Anchovies, bone marrow and ground beef: It’s one of those why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-that-before combinations that, despite its initial impression of outlandishness, makes all the sense in the world. More importantly, it also fits neatly into the ethos espoused by Kennett chef Brian Ricci, managing partner Johnny Della Polla and owner Ashley Bohan of Kennett: The use of marrow—heaven’s butter, as a particularly eloquent waiter once called it years ago at Pif—shows not just a respect for those of us who wish it were even more prevalent around town, but also to the animal itself, taking advantage of more of the bounty a cow provides than by just settling for the all-beef patty. The addition of hyper-savory anchovy mayonnaise (charged up even more with shiro miso) slathered onto the bun accomplishes what the space shuttle’s booster rockets do: Ramps the power of an already serious system that even on its own is impressive.
A dish like this is the embodiment of much of the casual-sophisticated feeling our local restaurants are doing so well right now, Kennett included. And it extends beyond the food to the brick-and-wood sheathing of the redone historical space (its former incarnation, Kennett Cafe, had a 62-year run, starting back when Calvin Coolidge was president); to the music, which recently found its sweet spot—and perfectly, appropriately so—in the realm of men with preternaturally soulful voices: Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the like; to the cocktails, which practically beg you to take on something vaguely unfamiliar. Try the Scoff-Law, a rye-based drink that looks like a cosmo yet packs a tart punch in exact opposition to its RuPaul color. Even the “greenness” of the place is cool, casual. The stuffing for the banquette up front, for example, is recycled blue jeans. The bricks in the oven are from the building’s original structure, and the owners are in the process of gaining certification from the Green Restaurant Association.
But it’s the food beyond all else that demands attention, and justifies the kitchen’s insistence on keeping it all as seasonal, local and earth-friendly as possible. Heirloom parsnips, though I’ve grown seriously tired of root veggies after this interminably long winter, made me realize that I’ll miss them when the season shifts. Roasted until sweet and crisped up on the stove when an order comes in, the translucent little blankets of parmesan slowly melting on top helped them achieve a depth that resulted in their being addictively poppable.
Porchetta pizza arrived on a perfectly chewy base of homemade dough (made with local, organic Daisy Flour, of course!), leopard-spotted black and tan from the brick oven like some sort of carb-y camouflage. That simple, elegant pizza dough would have been enough on its own. Topped with house-made farmers cheese, glorious pulls of 12-hour roasted pork, silky swirls of whipped lardo (is there a happier food word in any language?), and a honey gremolata that echoed the sweet-floral notes of the fat back, it was almost too much for the pie to contain ... almost. Go in there with a fork if you must.
A roasted half of an organic chicken was ingeniously perfumed by the base of vanilla-scented barley beneath. This was smart on two counts: Like the anchovy mayo did for the burger, this perfume steroided up an already heady chicken, crispy and dense; but it also cast a relatively humble grain in a whole new—and infinitely more interesting—light that it usually is.
Not everything was as successful—but generally, even those dishes were, at the very least, enjoyable to chow down on, even if they didn’t set the heart as aflutter as the best ones. Beans on toast fell short as a result of what you’d imagine from the name. It’s a tightrope-walk of a preparation, requiring precision in all aspects. And while the braised giant limas expressed a perfect meaty texture, and were encased in a delicately snappy shell, they came off as a hit too dry in the context of the smoky brioche. Tomato and ale and the fried egg on top should have provided the necessary moisture, but there just wasn’t enough of any of them to pull off the job (and the egg was overcooked, more or less solid-centered). Sticky toffee pudding was also a bit too dry, which is a shame, as the sherry, dates, caramel, and cream, all holiday-flavored and mid-winter evocative, deserved a more giving palette against which to shine.
But then there was the root beer float: Yards root beer, Franklin Fountain ice cream and enough straws for the table. Add a shot of booze for a few dollars more, or just focus on the pleasures inherent in a Norman Rockwell classic. Like so many of our most enjoyable restaurants in the city right now, that’s the place where Kennett makes its clearest and happiest mark. Like with that burger and those parsnips, and so much of the experience here.
848 S. Second St.
Cuisine type: Local, seasonal and lovely.
Hours: Tues.- Fri., 4pm-2am; Sat., noon-2am; Sun., noon-1am.
Price range: $8-$21
Atmosphere: Darn comforting, and dangerously easy to spend hours in.
Food: Hits its target well. And that burger...
Service: Low-key, helpful and appropriately enthusiastic.
Some people get me rare. Rare is cool. Because lamb is a leaner meat than beef, you don’t want to go beyond medium rare. If you do, I’m likely going to be drier than you’d want me.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014