bay sea flesh sustainably cultivated near Cape May.
What's impressive is the variety of ways in which they're cooked. They come gleaming on the half-shell, with just a squirt of lemon to perk their delicately briny snap. They're roasted just a breath past raw beneath a tangy gloss of house-cultured butter speckled with lemon thyme. They're also superb quickly fried inside toasted corn flour and perched atop a perfect omelet. Even the velvety folds of rolled egg are infused with oyster liquor, and are an ideal match for the light funk of green hot sauce from house-fermented jalapeños.
Marzinsky's most compelling ode to oysterdom, though, is a humble bowl of milky stew. But with good Lancaster double-cream, diced chowder potatoes, a nutty splash of sherry, and oysters warmed just enough for their edges to curl and their centers to firm into soft pillows, each buttery spoonful triggered an unexpected hum of primal satisfaction, just as Fisher wrote after such a meal at the Doylestown Inn in her 1941 essay, "A Supper to Sleep On," from which Marzinsky took his recipe: "It was . . . the best in the world . . . mildly potent, quietly sustaining, warm as love and welcomer in winter."
It's telling to compare this satisfyingly elemental stew to an earlier, much fancier version Marzinsky cooked when he was farther uptown at Fitler Dining Room. It was fine, but deconstructed, with more ingredients and parsley sauce dotting the plate for a fine-dining polish that suited the tony boutique. At Buckminster's in the now-emerging neighborhood of Point Breeze south of Washington Avenue, where momentum is building out from the American Sardine Bar, a dish with more fundamental appeal is a smart approach.
Not that Buckminster's lacks for ambition or bold statements about the culture shift it brings to a corner once occupied by the old-school tavern called Burg's. This kitchen makes its own butter, bakes whole-grain breads, and sources heritage ingredients from Lancaster County. The space's sleek overhaul (the basement was dug out for the kitchen) features walls lined with old bowling alley lumber, green metal, and a curious eyeglass motif.
Racy Austrian Grüner-Veltliner and fruity Sangiovese wines pour on draft. The beers trend obscure with oatmeal stout on nitro (Ballast Point Sextant), salty gose (Troublesome Off Color) and saison made with saffron (St. Benjamin Saison IX), a good match for the curry.
In a neighborhood still dotted with cheap cheesesteak shops and Chinese take-out corners cooking behind bullet-proof glass, the prospect of something called a "neo-bistro" sounds like a tough sell. But, in fact, this Parisian phenomenon, built around small restaurant-bars serving high-quality food at fair prices, is meant for a frontiering role.
I have no illusions about the audience here. The parsnip fries and little bowls of charred squid dusted with espelette pepper will likely find favor with the newest residents who have settled in the expensive rowhouses sprouting everywhere.
But owner Michael Pasquarello, who named this cozy 30-seater after bespectacled visionary architect-inventor Buckminster Fuller (a proponent of the geodisic dome), has experience pioneering neighborhoods with places like Cafe Lift and Kensington Quarters. And he's keenly aware that, at the corner of 21st and Federal, his newest project must remain affordable.
Virtually the entire menu is under $20, and most every drink - including some excellent cocktails - are under $10.
The kitchen, meanwhile, has kept the small-plate menu lean and constantly changing, with a tendency toward the experimental. Spice-dusted carrots get roasted over spent coffee grounds and get tossed with jujube date Asian barbecue sauce. An exceptional panna cotta is infused with hay, whose grassy floral notes harmonize with honey.
The unique approach didn't always pay off - especially in the entrees, which at times seem too limited here. A riff on "bologna and cheese" that layered deeply smoky Lebanon sweet bologna (which I usually covet) over a hunk of spelt bread covered in thick mornay sauce was impenetrably dense. A cider-braised pork shoulder meant to evoke Amish pork and kraut was salty, dry, and too intensely sour.
A few of the small plates, as well, suffered from overzealous pickling - such as the cider-tart oyster mushrooms that overwhelmed an otherwise fantastic medley of other 'shrooms. Another charming throwback attempt, this one a Pavlova for dessert, brought a meringue that's supposed to be delicately crisp, but that was instead as chewy as taffy.
When Marzinksy lands a good dish, though, it can be great. I loved his original presentations for local cheese, draping Birchrun Hills Blue in the melonlike sweetness of honey-preserved quince dusted with bee pollen; and a savory salad of firm Batch #9 goat cheese slices from Doe Run layered with tatsoi leaves in vinaigrette.
I couldn't get enough of the stuffed cabbage, a comfort nod to Marzinsky's grandmother updated with good Kensington Quarters ground beef seasoned with juniper and caraway, a black-and-white sesame crust on top and a "pepperpot" sauce that wasn't shy with heat. But just like that, it has taken a hiatus from the ever-shifting menu.
His pierogies, though, are a mainstay. Stuffed with silky Kennebeck potato puree, they hit another level with house-soured cream and dark shavings of crisped potato skins that lent extra earthy depth. Equally rustic noodles made from local spelt flour added to the intensity (and sweet nuttiness) of a fun twist on chicken Marsala made from tender Griggstown birds, mushrooms, and cider. Set alongside an assertively spicy bowl of sweet potato Massaman curry with pickled pears, its vivid aromatics informed by Marzinsky's trip last year to Thailand, it all makes for a potentially strange, disjointed collection of dishes.
The unifying theme, perhaps, is that Marzinsky and his sous-chef, Palmer Marinelli, are having fun cooking what they want to eat - which is usually a positive sign. Some experiments will fall flat. And they may find some more neighbor-friendly sandwiches are needed for menu balance. But as long as there is oyster stew - "quietly sustaining, warm as love and welcomer in winter" - I'll consider Buckminster's essential proof that Point Breeze's emergence is for real.
VERY GOOD (2 BELLS OUT OF 4)
1200 S. 21st St. (at Federal Street), 267-928-3440; buckminstersphl.com
Philly's next hot neighborhood, Point Breeze, gets a gentrifying jolt of culinary ambition with this little corner bar turned affordable "neo-bistro" from the team behind Kensington Quarters and chef Rob Marzinsky. The stylishly revamped space is a magnet for the area's young new residents, and the chef's ever-changing small-plate menu reflects a simpler approach than his Fitler Dining Room days and focuses on reviving local specialties (oyster stew! spelt!), authentic Thai curry, and an experimental spirit that pays off . . . usually. The tightly curated drink program of well-crafted cocktails, natural wine, and good beers is also an exercise in smart value.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Oysters (raw, roasted or stewed); fried oyster omelet; parsnip fries; charred squid; pierogi; stuffed cabbage; chicken Marsala; coffee-roasted carrots; Massaman sweet potato curry; cheese (Birchrun Hills Blue; Doe Run Batch #9); house bread and butter; maple toast; hay and honey panna cotta.
DRINKS Small but smartly focused on unique qualities and value, Buckminster's drink list features a dozen natural wines on draft, with highlights like Zum Martin Sepp Grüner-Veltliner and Tre Monti Sangiovese under $9 a glass. The cocktails, likewise, deliver creativity and craftsmanship for under $10 a drink (try the Federal Flip, Passyunk Zeke, or McQueen), and the beer selection gravitates toward unusual locals like St. Benjamin's saffron-and-rose-flavored Saison IX, Pizza Boy Tripel, plus cheap Miller and Yuengling for the old-timers.
WEEKEND NOISE With walls of metal and bowling alley wood, it's no surprise this tiny bar hits a noisy 92 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight; Friday and Saturday, until 1 a.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $14-$21.
All major cards.
Reservations for seatings before 6:30 only.
Street parking only.