Some Philadelphians may need to fight the urge to call it "Bar Hoagie." The young parents around Fairmount Avenue might find "Bar Huggies" tempting, too. Judging from the many families there grazing in the early-evening hours over sharing boards of heirloom radish dips, grilled coconut shrimp, and farmstead American cheese (all the better washed down with a frosty array of stellar house beers) the neighborhood's new brewpub is definitely kid-friendly, down to the high chairs and changing table.
"We're kind of goofy," concedes co-owner Stew Keener, who acknowledges that the bar's real name - Hygge, a reference to the Danish mood for "getting cozy with friends" - might be a mouthful to master. "Huu-guh" advises the menu. Which doesn't make it any easier.
No matter how you mangle it, Hygge, which, even more confusingly has nothing to do with Danish food, is still a valuable addition to an area once again bristling with some fresh new dining energy. If the Italian-themed A Mano is Fairmount's intimate new special-occasion BYOB, bustling Bar Hygge in nearby Spring Garden provides a more casual option to quench the area's thirst for fresh craft beers and some ambitious bar-plus fare made from scratch.
From house-made mini-buns stuffed with roasted duck breast to fresh Kennebec potato frites "hooked up" with a pile of crispy onions, house-smoked brisket and melty raclette cheese sauce, plus several vegetarian options, chef Chris Galbraith makes the effort to meet an appetite for creative pub food, then takes it a half-step further.
With Hygge's black-on-white brick cafe doors flung wide open to the 1700 block of Fairmount Avenue, commercial vitality is buzzing closer to Broad Street than at any time in recent history, drawing up to 300 people on busy weekend nights to this series of boisterous rooms artfully hodge-podged together from reclaimed materials.
Of course, I'm not sure how much "hygge"-friendly conversation gets crimped by the ear-bombing 98-decibel roar. It rattles off the concrete floors and the glass cafe windows and the wall of woven barrel staves - despite the nearly 20 sound boards co-owner Tom Baker made and installed on the ceiling himself.
Thankfully, Baker is a far better brewer than he is an acoustic engineer. This isn't news to anyone who's followed him from the tiny Jersey cult brewery Heavyweight to the popular Earth Bread + Brewery in Mount Airy, which he still owns with wife Peggy Zwerver (also a partner at Hygge, along with Stew's wife, Julie Keener). Baker is a wizard at the brew kettle, with a fondness for odd, forgotten styles (think Medieval Gruit, Adambier, and Gotlandstricka) and the mastery to carry them off.
At Hygge, he operates the independently branded Brewery Techné (yet another esoteric name derived from the Greek for "craft"), which is set behind a half-transparent wall in the lounge area framed by reclaimed windows. And so far, the best of his ever-changing array of seven house drafts have trended toward deeply malted styles, from a doppelbock (Exaggerator), to a potent sticke-altbier (Germantown Sticke), a roasty, coffee-black Belgian milk stout (La Vache Noire) and an amber Scottish ale with a whiff of smoke. I absolutely loved the Meme, his bretty, spot-on clone of Belgium's Orval. Less so his stabs at two styles - a mojitolike wit and a sour that was more pithy than tart - that clearly interest him less.
Baker may be the headliner here. But Hygge offers much more. The wines on draft are simple but fun and different (Zweigelt rosé, effervescent Txakoli), and the cocktails were surprisingly excellent and carefully made, from a standard dry martini to subtly fruited twists on whiskey classics and an Aperol spritz on draft. The service was uniformly outgoing and cheery.
But the kitchen also turns out several things worth paying attention to - many of them available for the paddle-shaped Hygge boards, which allow you to mix and match up to five from an ever-changing list.
Among the board highlights on my visits were some Moroccan-spiced kofta kebabs over spicy harissa and cooling cucumber yogurt salad, as well as grilled shrimp sweetened with a coconut red curry and tart slices of marinated mango. A bundle of grilled asparagus with mascarpone and shaved radishes offered a fresh touch, and a crock of "mushroom fundido" - a molten dip of Oaxacan cheese-rich Mornay mushrooms - was more indulgent. I devoured the deconstructed BLTs layered inside endive spears. At $29 for five choices, though, the price felt a shade high for the smallish portions, despite the fact that some great American cheeses (Moses Sleeper; Great Hill Blue) are also available.
