Southern comforts and intriguing craft beers
Paul Martin would rather his menu at Strangelove's not be considered Catahoula's Part 2.
The impulse to make the comparison with his tenure at the Queen Village bistro with Louisiana flavors is natural. Especially considering that some of the best dishes at this new gastropub in Washington Square West reflect an affinity for the chef's Lafayette roots.
His duck gumbo is rich with a mahogany-brown Cajun roux, tingling with andouille spice and a distinctive green dusting of filé powder. There are cornmeal-crisped green tomatoes shingled beneath a salad of creamy crab ravigote salad piqued with horseradish and whole-grain Creole mustard. The po'boys, which sandwich either tender fried shrimp or buttermilk-battered catfish fillets with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and perky rémoulade sauce inside delicate-crusted Leidenheimer rolls imported from New Orleans, were spot-on (except for a lack of pickles - I like po'boys with pickles.)
But Strangelove's, the deceptively rambling bilevel bar that is the first Center City outpost for co-owners Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida, the beer-forward couple behind Memphis Taproom, Local 44, and Resurrection Ale House, is broader than a Southern eatery (Brendan Kelly, a co-owner at Local 44, is also a partner at Strangelove's). It is yet another serious craft-ale destination from this duo, a virtue I'll get to in a moment.
But food-wise, Martin's affordable menu, with nothing over $19, has a broad and casual appeal for an audience ranging from bar-snack indulgers to vegetarians.
I didn't realize onion dip needed to be reimagined until I dug a freshly fried potato chip into a sour cream mound infused with apple wood-smoked caramelized onions. A crust of caraway, fennel, and smoked salt elevates Strangelove's buttery hot pretzel bites above your average Auntie Anne's knockoff.
But if Martin ever needed something to more firmly establish his local cred beyond the five years he spent cooking in Stephen Starr's orbit (Alma de Cuba, Pod, Washington Square, Parc), he's sealed it decisively by becoming the first I've seen to put an eggplant "jawn" on his menu.
No, not a yawn - a jawn, a unique morsel of Philadelphia catchall slang that essentially means "thing" and can refer to a favored flavor, place, person, or "hooptie" (a beat-up old car). Martin's jawn happens to be, as noted, an eggplant, shaved into paper-thin sheets and rolled involtini-style around a flavorful stuffing of toasted quinoa with fennel, then striped with fresh tomato sauce.
Some Philly vegans are likely thinking, to borrow one usage example from the Urban Dictionary: "Dayum, that jawn is fine as hell."
And they've got more to cheer about, including tostadas layered with silky refried beans, greens, and a spicy crumble of vegan chorizo that Martin says fooled some Mexican cooks in his kitchen. The Russian kale "greenery," tossed in a lemony sumac vinaigrette with the textural pop of edamame, Creole-spiced pecans, cranberries, and farro, was better than an obligatory effort at the now-ubiquitous kale salad.
I was considerably less excited about the veggie burger, a pasty patty of lentils, flax, and shredded raw beets that had a borscht blush to evoke rare beef but the austere appeal of a dry puck of compressed roots. It was one of the few complaints I had with the menu.
Among the other gripes were a bland gazpacho that was so thick it was more veggie pudding than soup; too much brown butter making the popcorn soggy; an overdressed Strangelove's burger that has convinced me that goat cheese, which tends to melt into every cranny of ground meat, is not a good choice for burgers; and a vegan brownie that was moist and (unexpectedly) coconutty, but not nearly decadent enough to have earned its menu distinction as "Big Ass."
My biggest complaint at Strangelove's, though, was the oblivious pacing. No matter how many times we asked our servers to slow it down, food runners at multiple meals careered to our table with unsettling swiftness, arriving with new food while we were clearly still eating the previous course, then standing around while we rearranged the plates on our table.
By contrast, our servers did an impressive initial job of explaining both the menu and the substantial craft-beer list - which may be the single best reason Strangelove's has a chance to thrive in a space that's housed several short-lived concepts that succeeded Doc Watson's. The selection is slightly lighter-handed than the intense styles hoarded at Resurrection, but it is no less compelling, with world-class Belgian breweries including Tilquin, BFM, De Dolle, and Cantillon highlighting the bottles. North Americans such as Brewer's Art, Bear Republic, Russian River, and Unibroue anchor the ever-changing lineup of 18 taps, with locals (Yards; Victory) pumping through two beer engines.
But the menu could become a genuine draw on its own, especially (despite Martin's protests) magnetic Southern comforts like the meaty pork belly over corn and okra maques choux in tasso-spiced cream, or the rare étouffée stew filled with bisquey rich shrimp.
Even a couple of the desserts from Kat "the pastry girl" Restino could be a reason to visit, including her creamy lemon icebox pie and fresh peach crostata. Perhaps best, though, was a hazelnut-crusted chocolate whoopie pie sandwiched around Nutella mousse. It's now officially my new whoopie jawn.
Owner Brendan Hartranft and chef Paul Martin discuss Strangelove's on a video at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Jerry's Bar in Northern Liberties. Contact him at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.