Is our mediocre suburban dining luck about to change? The odds are strong with Philly stars lining up projects for the Main Line, plus another in South Jersey. Add in a continued gold rush of bright young talent to the hot city scene (including a New York mega-name who has been secretly prepping his debut in Stephen Starr's "bunker"), dig into the street-food promise of more funky fried chicken and a sudden barbecue boom, and it's clear: The coming months will be firing on all burners.
The "bunker," it turns out, is the back of Barclay Prime's kitchen. And the 30-year-old chef who has been quietly polishing his menu there for the last few months is Peter Serpico, who was a top lieutenant in David Chang's influential Momofuku empire as director of culinary operations and opening chef at Ko, the tiny East Village tasting-counter sensation with two Michelin stars.
According to Starr, the chef will surface by December in the former Footlocker at 604 South St., a 52-seater with an open kitchen, tentatively named Serpico.
"It was a lifestyle choice for me," said the newly engaged Serpico, who has left New York's treadmill to focus on working and spending more time with his family in Philly's more low-key scene.
Serpico is honing an a la carte menu with a similar vibe to Momofuku's edgy-yet-sophisticated aesthetic: burned mackerel tataki, sous-vide duck legs "torqued" into hot dogs, stuffed lamb ribs, and amaro-scented oxtail soup with caramelized onion dumplings in shaved daikon.
Unlike Ko's notoriously difficult online reservation system, there will be no reservations here at all: "We're just going to have really good hostesses."
Reviving the east end of South Street's dining is a tantalizing possibility. But infusing the suburbs with real culinary interest may be an even harder task. The end of September and early October, then, should be circled in red ink, as some of my favorite chefs are about to take a shot.
Citron and Rose (368-370 Montgomery Ave., Merion Station; citronandrose.com), from Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, has an extra challenge to conquer: its status as a glatt kosher restaurant. It'll be an achievement of national note if these managing operators (working with owner David Magerman) can bring kosher restaurant cooking into the 21st century. Based on their success at four-bell Zahav, there's little reason to doubt. They'll have kosher supervisors on site to meet the stringent rabbinic requirements. And it will be fascinating to watch as this duo pivots from Zahav's Israeli lens to the Ashkenazi flavors of Eastern Europe, dry-aging their own rib-eye, charcoal-roasting chickens over schmaltzy potatoes, reinventing kreplach, sholet (smoked beef with kishke and flageolet), and corned duck breast.
Not far away in Ardmore, The Saint James (30 Park Plaza, Ardmore; 610-649-6200; SaintJamesPhilly.com) hopes to give Suburban Plaza some genuine buzz. Partners Michael Schulson (Sampan, Izakaya) and Rob Wasserman (Rouge) have created a 120-seat "rustic-modern" space featuring a 28-foot skylight, oak booths, and a bar meant to evoke the pre-Prohibition era. Unlike Schulson's Asian fusion projects, this menu targets more traditional Main Line tastes with polished American bistro cooking, from homemade pigs in a blanket to smoked trout with everything bagel chips, a short-rib burger, and wild mushroom lasagna. With the kitchen run by executive chef Matt Moon, who has cooked some of my best meals at Talula's Table, the St. James has the talent, at least, to do it right.
Talent is never a question when Terence Feury is involved. But the Striped Bass, Ritz-Carlton, and Fork alum raised eyebrows when he left his three-bell post at Fork for Swedesboro, where Constantine "Gus" Tzitzifas has lured him to help reinvent the Old Swedes Inn as Tavro 13 (1301 Kings Highway, Swedesboro, N.J.; tavro13.com), opening in October. Feury is clearly enchanted by the chance to turn this 250-year-old building into a destination. Whether Gloucester County is ready for plancha-seared octopus, ocean trout tartare, smoked duck, handmade pastas, and juniper-brined pork remains to be seen. But Old City's loss is certainly South Jersey's gain. With entrée prices in the mid-$20s, Feury is determined to build a local following. Then again, the Malvern resident is quick to point out the convenience of the Commodore Barry Bridge to the Blue Route's burbs: "My commute to Tavro is quicker than it was to Center City."
While some veteran cooks have been going suburban, 2012 may still go down as the best year for young-chef debuts within the city limits I've seen. At the already much-talked-about Will BYOB (1911 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-271-7683; www.willbyob.com), Christopher Kearse, who worked at Chicago's Tru, Charlie Trotter's, and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, is again proving the city's BYOB scene to be an ideal incubator for chefs to put out serious food on a shoestring. He got firsthand experience in that art at tiny Pumpkin, which he helped elevate to three bells earlier this year, with dishes that were at once artful and technically advanced, but that also made sense. Expect more at his own place as he gives French classics a twist, like his rabbit rillettes with arugula puree, radishes, and plums ("What rabbits eat!" he says.)
South Philly's hot streak continues at The Mildred (824 S. Eighth St.; 267-687-1600; the-mildred.com), which last week marked two anticipated comebacks: the return of Mike Santoro (the Gilt and Fat Duck alum who opened Talula's Garden), who with a longtime friend and partner, caterer Mike Dorris, is giving new life to the Eighth Street space left vacant by James. Santoro is especially aware of the neighborhood crowd that ultimately found James too pricey, the mood a tad brooding. So the Mildred, named as a local nod to the little street behind the restaurant, has been brightened. And the house-crafted menu has been tuned to be more affordable (entrées from $17 to $25), with a focus on Euro-casserole comforts influenced by Santoro's and Dorris' time in London, from slow-braised beef with Parmesan bucatini, to guinea hen galantine, bratwurst with charred onions and lovage, and bouillabaisse for two.
Not all of the big happenings are entirely "new."
Cook and Solomonov will also have their hands full later this month with a second Center City branch of Federal Donuts (1632 Sansom St.; federaldonuts.com). The catch? The sleek new Sansom Street nook will double production and feature entirely different flavors of fried chicken (passion fruit-teriyaki; cola-chipotle) and doughnuts (Turkish coffee; mint-chocolate) to assure that the Pennsport original remains distinct.
At Fork (306 Market St.; 215-625-9425; forkrestaurant.com), ever-ambitious owner Ellen Yin is using Feury's departure as a moment to reinvent her Old City bistro, which celebrates 15 years in October, with colorful new murals and a freshened look in the dining room. But the arrival of new chef Eli Kulp will undoubtedly have the biggest impact, with a new menu to be unveiled Oct. 1. Despite Kulp's work in Manhattan at Torrisi Italian Specialties, Casa Lever, and Del Posto, Yin insists: "Fork is not about to become 'Forchetta.' We'll remain distinctly American, but keep evolving."
If the continued New York invasion can do anything to stoke a fire beneath our anemic barbecue scene, I'm for it. And I've got high hopes for the October arrival of Brooklyn sensation Fette Sau (1204-08 Frankford Ave.; 215-391-4888; fettesauphilly.com), which has partnered with Stephen Starr to build a shotgun shack (seating for 100) beside Frankford Hall with coffee-rubbed smoked meats by the pound and a huge collection of whiskey. Then again, with two other ambitious new barbecue projects - Bubba's Texas BBQ (19-21 W. Girard Ave.; bubbastexasbbq.net) from actual Texan Robert "Bubba" Kolbasowski, due in October in Fishtown, plus already-smoking Blue Belly BBQ (600 Catharine St.; 215-238-0615; bluebellybbq.com) from Cochon in Queen Village - the title "Philly pit master" may finally earn some respect.
Platters up! I'm hungry.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the new Le Bec Fin. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.