David Ansill brings a struggling restaurant back to life.
The guy in the glasses got off his stool, regarded his burger and focused his camera. Click. His memory card recorded the image, glistening pornographically, destined for a Flickr account, Facebook page, Twitter feed or blog, a keepsake from this dinner, a bone marrow-stained feather in his foodie cap.
At many, many restaurants, this scene wouldn’t warrant a second glance. But many, many restaurants are not Ladder 15, the slick, brick den of Philly’s well-gelled nocturnal thirtysomethings. When owners Max Tucker, Mike Kearney and Mike Mastellone—the musketeers of Mad River—opened this clubby pub last year, the crowd trended toward overgrown frat brahs and the women who love them. The cocktails contained cotton candy. The beer list put the “ugh” in draught. And the food was ghastly.
Then came David Ansill. And now people are taking pictures of it.
The union was improbable, but the mechanics simple. Ladder 15 needed a chef. And Ansill, who’d only landed one cooking gig since closing his eponymous, acclaimed Queen Village restaurant last summer, needed a job. Circumstances, and Craigslist, have a way of bringing the unlikeliest people together. In February, Ladder got a talented, respected chef, and Ansill got carte blanche on a new menu.
So what’s on it? How about reprised Ansill favorites like his elegant steak tartare with quail egg, and his outrageous Korean tacos: one slow-braised short rib, one luscious five spice-cured pork belly, both edged out with bloody kimchee and fermented pepper paste? This Tuesday, the European BBQ Ansill put on biannually in Queen Village makes a comeback, and tasting menus are in the works.
Mostly, the menu features well-executed mainstream bar food—aromatic mussels with orange and singed rosemary, perfect polenta fries positioned like Lincoln logs stacked o’er moats of marinara and pesto—with glimmers of vintage Ansill here and there. There’s lobster roe in the mayo; bone marrow with that photogenic burger (the most expensive item at $18); and smoky linguisa in the Sloppy Jose, the sausage cloaked in jalapeño-enflamed barbecue sauce and spooned open-faced over a slab of Metropolitan brioche.
The neat empanadas house haunting morsels of curried lamb are definitely up Ansill’s alley. The first bite releases an exotically scented haze, curry spices that mingle naturally with the empanadas’ pick-up: gingery apple chutney, fresh cilantro, raw scallion and a mango yogurt sauce I could drink like a lassi.
Venture into the unknown or stay on familiar ground. It doesn’t matter. It’s all David Ansill’s food, and I believe him when he says, “I care as much about the food here as I did about the food at my restaurant. This is my reputation.”
Food isn’t the only positive change at Ladder 15. The cocktails, by barman Zach Smith, have traded cotton candy for cucumber water (in the intro-to-gin Stepping Stone) and hibiscus syrup (in the ladylike Sling Back). The dozen draughts are legit, thanks to Wine and Beer School of Philadelphia instructor and former Phoodie scribe, Collin Flatt. The list is replete with riservas like Dogfish Black & Blue and Brooklyn Dark Matter, and the extensively retrained staff is able to tell you the difference between the two—though still need some instruction in coursing. Even at a casual joint, five plates shouldn’t arrive within seconds of each other.
Do note that once the kitchen closes at 10 p.m., Ladder reverts to its old ways, with bouncers enforcing a cover charge (Friday and Saturday), a 23-and-over policy (Thursday through Saturday) and a sneaker embargo (recently scrapped). Give Tucker and his partners props, though. There’s money in selling Miller Lite to the knaves of douchedom; this overhaul shows they care more than you think. The Ansill regime might not earn them the bank, but for what it’s worth, it’s earned them my respect.
It seems that’s really what Max Tucker wants anyway. Respect. Acceptance. Like a geek who aches to hang with cool kids. Does he realize we Ansill fans, with our bone marrow and our bespoke stouts and strange sneakers, are the real geeks of this story? We take pictures of burgers in restaurants. We download iPhone flash apps to brighten their fatty glimmer. We’re not cool. Just hungry. But if Ansill’s cooking, rest assured, we’ll be there.
For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
1528 Sansom St.
Hours: Daily, 11am-10pm. Bar till 2am.
Atmosphere: Handsome, guy-friendly den done in exposed brick, custom ironwork, tufted leather and firehouse accents.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014