Milk & Honey's New Cafe Strives to Balance Local Ingredients With Quick Presentation

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 24, 2012

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Wake and flake: Sandy Ridge Farm eggs with Lancaster cheddar on a croissant.

We have come to an interesting, perhaps inevitable crossroads in our collective relationship with locavorism in Philadelphia. What started off as more of a niche phenomenon has come to pervade our food lexicon: Never mind farmers markets and co-ops—now, even processed-food producers are getting into the act, touting any and all connections they have to farms and the earth.

I couldn’t help but think about this in relation to the new Milk & Honey Café at the Sister Cities Park, an offshoot of West Philly’s well-regarded local-food shop Milk & Honey Market. It’s a smartly conceived space, from the surrounding glass that brings in the outside—the sunlight, the kids splashing in the water—to the simple, clean lines of the gray- and silver-toned tables and chairs. The company’s website touts a mission as laudable as any: supporting the local farmers, purveyors and residents in an effort to benefit both the planet in general and the immediate community in particular.

It’s impossible to argue with these goals; they are as important and beneficial as can be. But at the end of the day, the food, to paraphrase that same mission statement, speaks for itself. And in that regard, Milk & Honey’s new cafe has some work to do.

Take the prepackaged sandwiches, for instance. They’re a fact of modern life, and some great ones are served up all over the city. But when a market is going to do that, the design of each sandwich takes on an even greater sense of importance. Wet ingredients should be layered between dry ones, which themselves should be used as insulation against the bread from growing soggy. It’s a little thing, but a crucial one, and it’s not being applied to Milk & Honey’s Fairmount sandwich, a vegetarian construction of gouda, pickled onions, arugula, red pepper pesto and tomatoes that were draped over the exceptionally soggy edges of the bread. The Franklin sandwich suffered the opposite problem: Its star ingredient, local turkey breast, was so dried out that it was difficult to gnaw through—the pleasant red-pepper pesto and mild gouda notwithstanding.

A straightforward ham-and-cheese sandwich was much better. As always, the Green Meadow Farm ham sang through, its sweet-savory complexity a delicious argument for never purchasing the stuff from Boar’s Head ever again. Lancaster cheddar and Kelchner’s mustard rounded out the deceptively simple sammy, and it was among the best things I tasted here. The Coppa Caprese also worked well, even if it could have used a bit more meat; a $7 sandwich isn’t cheap, and for the money, a more generous layer of Italian Market coppa—not to the point of overstuffing, just enough to find a better balance with the thickness of the bread—would have made for a more robust meal. (It also would have allowed the brightness of the basil pesto to shine through more clearly.)

Side salads were good overall, demonstrating a more consistent level of both conception and execution. Garbanzos luxuriated with greens, baby tomatoes, carrots and a balanced honey mustard. Snappy lentil salad was electrified by a taut Dijon vinaigrette. Quiche lorraine was excellent: The crust, with its deft balance of heartiness and delicacy, supported an egg layer as fluffy as a soufflé’s—a perfect frame for the smoke of the swine.

Pastries are also worth checking out. I particularly enjoyed the coconut macaroon and the oatmeal cookie, both of which placed a focus on their hefty centerpiece ingredients rather than on their respective senses of sweetness. And the almond croissant was a fabulously flaky pastry wrapped around an aromatic marzipan center.

Milk & Honey’s inconsistencies don’t appear to be hurting business right now—it is a fantastic space for families and local businesspeople, with fountains to one side and a kid-friendly “lake” off to the other—but it’ll have to shore up some of these shortfalls in order to make it through the long months when splashing around outside isn’t reason enough to visit from other neighborhoods. The philosophy behind Milk & Honey Café is as solid as it gets. Now it’s time for the execution to catch up.

Sister Cities Park at 18th and the Ben Franklin Parkway. 215.665.8600.

Cuisine type: Sandwich and cafe-type offerings.

Hours: Weekdays: 7am-8pm; Sat., 8am-9pm; Sun., 8am-8pm.

Prices: Under $10.

Atmosphere: Bright and cheerful.

Food: Great philosophy; execution could use some work.

Service: Friendly counter service.

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