Mention the concept of the tasting menu to most Philadelphians—or, for that matter, to most Americans—and images of dollar signs begin dancing in the head. Justifiably so: In general, we have been trained to expect these often elaborate processions of dishes to necessitate significant expenditures to experience. Often they are worth it, a chance to experience the full range of a chef’s creativity, of his or her vision unencumbered by the ordinary strictures of an a la carte menu. Less frequently they disappoint, leaving the guest filled with too much food and an overwhelming sense of having been pick-pocketed from the comfort of their dining-room table. But in general—there are exceptions, of course—they cost a fair amount of money.
And then there is the new Sunday-night Cypriot meze menu at Kanella, a bright beacon of ambition, comfort and stunning value.
A month or so ago, I was contacted by Chef Konstantinos Pitsillides; he was rolling out a 16-course, fixed-price menu comprised of small plates, and he wanted me to try it. This past Sunday, then, I enlisted the help of one of my most food-passionate friends, packed up a bottle of red and a bottle of white like in the old Billy Joel song, and headed on over to see what Chef Pitsillides was up to.
Plenty, it turns out: With this new Sunday-only offering, he has managed to both change what we can expect from a menu like this and, at the same time, offer one of the best values around.
(Note: This is not a review in the rigorous sense, as some semblance of anonymity or surprise is required for that, and over the years, Chef Pitsillides and I have become familiar with one another. Rather, it’s a straightforward report on what he’s doing right now and the sheer value it offers.)
And anyway, it’s a menu that is difficult to critique in the first place, since he changes it up each week, depending on what ingredients he has access to. When PW’s photographer contacted Pitsillides late last week to see if she could come in before Sunday’s dinner service and take her photos, she was told no: The menu hadn’t even been set yet.
The result, then, is a procession of plates that embodies not just that particular moment in the season, but also a precise manifestation of the chef’s state of inspiration.
It all began with a selection of dips and pickled vegetables and olives, the latter of which were anointed with a gorgeously fruity olive oil, the better to offset their bracing garlic tang. The vegetables, too, got the tastebuds going, their spine of vinegar acting like some sort of aperitif and actually making me hungrier as I ate more.
For $30, you can order the vegetable meze menu, and the meat and seafood one is $35. We weaved our way through examples of both—though even with the non-veg dishes, the vegetables or salads accompanying the proteins were consistently stunning. Lamb short rib is a surefire crowd-pleaser, but the accompanying tabouleh was nearly electric in its freshness. A single grilled shrimp, so fresh that even the juices in the head remained distinctly sweet, was borne on a pillow of taramasalata so fluffy that it could make Wayne Newton’s pompadour look weighed down. Egg with an artichoke confit was equally airy. The giant beans accompanying impossibly tender braised octopus could convince even avowed carnivores to make a meal out of them.
Pitsillides, however, is just as adept with the proteins themselves: Sunset-pink-centered pork kebab was like a perfect distillation of what the pig is capable of, and its accompanying marinade of red wine and coriander had taken on an almost soy-sauce-like sense of savoriness. Sicilian-breaded sardines—just the whole fish with its crunchy crust of breadcrumbs, lemon zest and garlic, and a do-it-yourself squeeze of lemon—proved why the uninitiated should refuse to believe that sardines are all born pre-cured in oil and coffined in tin cans with roll-top openers. The primal pleasures of these fish alongside a swig of crisp white wine are impossible to overstate.
Pure vegetable dishes were also excellent, not least because they balanced both richness and freshness. Perfectly grilled asparagus spears were joined by manuri cheese with a texture existing somewhere between feta and ricotta: Ambrosial. Flaky boureki pastry was filled with delicate butternut squash and spiced up with a generous hit of ground cumin. Bulgur wheat salad sang with cucumber, orange segments and red onion: A perfect embodiment of this exact transitional moment between winter and spring. Warm, tender beets in a creamy yogurt-garlic sauce were given snap with chopped pistachios.
And because it’s all smaller plates, the sum of the dishes adds up to a very satisfying meal, yes, but not an overwhelming one (even after demolishing desserts, including an epic semolina custard galatobureko). From their perch on Spruce Street, Chef Pitsillides and his team are offering one of the great values in the city: An honest, exciting, deeply comforting experience that, on a Sunday night, is the perfect way to begin a new week.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014