It’s not as if Pub & Kitchen was serving up anything all that rare. You could say, in fact, that the Wednesday night barbecue menu of July 20 was downright unassuming: Beer-can chicken, fried green tomatoes, pasta salad and a beer from Brooklyn brewer Sixpoint. Accompany it with some apple pie and an a cappella version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” and you’re back in the belly of Independence Day festivities.
But those justifiably smitten with this almost 3-year-old place (the big b-day is Sept. 9) must have known about the buzz it was set to cause, because when we were shown to our table at 8 p.m., we were told by the waitress that they were all sold out of the barbeque special.
Yet still, this was a more-than-memorable meal, and what I expected to be a review visit of the special Wednesday-night summertime dinner turned into an unintended object lesson in exactly why the home of the mythical Pabbit (the pig/rabbit hybrid P&K uses as a logo) is still more than relevant: It’s one of the best bars to eat at in the city, a serious dining destination in its own right.
Really, it comes down to attitude above all else here, a cool confidence that guides every interaction at the bar and the table, every dish in concept and execution. Jon Adams is as passionate and dedicated as any chef around, always looking for the next inspiration, the next a-ha.
The Churchill burger’s pedigree is mentioned on the menu—a custom blend of three-week dry-aged beef from Pat La Frieda—but the first bite renders any intellectualization a bit ridiculous: For a city with no shortage of great hamburgers, this one could easily be a stand-in for the platonic ideal. The ratio of Hudson Bakery brioche to fried onion to grass-fed beef is impeccable, but it’s that marrow-butter-brushed beef that sets it apart: It possesses chew and delicacy in equal measure, and the ample fat content gives the impression that each mouthful is draping the tongue in a warm, earthy blanket.
There’s nothing unnecessarily self-conscious about the food here, and flavor is considered above all else. Even the more complicated platings share a common theme of technical proficiency and relative simplicity at their core. Branzino—a fish that’s grown so familiar it’s become fairly boring as a result—is sauteed in olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until the skin has taken on a vague resemblance to the smoky richness of bacon. Accompanying oil-poached peas, radishes and artichokes bravely add to this savor, as does the perfume of grilled lemon. It’s all pretty heady; rely on beer to cut through it, like the perfectly paired Einbecker Schwarzbier our waitress suggested. (This is a staff remarkably well-versed in the food and the brews.)
Cucumber and avocado soup practically vibrate with brightness, a characteristic nicely accompanied by a garnish salad of vivid mint, diced cucumber and earthy lentil sprouts. Tuna tartare leans on line-caught albacore from Cape Hatteras, a gutsy move considering how slavishly so many other restaurants adhere to the cult of the yellow tail or big eye. Given the level at which Adams and his team are operating these days, I have a feeling he could have crafted the dish from Chicken of the Sea and it would’ve been a success.
The components of his dishes exhibit a respect for both balance and aggression: His acids toe the line of tartness, his hand with seasoning leans in the direction of the salty. Which is all for the good. The tartare, for example, is a symphony of bright cilantro, an addition of lemon just south of puckering, and a spicy homemade mayo tinged with chipotle and cayenne that brings it all together.
Desserts work for the same reason: Each component is crafted with a sense of definition worthy of a classical composer. Strawberry shortcake arrives looking like a scone split lengthwise and stuffed with berries and cream. But the first bite throws its cleverness into beautiful clarity: The “scone” is actually a sweet-vanilla-modified version of the savory biscuit that first came to P&K as a brunch item. Even the chocolate tart over-performs; the Valrhona chocolate dense with whispers of coffee, the tart shell nutty, the lemon curd beneath it all a bright counterpoint.
Was I upset to have missed the beer-can chicken? Of course. But there will be more opportunities to get there: These special Wednesday menus run through August, at the very least. I had the chance to be reintroduced to one of the most honest, firing-on-all-cylinders spots around. Go there for a drink (the beer program is especially well-considered, though the wines and barrel-aged cocktails are given their due respect, too). Go there for a meal (the menu has expanded almost fourfold since opening). Special barbeque dinner or not, Pub & Kitchen is as good now as it’s ever been.
1946 Lombard St.
Cuisine: Equal parts gastro and pub, and both aspects are stellar.
Hours: Daily, 4pm-2am.
Price range: $7-$24.
Atmosphere: Loud music, whitewashed brick walls, and a generous spirit of conviviality.
Food: Honest and wonderful, no matter how basic or complicated a dish may be.
Service: Laid-back, friendly and well-informed.
Philabeverage: Veggie Pairings