Stellar Suds at E. Passyunk's Sticks and Stones

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 26, 2011

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On a roll: Delicately filled with shrimp and pork, these spring rolls are tops.

Photo by Ryan Strand

Sticks and Stones is full of surprises, not least of which is the fact that it finally opened at all. The tale of this pleasant newcomer had become a leitmotif of sorts over the past two years worth of local foodie news—intimations of its pending opening kept popping up, and just as it seemed it would really happen, the rumors died down again and the neighborhood was thrown back into its Sticks and Stones holding pattern.

But here it is, nearly two months old and already a pleasant addition to the burgeoning E. Passyunk scene. Is there enough going on here to warrant a trip from other parts of the city?

When it comes to beer the answer is a hearty, frothy yes. Damnation is being pulled from a tough-to-find Russian River keg (it’s $8 for a 10-ounce pour). Victory Schwarz Pils is wintertime perfect—its color implying a beer far heavier than it is.

Bottles of Brown Shugga, the Lagunitas sweetie, work brilliantly with the more Asian-inspired dishes on offer from the all-over-the-place menu. Under the watchful eye of bar manager Eric “Elvis” Walsh, Sticks and Stones seems geared to become a destination for serious beer lovers. (Case in point: They’ll be getting in two kegs of Lagunitas Olde Gnarly Wine and only tapping one; the other will be cellared, aged and tapped later.) Bar service is knowledgeable without ever devolving into the kind of pedantry that such a lovely list might invite. This is a neighborhood bar, with a neighborhood ethos, regardless of its stellar suds.

But the food is a more hit-or-miss proposition, and for every success there are others that miss their mark.

The burger, for example, showed less in the way of personality than I’d hoped. Chef and owner Nick Miglino brings in his meat from a hand-chosen farmer in Jersey, a good sign. But the patty was cooked to a a gray-toned medium-well and served by a waiter who never asked how I’d like it cooked. There wasn’t quite enough fat in the meat to facilitate adequate moisture-retention even at medium, so the result, despite the fried egg and Maytag blue cheese on top, was an unexpectedly flat and dry burger.

Sweet and sour wings would have been better had they been cooked at a higher temperature, crisping their skin a bit more. The meat itself was moist, but the pleasure of that is typically lost when it’s encased in skin of similar texture. Still, the sweet Thai chili sauce shows potential.

The fish taco on offer was nearly inedible, the mahi mahi’s aroma uncomfortably fish-funky, its texture mushy. The appealing intensity of the accompanying pico de gallo cut this a bit, but not enough.

But then there were the dishes I would go back for. Turkey meatloaf comforted and excited at the same time, two velvety slices whose own deep poultry character found satisfying, familiar counterparts in the sweet-tangy barbecue sauce with an unexpected Asian personality. Paired with a side of mashed sweet potatoes, it brought to mind a sort of modern Rockwellian rendition of Thanksgiving, minus the vaguely creepy uncle staring out from the corner of the painting.

A Cuban sandwich, with its house-roasted pork, sweet ham, and floral-piquant pickle mustard, was stunning: Easy to eat, just salty enough to demand further sips of beer, and deeply flavorful in its subtlety.

And the spring roll—taking top prize as menu’s best—was a handmade beauty. Made by neighborhood favorite Artisan Boulanger Patissier, they were delicately filled with shrimp and pork, the barest bit oily from the fryer but otherwise crisp, balanced sweet and earthy, and rested on a bed of excellent Asian slaw, the daikon and cabbage and onion kissed with the heat of wasabi.

Which is all to say that Sticks and Stones has some work left to do before it warrants the kind of attention that it commanded when it was just a promise, but is well on its way. While you’re waiting for it to be in full bloom, pull up a seat at the bar for all that beautiful beer.

1909 E. Passyunk Ave. 215.964.9127
American pub food, with all its international influences.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 3pm-2am; Sat.-Sun., 2pm-2:am; brunch and earlier-opening hours pending.
Prices: $6-$10, with occasional specials hitting $12.
Just like a cozy neighborhood bar should be.
Friendly, knowledgeable, especially well-versed in beer.
Hit-or-miss right now, but there’s potential.

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