When I first moved back to Philadelphia 11 years ago, Old City was where my friends and I used to go to ogle girls, drink to the point of incoherency and, if the stars aligned properly, get into some sort of minor altercation with a guy who looked like The Situation—years before Mr. Sorrentino became famous for his GTL calculus and probably even before he’d begun waxing his abs to their current Barbie-esque levels of porpoise-like hairlessness.
Fast-forward to 2013. I live in this neighborhood now, raise a family on the very streets where I used to engage in the sort of juvenile ridiculousness that caused my mother such agita, and find myself, on any given day, more at risk of being run over by out-of-control Bugaboo strollers at $1,000 a pop than by ‘roid-raging bridge-and-tunnel types out for a rumble.
The times, as Mr. Zimmerman once said, they are a-changin’.
Philadelphians who don’t see the evolution here on a daily basis, of course, can be forgiven for not realizing how much more well-rounded Old City is these days. When I emailed a friend recently to see if he’d join me for a visit to Craft & Claw, recently opened on Chestnut between Front and Second in the former location of a once-thronging dance bar, his wry response was, “Will I still catch herpes from sitting on one of those booths, or have they cleaned it out since then?”
Thankfully, they have. In fact, they’ve downright resurrected the place. Rough-hewn wood slats skirt the cavernous interior, as well as plenty of mattress-punched leather and exposed brickwork. The music runs toward the chill, like a subtly remixed version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and the great Squeeze anthem, “Tempted by the Fruit of Another.”
All this is crafted in the service of the food and the beer, and it all hangs together rather well. Crabs here are generously portioned and well presented. A recent pound of Baltimore-style Alaskan snow crab was easily more than its purported weight; the shells were well-dusted with Old Bay, and the meat itself tender and easily pulled. Dungeness crabs, from the Pacific Northwest, were less dramatically tumescent but made just as much of an impact in their ginger-scallion broth, the sweet meat a nice foil for the kind of back-of-throat spice the liquid carried.
Bacon blue crab mac & cheese was pulled along by the swirling undertow of bacon and succulent pieces of crustacean, though the orecchiette seemed to have held a bit too much water from their boiling, thus thinning out the otherwise excellent gathering of asiago and fontina in what Executive Chef Nick Fabian told me was essentially a fennel-and-red-onion vodka cream sauce. Still, it was a dish that we couldn’t stop picking at, especially with its spiced-panko-and-parmesan crown. Crab bisque, smoky with paprika oil, was a workhorse winner; what it might have lacked in excitement, it made up for in the sort of comforting flavor that you hope for from a generous cupful of it.
Even the steamed artichoke excelled, each leaf growing more and more tender, the Pecorino Romano and garlicky oil generously anointing its petals, the garlic-confit mayonnaise almost floral in the context of the thistle. That mayo was so good that I wish they’d offer it as a side to dip the crispy fries into; while any restaurant that makes its own ketchup should be lauded, the outcome, in this case, didn’t seem to justify the effort. Better to double-dip with the mayo and take full advantage of such an excellent accompaniment.
The only letdowns, really, were the cole slaw—with this kind of food, I want a lusty, mayo-and-vinegar-smacked slaw, not the reticence of the subtle sesame-oil-ginger-and-soy we received instead—and the Dutch chocolate cake. While the cake was perfectly fine on its own, it was overwhelmed by a creme anglaise that was just too perfumed with orange zest. Fortunately, the Dutch apple crisp redeemed it. An almost impossibly delicate crust, flaky yet structured, wrapped its elegant rim around generous hunks of apple singing with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg and crowned by an orb of vanilla ice cream.
So, all in all, thumbs way up to this Old City reinvention; from the first moment in the door to the last bite of dessert, Craft and Claw is an excellent addition to the neighborhood.
CRAFT & CLAW
126 Chestnut St. 267.886.9266. craftandclaw.com
Cuisine type: All the comforts of crabs and their accoutrements.
Hours: Sun., 3–10pm; Mon.–Wed., Dinner: 5–10pm, Bar: 5pm-2am; Thurs.–Sat., Dinner: 5–11pm, Bar: 5pm-2am.
Price range: $7.50–$19 (crabs are sold by the pound).
Atmosphere: Industrial, open and welcoming.
Food: Comforting and generally well crafted.
Service: Knowledgeable and professional.
35 Things You Must Eat at the Shore