Mid-morning on a Sunday can be a delicate time. What seemed like a good idea the night before, that extra cocktail at the bar before heading home, the bag of pretzels or chips on the couch to absorb the excess booze … The brunch choices made on a Saturday or Sunday morning are, as often as not, medical decisions as much as they are gustatory ones.
The irony, of course, is that that delicate condition often necessitates aggressive food, the fat and salt salving our wounds. And Square Peg, at brunch at least, does so with real success, whether or not you’re still cotton-mouthed from the night before. For instance: banana bread, while nothing out of the ordinary, is nonetheless a warm plate of comfort, the palm-thick slices studded with melty chocolate chips and topped with generous pats of caramel butter. Deviled eggs leverage the subtle heat of a wasabi mayo and a caviar-like dollop of pickled mustard seeds to electrify the silky yolks and slippery whites.
Matt Levin, of course, has come in for a bit of criticism for what he’s done here. He was, after all, the chef at Lacroix, where he managed to meld fine dining with a more brash, contemporary spin. Then at Adsum, initially a critical darling before losing its mojo, Levin found his footing with an almost ballet-like dance between the high and the low.
At Square Peg, however, though some of his old twists are still in evidence, his focus at brunch is on comfort almost exclusively. And he’s taken a bit of a beating as a result; the online commentariat have been ambivalent, the word-of-mouth, especially regarding dinner, uneven. We, however, have decided to review the Peg’s brunch, as the restaurant’s space, formerly Marathon Grill, is, for many of us, inextricably associated with that meal. So we set out to see how it handled the weekend tradition.
Quite well, it turns out. In addition to the standards, there are enough tweaks throughout the menu to keep things interesting. Grilled cheese is stuffed with mac and cheese: It’s a fatty, gluttonous, satisfyingly uncomplicated dish, with a successful interplay between the gooey and the crisp. An omelet is filled with a smoked goat cheese that somehow actually highlights the sweetness of the eggs themselves. The breakfast sandwich is a massive, fat torpedo, the eggs just drippy enough, the chihuahua cheese melting throughout, the homemade chorizo sizzling with a low-level spice that’s more implied than realized; porkiness is the focus here. Neither one is a life-changer, but they’re well-crafted components to a more than respectable brunch-time repertoire.
It’s with the cocktails that things get a bit more creative. I particularly liked the Bacon Mary, which bypasses vodka as a base for the bacon infusion and instead uses Laphroaig 10, whose own smokiness and inherent salinity are perfect compliments to the pig. The Bourbon Royale is a sort of amped-up riff on the bellini, with Combier providing the fruit and Maker’s Mark an added sense of smoke and honey to the champagne.
Of course, a brunch beer is also a great option, especially with the hangover-killing fried chicken. And while I’m not sure the Kool Aid-pickled watermelon is any better or more interesting than plain old slices of the fruit, it really didn’t matter: That chicken, almost inconceivably moist inside its shatteringly crisp crust, is a more than worthy addition to our city’s already substantial selection of fried birds. The General Tso chicken Cobb salad, on the other hand, is a bit more outré, though ultimately a success. It makes sense on the palate, if not immediately on paper: The salty-sweetness of the quintessential cheep-Chinese delivery dish pairs well with blue cheese and bacon. There’s an honest, visceral satisfaction to it.
When it comes to brunch, Square Peg is a more than worthy successor in the old Marathon space, and an appealing addition to the city’s ever-expanding base of weekend-morning dining options. It may not be Lacroix, or even Adsum, but it’s not supposed to be. And in terms of what it’s trying to achieve, it’s hitting its mark very well.
929 Walnut St. 215.413.3600. squarepegrestaurant.com
Cuisine type: American classics with a twist.
Hours: Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10am-3pm; Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11am-3pm; Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 3-11pm.
Price range for brunch: $4–$17.
Atmosphere: High ceilings, lots of light, attractive woods.
Food: Rich, well-conceived, and executed with solid attention to detail.
Service: Friendly and well-tuned to the space.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014