Hellishly hot chicken and a perfectly fine pig-out
Our waitress looked uneasy, because we had just asked for the impossible: "I'm sorry, the kitchen is going to say no."
Huh? Since when, I wondered, was it such an imposition to request "sauce on the side" for a simple piece of fried chicken? After all, the last time we'd eaten "Nashville Hot Chicken" at the Fat Ham, chef Kevin Sbraga's new Deep South whimsy in the Left Bank, it came glossed in such a fiery red balm, the crust made my lips glow like cayenne neon, no matter how much house-made ranch I chased it with. I wanted to taste that bird this time.
I took another sip of an especially tasty rum and Madeira Low Country punch in disbelief. And then insisted she ask. Chef de cuisine Aaron Gottesman, who didn't even look up, dismissed her with a nod and she slunk back to our table with the same regretful "no."
I was outraged, I'll admit - at least for a few minutes. Where had the bubbly Southern-style hospitality of my first visit gone? Indignant, I discarded the Fat Ham's rating bells into my glass of golden Koval oat whiskey. I bound them up in a piggy package wrapped in the smoky pink silk of shaved Edwards Virginia country ham, then swallowed them whole (gulp!). I dunked them with a crusty nub of rustic house-made bread into a creamy "Southern hummus" made from both chickpeas and boiled peanuts. Then I tucked them deep into a searing-hot cauldron of bright "tomato pie" sauce that bubbled in a cast-iron pan around a roastily charred wedge of buttery cabbage.
And then, well . . . I changed my mind. I'd eaten so many finely wrought, evocative, and unique flavors, the chicken thing finally clicked. As our meal unfolded at the Fat Ham - a slow train of Dixie-inspired small plates served on stumps and hollowed-out tree bowls, many with all the subtlety you'd expect from a Top Chef champ - I realized the "Nashville hot chicken" was anything but a mere bird.
It was the totem for Sbraga's inspiration, the dish that lit his torch, the indelible burn from a reconnaissance trip through the Southern states that he and his staff decided would be the first anchor of their menu. That glaze isn't just hot sauce - it's molten lard and cayenne. And that plump Amish chicken wouldn't even begin to represent the power of true Nashville unless it took a baptismal dunk in the heat before landing on its West Philadelphia plate.
So much of the rest of the menu at the Fat Ham is loosely interpreted, a personalized scrapbook of flavors reimagined by an admiring, but ultimately distant chef - a faithful Nashville chicken, perhaps, gives him the liberty to stray.
Yes, I might have been swayed by the awesome wall of 130 American whiskeys that manager Ben Fileccia has assembled here, along with a fun list of well-crafted Southern-inspired drinks and craft beers. The decor of the small 42-seat room is also in pitch-perfect rustic chic - with rough-hewn plank accents, portraits of various greens on the wall, and a deck-like porch peeking out over the Walnut Street bridge.
But it's Sbraga and Gottesman's cooking at the Fat Ham, sharply focused here in large part due to its theme, that I found more compelling than what I've eaten to date at his fancier namesake perch on Broad Street. The uncluttered discipline of small plates, and at impressively fair prices, puts the focus squarely on good ingredients rendered with smart touches.
Heirloom Sea Island red peas and Carolina Gold rice from Anson Mills are perfumed with fennel and allspice, then with plancha-crisped plumes of soft braised oxtail. Tender shrimp tangle over creamy grits beneath an earthy mince of smoked country ham, peanuts, and scallion. Catfish, so fresh it's fluffy, is aromatic with blackening spice over chargrilled spears of okra, tart florets of pickled cauliflower, and a Mississippi mayo "comeback sauce" rouged with chili sauce and lemon - the ideal picture of the Fat Ham's refined rustic touch.
House-made ricotta cheese gets the perfect Southern tweak: The milk is smoked before being curdled and whipped into cheese, then scattered with the vegetal pop of black-eyed peas.
The extra little scratch touches here go a long way, in particular the house-made breads. I love the whole wheat-pumpernickel crunch of the country bread served with the dips and charcuterie - even if the sweet house-cured bacon and chicken liver mousse are slightly overshadowed by the powerful Edwards ham.
