Many years ago, a friend introduced me to the concept of bacon porn, and the underlying culino-philosophical concept that everything can and is made infinitely better by the addition of more pork. (It always reminded me of a gluttonous riff on the old Saturday Night Live skit, but this one with Christopher Walken incessantly yelling “More pig parts!” instead of for the cowbell.)
Of course, the world of food doesn’t work that way, and over the years, I’ve encountered plenty of instances where adding more bacon or pancetta or guanciale simply results in a heavy, undifferentiated mess.
So it was with the slightest bit of nervousness that I beheld the apple-braised pork belly & dumplings at Society Hill Society during a recent visit. The crisp-topped belly, and the framing element of the perfectly cylindrical dumplings, seemed perfect on their own. But then the ham consommé was poured over it all, and while its deep, burnished color glistened pleasingly in the warm light of the place, I had a momentary twinge of fear that it would just be too much.
It was not.
Rather, the result, a delicate interplay between the seemingly infinite ways that cuts of the pig can taste and the subtle fruity sweetness of that belly, set up against the savory depth of the consommé—all of it broken up with lemon-bright apple and radish salad—was stunning.
The best dishes here are like that: They plumb depths of richness and expression without devolving into the heavy-handed or the self-consciously overwrought. And it’s not just with meats. Olive oil-poached fluke could easily have come off as gimmicky beneath its painstakingly rendered simulacrum of scales crafted in razor-thin slices of blanched zucchini, but they turned out to be a necessary aspect of the entire construct, lending an unusual vegetal note to it all, excellent against the roasted corn nage and the turmeric-twisted, Indian-influenced tomato stew.
Pickled white asparagus, each snappy finger of it swirling with a coriander-complex brine and the lot of them crowned with hen of the woods mushrooms, found a fabulous foil in the layer of homemade farmer’s cheese spread between it and the slices of Metropolitan sourdough. Pierogies, their skins hearty yet not gummy (a difficult middle ground to find) were filled with a silky puree of truffle-scented potatoes all luscious with the incorporation of sour cream. Slid through the sweet caramelized onions and the cooling creme fraiche, each bite came off as almost meaty, despite the fact that they’re resolutely vegetarian-friendly (though not vegan).
Occasionally, however, there was a misstep. I loved everything about the red beet deviled eggs except the fact that there was just a bit too much tarragon in the yolks, which also were brightened up with chives and parsley. Chicken pot pie croquettes were memorable for the thoughtful and fun filling, but it was never given a chance to really shine because the fried pie-crust-based cocoon was a bit too thick.
The Amish chicken and waffle, however, was a real success. The hearty cuts of tender chicken breast, cooked sous vide with a cream of leeks, were accompanied by a lavender waffle and a chicken-skin “rind” dusted with barbecue spices. All of it was well-anchored with a comforting white gravy studded with carrots and peas.
This is the kind of food that’s best enjoyed with a beer, of which there are plenty of solid ones on offer here—it’s not a huge list, but it is well-considered given the menu and the feel of the place: Grown-up and casual, exactly the sort of spot you could happily lose several hours in, even if you’re not eating a full meal. But the thoughtful cocktails are also worth pairing up with your food. The Thinking Machine, with its acidic seam of coriander shrub and lemon pushing up against Amaro Montenegro and the sweetness of bourbon, would work beautifully to cut through some of the heavier notes of, for example, the chicken and waffle. (The tight wine selection also offers some solid options.)
And with dessert, I had great luck with an Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout alongside the hearty donuts filled with bourbon apple butter, as well as the homemade ice creams and sorbet: Ending a meal like this with a spoonful of the phenomenal ice cream and a swig of imperial stout is tough to beat. The only thing that could make it better, I think, would be a strip of bacon to chase it with. Now that’s a thought.
Society Hill Society
400 S. Second St. 267.273.1434. societyhillsociety.com
Cuisine: Elevated gastropub fare meets classic American comfort.
Hours: Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 4-10pm; Thurs.-Sat., 4-11pm. Drinks: Tues.-Sun., 4pm-2am. Brunch: Sun., 11am-2pm.
Price range: $4-$28.
Atmosphere: Elegant and understated, while respecting the history of the space.
Service: Knowledgeable, casual and friendly.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014