Long before “farm to table” had ever been uttered and well before Michael Pollan had become a household name among a certain type of food-focused Americans, there was the White Dog Cafe. It’s remarkable when you think about how pioneering the place was back when it opened in 1983, a time when neighborhood Chinese food was still considered fairly exotic, and American cuisine was more or less defined by Betty Crocker.
Over the past 30 years, the dining of this country—and, certainly, this city—have caught up to the White Dog. These days, it still maintains its pioneer status, but it’s just one of many restaurant options for a meal that will make you feel socially responsible as well as sated.
Still, there has been plenty of change at the White Dog in the last three decades, the most recent of which was the arrival, last summer, of Chef Eyhab “Happy” Hatab. He was a smart choice: A chef with extensive experience both outside the city—Texas, Connecticut—and, most notably, as the chef de cuisine at Rae. Since taking over the helm here, he has proven to be capable of both maintaining the quintessentially American ethos of the place while simultaneously injecting a bracing sense of freshness.
You’d expect to see a protein like pan-roasted grouper here, for example, but its accompanying cardamom-perfumed beet and pomegranate puree was a delicious surprise. Turns out to have been a great pairing, too: It worked beautifully, especially with the pickled persimmons. (However, I’m not convinced that they were framed well by the heartier side of creamed brussels sprouts, which jarred against the aromatics.)
Still, it was a solid effort to bridge the Dog’s past and present, a harbinger of an exciting future for this venerable University City favorite. So, too, was the charcuterie plate, one of the new sharing-plate options that Hatab has instituted, and a great example of how adept this kitchen is with meats. I particularly enjoyed the “Elvis pate,” a wink-wink play on The King’s favorite sandwich, here constructed of a rough paste of bacon-wrapped pork studded with raisins and peanuts, served with a side of banana mustard. House liverwurst was a deeply funky, silky treat. And though the petit jesu—an earthy, hearty salami—and the pomegranate beef jerky are brought in from suppliers who espouse a similar ethos, they were marvelous nonetheless.
This kitchen also does well with lighter dishes: Cauliflower salad, the thin-sliced florets from nearby Breaking Point Farms, brought together the brininess of picholine olives offset by batons of pear, arugula, knobs of goat cheese and lardons, all of it given posture by a bright apple-cider vinaigrette. Brussels sprouts also had some real love lavished on them: A side portion glistened with a bourbon-maple-chile glaze, which lent a sweetness well-countered by the sprouts’ own nuttiness and a hint of smoke from rendered bacon.
They proved to be a perfect foil for the Lancaster County chicken with its snappy, muslin-thin skin all crisped up and nutty. The meat was decadently moist from its hourlong bath sous vide, and its finishing stint on the plancha tightened it all up into a compact, flavorful package. Hatab told me during a recent phone conversation that his time in Texas inspires a number of the dishes he’s executing here, and the soulfulness of his cooking is perfectly suited to those flavors: His braised collard greens, his bacon macaroni and cheese, the 35 different varieties of pickled peppers—all of this is evidence of a kitchen well on its game.
White Dog Cafe
3420 Sansom St. 215.386.9224. whitedog.com
Cuisine type: The original farm to table.
Hours: Lunch: Mon.- Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm. Dinner: Mon.- Thurs., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30pm; Sun., 5-10pm. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm.
Price range: $7-$32.
Atmosphere: Rambling old town house, charming as ever.
Food: Classic American, with occasional forays to more exotic shores.
Service: Low-key, knowledgeable and just right for the restaurant.