But it was one of the few moments when this otherwise affordable menu, with entrées ranging from $14 to $22, didn't feel like a sound value. There were plenty of cases where the kitchen's bright intentions could have used a tweak. I appreciate the impulse for a complimentary hors d'oeuvres, but there's a smarter way to present cauliflower puree than simply plopping it onto a plate, which obligated some of us to lick it up like cats. (The tint of tarragon was nice.)
A few cooking details could also be improved. The grass-fed burger has great potential, with its good Shelburne Farms cheddar, caramelized onions, and house-baked bun. But a scorched griddle flavor overwhelmed the otherwise medium-rare meat. The Cuban-style roast pork sandwich was extremely tender, but the flavor needed a zesty personality boost. The starter of buttermilk-fried chicken bites and pickles was excellent, but two dips of seemingly similar orange-tinted mayo seemed redundant.
For the most part, though, Galbraith delivered plates that featured good ingredients with a thoughtful touch, from a pan-seared mahi mahi over basil-greened farro risotto to a culotte cut of Wagyu steak over scalloped potatoes that, at $22, is a nice bargain if you don't mind a gamy savor. The roasted chicken breast with mushrooms was solidly satisfying, if not necessarily a draw.
Hygge's most creative efforts, though, involved some very interesting vegetarian (though not vegan) entrées. A sunflower-seed-crusted cauliflower with sunchokes and paprika spice was impressive. But a newer dish of peppercorn-dusted king oyster mushrooms over snappy green Spigariello broccoli rabe and super-creamy mashed potatoes was even better.
For dessert, of course, the boards return, though laden with riffs on sweet regional comforts like funnel cakes and sticky buns. My favorite was Galbraith's fresh take on peanut butter Kandy Kakes, with layers of chiffon cake and salted peanut butter enrobed in chocolate.
With a gulp of Germantown Sticke to wash each rich and peanut buttery mouthful down, I think, in mid-chew, that I finally pronounced the name just right.
Not that anyone else heard it.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Southwark.
BAR HYGGE (two bells out of four)
1720 Fairmount Ave., 215-765-2274; barhygge.com
The esoteric name may be a hard-to-pronounce evocation of the Danish phrase for "getting cozy with friends," but this noisy new brewpub should be easy for the Spring Garden neighborhood to appreciate. Brewer and co-owner Tom Baker's beers are as quirky and well-crafted as expected from the man behind Earth Bread + Brewery. Meanwhile, an eclectic menu anchored by build-your-own tasting boards of ever-changing seasonal bites shows a scratch kitchen determined to go beyond usual brewpub fare. The value is solid, even if ambitions sometimes exceed the chef's reach. But Hygge already has the makings of a local hub, fueled also by good cocktails and draft wines as well as beers.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Hygge boards: roasted radishes with crab dip; kofta skewers; coconut grilled shrimp; duck buns; mushroom fundido; cheeses (Great Hill blue, Moses Sleeper); "hooked up" frites; chicken bites; mushroom steak au poivre; market fish with farro risotto; roast chicken; Hygge Tasty Cakes.
DRINKS It's hard to go wrong with Tom Baker's ever-changing beers, which made their best impression with deeply malted renditions of altbier (Germantown), Scottish ale (Doon the Water) and Belgian milk stout (La Vache Noire), plus a bretty Orval clone (Meme). Hygge also makes gestures to wine drinkers with simple but fun wines on draft (Txakoli!). But the well-crafted cocktails were the biggest surprise, from a nice martini to more complex daily specials, fruity twists on classics (rhubarb old-fashioned), an Aperol spritz on draft, and a "Toronto" that blends Fernet-Branca with rye.
WEEKEND NOISE At an ear-thrumming 98 decibels, "hygge"-friendly conversation is seriously hampered. The house-made noise dampers clearly don't work well enough. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday through Wednesday, 4-10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, until 11 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $14-$24.
All major cards.
No reservations, but call-ahead list available within one hour of arrival.
Street parking only.