Sheri Waide doesn't want to be tied down - not to any particular culinary style, or to the good reputations of her previous employers.
At Southwark, she stews a mean rabbit confit, but also fries conch fritters as light as a Caribbean cloud. As for the soft and herby house-baked bread she serves with whipped lemon butter, it does vaguely recall the flower-pot loaves she used to bake at a popular BYOB on Fourth Street nearby, but - let's not go there.
A lot of young chefs would eagerly tout their experiences at places like Django or Striped Bass. But such tall shadows also come with the curse of expectations.
The Boyertown-born Waide, 33, leaves little doubt that she aims to forge a culinary identity of her own in her impressive head-chef debut at Southwark, the Queen Village bistro and bar she opened in late October with her husband, Kip. And it's an exciting one to see, refreshingly creative but with a light touch bolstered by good ingredients in clever combinations.
Braised veal cheeks have become the city's bistro dish of the moment, but Waide distinguishes hers with ribbons of homemade fettuccine so fine, they actually leaven the hearty dish. Classic sweetbreads find new life with a savory blue cheese bread pudding and a sweet and sour swirl of raspberry gastrique.
Even the humble roast chicken gets an eye-opening make-over here in what may be the city's first roasted-to-order bird. After 25 minutes in the extra-hot oven Waide affectionately refers to as "Hell," the Canadian chicken that emerges is pure poultry heaven, a succulent half-bird bronzed to a citrus-butter crisp, posed over a brothy ragout of fresh fava beans and baby artichokes. For only $16.
Sophisticated yet affordable dishes like these are the key to Southwark's success because it was, first and foremost, created for a neighborhood crowd. After all, it was named for the historic township off Philadelphia's southern border that eventually became known as Queen Village (not the infamous high-rise demolished a few years ago). There is a gentle formality to the dining room, with its linen-covered tables and professional tie-and-aproned servers, but the spirit is that of a casual bistro.
The Waides, who met near San Francisco, where Sheri attended the California Culinary Academy, have added some needed warmth to the sparsely decorated rooms left by Tartine at Fourth and Bainbridge.
The slender dining room in the rear, with its antique city-life photos and well-spaced tables, is ideal for a relatively quiet meal, or a view onto the large patio where springtime al fresco dining should be blooming any day. But the heart of the restaurant clearly beats in the bar. Kip, 38, a longtime bartender in town (Five Spot, New Wave, Fergie's), built a mahogany-colored bar that has magnetic appeal, and it's a beauty, fitted with classic spirits (real rye whiskey for the Manhattans!).
The menu also appears to have been built with the bar in mind, with a long list of appetizers perfect for late-night nibbling.
The farmhouse platter is a meal in itself, an antipasto laden with an abundance of delicious bites - pungent Taleggio cheese, Lancaster raw-milk cheddar, house-made pheasant terrine, sweet Westphalian ham, venison carpaccio, and fans of sliced fruit.
Fried smelts are another memorable starter. Deep-fried in a greaseless tempura crust (spiked with grated onion), the tiny fish come stacked beneath a piquant glaze of olive and anchovy brown butter. They melt in the mouth like little fish puffs. You'll be asking for more beer after a plate of these, but the bar is well-stocked with quality brews.
The wine list is also well done, a thoughtful collection of affordable yet intriguing international wines put together by general manager George Costa, who lends a touch of seriousness to the service. The deep red Touriga Nacional from Quinta dos Roques in Portugal was a perfect match for some of the lustier entrees. Dishes such as the juniper-scented venison chop over parsnip risotto or the grilled lamb with fig jus over chive-mashed potatoes demanded a wine with guts.
You'll need something a bit more elegant for the pork loin, such as the Chehalem pinot noir from Oregon, because it is a towering ode to meat that deserves to shine in all its complex wonders.
I'm often wary of massive pork chops, which can be unwieldy to cook, especially ones glazed with everything from Italian orange-blossom honey to Asian oyster sauce, white balsamic, fish sauce and maple syrup. But this was an exception. The double-smoked meat from Green Meadow farms was amazingly tender and moist. The convoluted sauce had melded into a bewitching barbecue brew. Posed atop a wholesome mound of Boston-baked cranberry beans with a pair of baby carrots crossed coyly atop its crown, it looked like a blue-ribbon champ at the county fair.
If Waide has a mild weakness, it would seem to be her soups, which offer appealing combinations - longneck pumpkin and chestnut; truffled potato leek - but rely too much on cream that dilutes their flavors.
The addictive homemade bread would be even better served warm. There were a few too many shells in the Dungeness crab and endive salad, which, also, didn't need the distraction of crisped pancetta.
Otherwise, I loved her food, especially some of the fish entrees that highlighted a delicate touch. Corn-crusted trout fillets scented with cumin and chili came over a remarkably fresh potato salad - snappy rounds of shaved purple potatoes tossed in herbed oil with crunchy green beans and onions. A thick fillet of baked cod, dolloped with a verdant hazelnut-basil pesto and set over wild rice with celery root, managed to be both earthy and light.
Southwark's commitment to scratch cooking is the kind of hallmark I look for in a finer restaurant, and Waide's extra efforts also pay off at dessert. The chocolate pot de creme is as rich as they come. The delicately crisped mini-bundt cake gets a drenching of rum-soaked pineapple. The crepes were a tad doughy, but her shortbread cookies were irresistible with their tart dip of lemon curd.
Best of all, though, were the daily homemade ice creams. It could be silky dark chocolate studded with brandied cherries, stewed local strawberries in white Godiva chocolate, or apricot with almonds. With such unexpected fugues of frozen fun emerging nightly, who wants the chef to be tied down?
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.