A tightrope act of complex flavors comes off effortless and unpretentious. Ah, hell, it's "food for stoners."
The chef de cuisine of one of Jose Garces’ restaurants recently told Matt Levin that he was “cooking food for stoners” at Adsum. Levin says his thought was, “Well, good. That’s basically what I wanted. I wanted a restaurant that has food that’s approachable,” food that you would want to eat after work.
Of course, with Levin, who made his name at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse with a menu ranging from classically inspired to mad-scientific, Adsum takes so-called “stoner food” to places it has never been before.
Sweet, cool red and yellow slabs of Kool-Aid pickled watermelon were a hot-weather revelation, with density and juice to spare. The various brines subdued the notoriously synthetic powder’s sugariness, giving the fruit a chance to shimmer. Pickle juice also livened up the remoulade through which plump fried oysters were dragged, their crust crackling with hot-oil goodness. And tuna crudo arrived as a duo of preparations—a compact cube and a tartare, both enhanced by summery lemongrass, the exotic complication of miso and a unexpectedly raspberry-bright sauce.
Foie gras poutine, which has gotten its fair share of press already, is good enough to undo the damage that Celine Dion’s done to Canada’s reputation. While poutine is a lovable dish on an average day, Adsum’s version takes it up through several stratospheres of sin. It requires serious talent and vision to keep balance in a plate of crisp-edged duck-fat fries, two different gravies (red-wine beef and foie gras), a Pollock of milky, fresh cheese curds and a perfectly portioned crown of foie, but Adsum’s done it. This is drunk food worth the hangover.
Also booze-justifying was the pork belly, with its little Pac-Men pepperoni adornments. A lacquer of compressed fat protected the underlying stratum of deeply savory meat—the whole thing having been braised in Pabst and chicken stock. It all was presented on a bed of tender black beans, smoky with still more pork.
The majority of the food here is more complicated than it seems, but the flavors are typically spot-on. The dishes have clearly been considered holistically—every component counting. Shrimp-salted whole black bass, for example, would have been successful even on its own. But with a spicy, avocado-slick green sauce (Levin’s take on a salsa verde) and the crackle of popped wild rice, the flavors flowed together into the taste equivalent of an old Electric Light Orchestra EP.
Then there were the pierogies, miraculous half-moons of slippery pasta dough filled with an ethereal puree of potato, topped with butter-fried onions and plated with sporadic dollops of smoky buttermilk. The iconic Polish comfort food was brought up to date without losing its sense of identity—a brutally difficult trick to pull off.
The options that didn’t hit every right note caused disagreement as a result of details rather than overall conception. Aged gouda with a perfectly pungent garlic dulce de leche mined a familiar flavor vein, but the presence of an olive tapenade proved to be more contentious. A guest of mine enjoyed the added savoriness it brought, though I felt it distracted from the dulce. We all agreed, however, that the accompanying monkey bread was too dry, and that the dish nevertheless worked well overall.
The “view of vieux carre” cocktail caused some discord, too. Half my group felt that the spiced red-wine reduction lent too much sweetness to the rye and cognac, but it worked for me: The angostura and peychauds bitters brought it into focus with ease.
“Unholy water” made fabulous use of a smoked-blackberry balsamic syrup, which underlined the smoke in the mezcal and the mineral shimmer of the blanco tequila. Fresh lemon and house-made ginger beer contributed both literal and figurative sparkle.
Desserts also hit where they needed to. Bread pudding arrived in a cast-iron dish that kept it warm and crisped up the edges even as we forked our way through. Ricotta doughnuts’ creamy interior was protected by an extra-thick fried layer, and their dusting of cinnamon, sugar and ancho powder highlighted the cheese in the dough. Even lemon-scented creme brulee, so often the worst dessert on the list, was textbook and then some.
Levin’s transition from the quiet, Rittenhouse-perfect environs of Lacroix to this louder, more overtly exuberant spot (though he and partner Kar Vivekananthan are installing panels on the ceilings to dampen Adsum’s acoustical issues) seems to have done him well. With Adsum, he says, he set out to cook “food that you could just sit down and eat your face off.” And drunk, stoned or stone-cold sober, that’s exactly what you’ll want to do here.
700 S. Fifth St.
Cuisine type: Comfort classics given serious love.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 5pm-2am; Sat., 11am-3pm and 5pm-2am; Sun., 11am-3pm and 5pm-2am.
Price range: $3-$22.
Atmosphere: Open, airy, and convivial.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014