Chef Jonathan MacDonald has created the perfect restaurant-bar hybrid.
Take a look inside Pub & Kitchen. ESPN on three plasmas. Victory and Old Speckled Hen among 12 taps. Rally towels doubling as bar rags, their red Phillies logos stained with whiskey. At the circa-1940s bar, hipsters and lawyers get unusually close, an upshot of the location on the strip dividing Rittenhouse Square from Graduate Hospital.
Walks like a bar, quacks like a bar. But look closer. See the Portuguese wines by the glass, the $3 "snacks" like crisp house-made salt-and-vinegar chips. See the dining room beyond the bar, an organic extension with church-pew booths, peek-a-boo windows and spruce tables set with Slow Food oysters and local peach clafoutis alongside fennel pollen-dusted whipped cream.
Pub & Kitchen isn't a bar. It's what happens when a chef opens a bar.
That chef is Jonathan MacDonald, former first in command at Rittenhouse's ill-fated Snackbar. When the liquid-nitrogen smoke cleared, the man known as Jonnymac teamed up with Ed Hackett and entrepreneur Dan Clark, reached into his family's U.K. roots and pulled a pabbit out of his hat.
The half-pig-half-rabbit makes a fitting mascot for MacDonald's fun, unfussy fare. Showered in chilies and cilantro, PEI mussels in zingy ginger beer broth matched a bunny's bouncy exuberance. Like a pig, the rustic pan-roasted chicken breast, paired with MacDonald's grandmother's whiskey-spiked Irish soda biscuits, was smarter than anybody will probably give it credit for.
This is comfort food prepared with the finesse and ingredients that sates the appetite and the soul. That chicken--MacDonald favors air-chilled Giannone bird from Canada--was masterfully cooked; all juicy meat beneath skin so crackly crisp it could have been bruleed on.
Ditto for the grilled "campfire" steak, its coffee-chili-Turbinado sugar rub stoking a dry, smoky fire over silky-smooth mashed potatoes.
Though the risotto lacked the apple, sage and pumpkin punch the menu promised, the rice itself was flawless: creamy, al dente, totally indulgent. More mussels--these steamed in floral, fruity vermouth--were pulled from the pot at just the right moment. As they emerged from the kitchen, their shells yawned open like morning glories.
The Windsor burger is a tidy low-rise of British Denhay cheddar, tomato, Bibb lettuce and crisped pork belly strips on an 80/20 Painted Hills ground chuck patty. Surrounded by hype and Le Bus brioche, the burger's been called best in town. Though it was juicy, beefy and properly pink in the middle, the Windsor didn't woo me quite like its Rouge and Royal counterparts, though the crunchy, pinky finger-sized fries made a hell of a case.
Few were the things I didn't love: the cheese plate's unpleasant accoutrements (pickled shallots, green pepper jelly, Guinness caramel); the greasy onion rings; unbearably salty grilled shrimp in the otherwise wonderful tomato soup.
The cool, young staff ironed away the wrinkles. They appeared to genuinely enjoy working here, and it reflects in their attitudes: friendly, funny, seemingly not applied like makeup before each shift meeting.
Or maybe not. When that cheese plate and the fluffy clafoutis were taking forever, my apologetic server explained the pastry chef was new and desserts were taking longer than usual. But later, when I interviewed MacDonald over the phone, he confirmed my waitress' pants were aflame: He makes Pub & Kitchen's desserts. And I was just getting ready to write how I appreciated her honesty. Silly pabbit.
Though they tried my patience, desserts were worth the wait. I loved the decadent banana bread pudding--MacDonald soaks the brioche scraps and brunch's leftover banana bread in white chocolate creme anglaise before baking--almost as much as the mint-flecked orbs of honeydew and cantaloupe splashed with honey and sherry and topped with a thick, tangy dollop of strained yogurt.
The fruit salad has since departed the dessert chalkboard as Pub & Kitchen's menu looks toward cooler climes, warmer soups and darker beers. But you better believe it'll be jumping inside Jonathan MacDonald's house. P&K is the best comeback of 2008. Bar none.
Dinner with Luke Palladino