The fresh little Parker House-style rolls dusted with black sesame offer a delicate yeasty puff for the fried oyster sliders, the bivalves soft as pudding inside their crispy crusts, glazed with creamy gribiche mayo and piqued by the tangy crunch of made-to-order slaw. The thick squares of house-made white bread soak in the spicy tang of the incredibly flavorful pulled pork, whose smoke comes not from the garlicky shoulder itself, but from a smoked pork shank in the cider-vinegar sauce.
Sbraga's namesake on Broad Street has a real pasta extruder, and the toothy little semolina shells that come off it make what is now one of my favorite mac-'n'-cheeses in town, its rich aged Gouda-cheddar cream sparked with a dusted crunch of house-made BBQ potato chips.
The off notes here were few: a perfectly good plancha-crisped brook trout, but with such a restrained Southern accent (and an apple gastrique) it would have been more at home at Sbraga; a pile of roasted squash that would have been completely boring if not for the ham stock and bacon that nixed this as a possible veggie option.
There is a fine squash soup with pumpkin seeds and spiced yogurt. And also a smart reply to the kale salad mania - spicy shaved mustard greens tossed with sesame, peanuts, and a sorghum-Champagne vinaigrette.
But for the most part, as the name implies, the Fat Ham is a paean to pig, from the meltingly soft slab of belly spangled with tiny bursts of popped millet over baked pinto beans, to the pulled-shank-scattered bowl of collard greens stewed in smoked ham stock with vinegar and in an assertive chile spice.
The Fat Ham even shows nice inspiration at dessert, whether it's the superbly moist red velvet cake layered with cream cheese icing, the nutty pecan pie with crumbly crust, or my favorite, a fruitful and creamy bowl of banana puddin' topped with the crunch of banana tuiles. Sbraga's crew has also finally mastered the brewing of excellent Elixir coffee.
But first - before the sweet salve of dessert, that "hot chicken" was reserved for the final course. Which is smart, since your taste buds won't be able to feel much after. By the time our bird arrived, perched over its square of fresh white bread, I'd already eaten enough to get over the kitchen's snub. As I leaned in and its pungency tickled my nose, the Fat Ham's bells resurfaced. It was full-on spice for me or none at all - a rare principled stand (for one dish, at least) to be admired in an era when the customer is (usually) always right.
So then I took a bite. And man, did it sting. But then, unlike my first chicken encounter, I suddenly tasted that juicy bird, twanged by the creamy buttermilk ranch dressing that ringed it. Had the kitchen toned down the spice just a shade? Who knows. My lips were suddenly humming the Fat Ham's tune: More hot chicken, please.
THE FAT HAM
3131 Walnut St.,
Eating off a tree stump has never been so rewarding as a meal at Kevin Sbraga's second restaurant, a small but lively, wood-clad space where the Deep South inspirations masterfully blend rustic flavors and refinement into dynamic sharing plates that are refreshingly affordable. Service can vary. But the impressive wall of American whiskey should adequately pre-numb palates for the nonnegotiable sting of a "hot chicken" that lives up to its name.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS House ricotta with black-eyed peas; Southern hummus; mustard green salad; charcuterie; oyster sliders; shrimp and grits; blackened catfish; collards and pork shank; Sea Island peas, oxtails and Carolina Gold rice; macaroni-'n'-cheese with BBQ potato chip crust; charred cabbage with tomato pie; hot chicken; pulled pork; banana pudding; red velvet cake.
DRINKS A wall of American whiskey - 130 of them - is ample reason to visit the bar, with favorites from Angel's Envy rye to WilletWillett, Koval (try the Four Grain), and High West (Son of Bourye). There's a small but solid craft beer list (Pork SlapPorkslap pale ale is the thematically correct choice). But the well-crafted Southern-inspired cocktails, like the jam-sweetened julep and a Low Country rum and Madeira punch on draft, are really the perfect start.
WEEKEND NOISE A very noisy 93 decibels can make it hard to hear a quiet server. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Larger plates, $11 to $15.
All major cards.Reservations suggested.
Street parking only.
Next week Craig LaBan reviews Inka Wall in Upper Darby.