"Top Chef" Winner's Sbraga on South Broad Street Is Both Familiar and Exotic

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 10, 2012

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Beet it: A perfectly seared scallop is magnified by beets and pork shoulder.

You’ve seen the presentation before: The architectural bowl with its sweeping planes, its base scattered with a consciously casual Mondrian of components. Soon after it arrives, the waiter anoints it with liquid, the ostensible centerpiece of the starter, and there you have it: soup, deconstructed and then reassembled before your very eyes. Yes, you’ve seen it before. And yet ...

The foie gras soup at Sbraga is like nothing you’ve tasted, or likely even considered: The rose petal relish, the foie pureed to silk, the toasty depth of cumin, the perfume of lemongrass and ginger complicating and cutting the liver, the gentle tingle at the back of the throat lingering past each bite.

This is exactly what modern American food is supposed to be. Familiar, yet tinged with the exotic. Comforting, yet edged with the unexpected. If this is what it means to be a Top Chef, then I’m ready to buy into the concept whole-heartedly.

There’s just so much to love at Sbraga, not least of which is the fact that its namesake—Kevin Sbraga—is doing, night after foot-aching night, what so many other so-called celebrity chefs don’t. He cooks. And his earnestness is palpable, his successes very well-earned.

So are his flavors. A single, perfectly seared scallop, plenty sweet on its own, had its character magnified by the unique sweetness of beets. The interplay was delicate, exuberant. And when both were forked with a crisp, pink-centered brick of lovingly seared pork shoulder, the entirety exploded, the meat’s richness mimicking the unctuousness of the scallop, the sweet dancing with the savory.

There’s a study of mackerel done three ways: 1. Breath-takingly delicate when steamed, then kissed with an orange zest-amped harissa. 2. Cured and smoked and perfect against a tangle of matchsticked green apples and bracing red cabbage. 3. Pounded flat and fried, the unexpectedly least pleasurable of the trio, the nuttiness of the hot oil overwhelming the flesh itself, though nice with the chickpeas and olives.

This kind of occasional misstep did occur, though when it did, the result was merely pleasant, never inherently negative. A play on shrimp cocktail, with wasabi-spiked avocado puree, peanuts, pickled grape tomatoes and cilantro, failed to inspire. The merely good, when surrounded with the extraordinary, is bound to fall short. (Sbraga told me he’s tweaked that particular preparation; the night I tasted it was its first time on the menu.)

But that was an anomaly in an otherwise stunning procession of plates. Humble-sounding buffalo chicken was a tour de force of texture and flavor, and did haute-level justice—finally!—to one of the totemic preparations of the casual-American repertoire. Sbraga didn’t diverge from the truth of the dish. It’s still just chicken, hot sauce, creamy dressing and greens. But the degree of attention lavished on each aspect of it was stunning. The chicken, marinated in buttermilk and then fried, is textbook perfect. The buttermilk-ranch dressing was studded with knuckles of high-toned blue affine cheese. And the sauce was so thoroughly enjoyable—a chile de arbol-based liquid so complete, so perfect with the Griggstown poussin—that I seriously considered stealing one of the mini-squeeze bottles on my way out. Even sliced, onion-marinated Wagyu, at $18, justified its price tag with its meltingly tender texture, never needing but immensely benefiting from the exquisitely balanced sauce choron—like a béarnaise kissed with tomato—painted on the plate.

Sbraga’s platings are generally complex, the various components providing any number of opportunities and headaches for wines. But GM and Sommelier Joseph Norkus somehow finds the secret key to each one. His smart matches tend to amplify the pleasure throughout the menu, all the way to dessert with the Quinta do Noval “Black” alongside moussed mascarpone, coffee granita and chocolate streusel, and a sweet-earthy white Loupiac framing a pear. There was also an out-of-this-world chestnut strudel ingeniously as bitter as it was sweet, and encased in phyllo instead of the more traditional dough. Sbraga’s wife Jesmary is the pastry chef, and she’s a real benefit to the endeavor here.

The totality of the experience, really, seems to be inextricably tied to the man himself. It’s as honest, earnest and accomplished a restaurant as you’re likely to find, especially at this relatively early stage of its evolution. If Sbraga is any indication, 2012 promises to be a very good restaurant year indeed.

440 S. Broad St. 215.735.1913. sbraga.com

Cuisine: Modern American.

Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 5pm-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-11pm.

Price range: Most guests stick with the four-course, $45 menu.

Atmosphere: Calming and elegant, with buzz.

Food: Stellar from conception to execution.

Service: Pleasant and knowledgeable.

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