Adam Ritter's latest offering takes Fishtown by storm.
Talk about cred: Kraftwork is in Fishtown, the newest offering from Adam Ritter of Sidecar Bar & Grille, with some hard-edged decor, a killer beer list and an un-self-consciously cool staff hovering at a level of meta-hipness worthy of some sort of post-postmodern novel. But for all its foodie cred, Kraftwork succeeds most completely, and with the greatest sense of exuberance, when the food is at its simplest.
A recent chicken soup special, for example, was outstanding—a concentrated, detailed bowlful of everything that’s great about eating in Philly these days (also a supremely ballsy menu choice given the ninth-circle heat wave). Executive Chef Michael N. Thomas assembled a sort of über-soup from best aspects of the Jewish and Mexican traditions. His riff on posole was rich with the savor of house-made stock (simmered with the bones of Kraftwork’s beer-can chicken), hominy, white beans and tender, molar-draping hunks of bird, deeply concentrated as if someone’s bubbe had stood at the stove watching it simmer all day, but unexpectedly brightened by the zip of lime rind. This was a one-bowl United Nations of flavor, a spoonful-by-spoonful argument for the era’s hallmark culture-crossing.
Ricotta dumplings worked in much the same way: They seemed to channel a kind of ideal Italian grandmother in the sky with their gnocchi-like texture and pressed ricotta flavored with nutmeg. Only the accompanying roasted-pepper harissa sauce missed its mark. It was one reference too many—the culinary equivalent of a sitar solo in a Barry Manilow song about jazz in the old country—and distracted from the dumplings, the true focal point of the dish.
Less overtly referential was the short-rib sandwich, whose shreddy texture and delicate, complex flavor were another smart summertime option with a winter pedigree. Success rested on the bravely straightforward red wine-based braising liquid, which allowed the bite of the sambal and the snap of crispy sautéed onions to provide the necessary lift. I just wish the fries had been executed with a touch more care—even when dragged through a cup of bracing Dijon aioli, they fell into a bit of a Hugh-Hefner-on-Viagra situation, spicy yet disconcertingly limp. This fate also hindered a particularly wet cole slaw, whose red cabbage, apples and vermicelli-long strands of carrot came close to drowning in the aioli base (too much of a good thing; it was made from scratch and utterly well-crafted).
An eggplant parmesan sandwich would have been better with a less-aggressive bread component. Broad medallions of panko-breaded, fried eggplant were texturally perfect—shatteringly crisp on the outside, molten within—and the accompanying tomato sauce and provolone were well-considered counterpoints. But the bun was too fluffy, too doughy, and it dampened the impact of an otherwise solid preparation.
Still, it was evidence of this kitchen’s facility with hot oil. Fried pork croquettes also found an excellent balance between the crisp and the succulent. I just wish there had been as much flavor in that d’Artagnan pig (essentially shredded head cheese) as there was in its deeply nutty packaging or the accompanying pickled red onions and parsley-caper salad.
Although there were a handful of missteps, Kraftwork is still a newcomer full of potential. All the mistakes are honest ones, and the over-reaching that occasionally trips up the kitchen will likely disappear with age and confidence.
In the meantime, there’s a whole lot to like, not least of which is the beer program. It rotates regularly, and a number of the brews are available in three sizes: 8-ounce pub pours, modest-portioned goblets and full pints. There’s also the possibility of a to-go growler, if you haven’t had enough to drink on location.
This, then, is both the irony and the charm of Kraftwork: It’s as approachable and user-friendly as its aesthetic is hard-edged and hip. That oversized saw above the bar, for example, the one with the cut-outs that at first disconcertingly reminded me of Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo, seemed more industrially beautiful than menacing after consideration. In fact, that goes for the whole Fritz Lang/Metropolis feel of the place: The Germanic name, the forearm-sized bolts on the doors and femur-length drill bits that serve as table bases, even the wooden tables and benches that provide the majority of nonbar seating. It’s unexpectedly comfortable, attractive and, as the chicken soup suggests, appreciative of the simple things.
541 E. Girard Ave. 215.739.1700. kraftworkbar.com
Cuisine: Sharable fare in a communal setting.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., noon-2am; Sat.-Sun., 10:30am-2am
Atmosphere: Friendly, thoroughly approachable, and cool.
Service: Spot-on for the space, the food, and the neighborhood.
Food: Satisfying on both sensual and intellectual levels, and damn good with the all-draft beers.
First, consider the relative weight of the beer and the food. A successful pairing must have balance: If one component overwhelms the other, the match will fall apart. To that end, try to avoid big discrepancies in weight.
Wine with Mexican Food? Sí!