The Ugly American's biscuits are the truest form of patriotism.
1100 S. Front St. 215.336.1100. uglyamericanphilly.com
Cuisine: Regional American.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 11am-3pm and 5-10pm.
Sound advice: Cool for conversation.
Atmosphere: Dark, comfortable and guy-approved.
Service: Welcoming and wise.
Food: Very American; not too ugly.
It's pretty ballsy to name your new business the Ugly American. It's even ballsier to open in Pennsport, the tight-knit American Irish enclave where the stars and stripes seem to flap from every row-home window.
The name brings to mind images of the fanny-packer yelling at his Parisian waiter; the jabberjaws singing along at the London production of The Lion King; my cousin, who ordered white zinfandel at a ristorante in Venice.
Fortunately, the name of this new not-quite-gastropub/not-quite-restaurant is a misnomer. From U.S.-shaped decoupage du license plates to the all-American wine and beer lists (drafts on the way), owner Kevin Kelly is most def a patriot.
Ain't nothing ugly about the renovation of red-gravy boat La Vigna. Coffee, caramel, chocolate and charcoal are warm and cozy against pressed tin, carved woodwork and crown moulding. With '80s rock on the digital jukebox and college basketball on the overhead plasma, it's definitely a guy space.
In the kitchen are couple David Gilberg and Carla Goncalves. He cooks. She bakes. Kelly manages. It's the same setup the trio had at Loie, and it seems to help dinner run smoothly.
Slathered with honeyed butter, the heavenly buttermilk biscuits are a proper entree to Gilberg's menu--a playful patchwork of updated American standards and regional specialties. From the smoked turkey-neck consomme to the caramel corn (popped in habanero oil, studded with peanuts and served gratis at the bar), dishes are fresh, local and from scratch. Gilberg generously tosses golden fries in salt and fresh parsley, and crisp wings in rusty Carolina barbecue sauce spiked with raw bourbon. With heirloom cranberry beans and tender venison, his robust chili served over a wedge of eggy Native American spoon bread is a hearty plate of hunter-gatherer satisfaction.
The biscuits, though, are all Goncalves'. She does all the baking--from the French country loaves for the truffled mushroom "meatball" po' boys to the coarse-salt-and-caraway-sprinkled kaisers holding the beef-on-wick (Buffalo's version of the roast beef sandwich). The roll hugs the shaved beef and lacy onions well, keeping fingers dry even when the sandwich is plunged into the accompanying pool of au jus.
Both sandwiches are tasty and satisfying, but man, I just keep going back to those biscuits.
Roasted and halved, the Pennsylvania Dutch Bell & Evans chicken is all crisp skin and moist meat, but its citrus-and-rosemary sauce is too subtle, as is the cheeky apple jus with the grilled pork chop. The pig is perfect though--pink and juicy in an ultra-creamy quicksand of grits enriched with 2-year-old Grafton reserve cheddar.
The only truly ugly encounter is the roasted Poblano pepper, spewing a loose, soupy mess of leeks, lobster and cream.
Solid service smooths these rough spots with genuine neighborhood-taproom friendliness. When my beef-on-wick arrives five minutes late, the bartender volunteers a free beer. When I ask my waitress what makes the biscuits so delicious, she deadpans "crack," and rushes off to get me another fix. Awesome.
From the nicely bittersweet brownie to the intense root beer pudding served with fresh-baked chocolate chip, gingerbread, sugar and peanut butter cookies, Goncalves handles dessert well. Though I'm in the soft-and-chewy camp, these hard, crunchy boys are respectable, as is the creamy cheesecake with butterscotch and cranberry sauce.
Stuffed with granny smiths and staymans from Lancaster County, the warm, flaky, cinnamon-laced apple pie is the wholesome ending to this American tale. Too bad the accompanying cheddar cheese ice cream feels like it's there only for shock value. Full of ice crystals, it's not actually that cheesy, that shocking or that good. Vanilla might be vanilla, but some American classics just shouldn't be tampered with.