Fresh, local and seasonal food lands at this Lansdowne BYO.
Over Cobb’s Creek and through the woods, to Delaware County we go. From West Philly, it’s a mile and change down Baltimore Avenue until you hit Lansdowne Avenue, the peaceful main street of the town of the same name, the ’burb that chef Meg Votta, who lost her battle with ovarian cancer in November, called home.
Last June, Votta and partners Stephen and Jennifer Wagner opened Sycamore, giving their Delco neighbors a worthy walking-distance BYO option and urbanites a destination restaurant, right in the city’s backyard.
Since Votta’s passing, the kitchen has been under the direction of 32-year-old Sam Jacobson, who worked under Votta at the Joseph Ambler Inn in North Wales. The British chef came to Sycamore to help out, but, as Votta’s illness progressed, it became apparent his stay wouldn’t be as temporary as anticipated. “It was almost as if she knew the whole time,” says Jacobson, the proper edge of his accent slightly worn down by five years among us language-mangling Philadelphians.
Fresh, local and seasonal food was a shared passion for Votta and Jacobson, and it’s what’s for dinner at Sycamore. But Jacobson tempers any barnyard ennui by deploying heat and spice to great effect, as skilled with Indian cardamom as he is with Lancaster carrots. It’s one of the reasons Lansdowne should be on your map.
Another: Taylor Bay scallops on the half, guts and all, a gutsy move for suburbia. Hell, a gutsy move for the city. Jacobson plucks ’em, shucks ’em, serves ’em right in their coral-colored, fan-shaped shells. They slide down your throat, sweet at first, with a salt-kissed marine finish suggesting East Coast oysters. The tangy, magenta rhubarb mignonette was a nice touch. I’m into it; so, it would appear, is the crowd.
And I mean crowd. On a weeknight I was there, Sycamore was at capacity thanks to the $29 three-course tasting Jacobson just introduced for Wednesdays and Sundays. Chatter ricocheted off the bronze-pressed tin ceiling, the dangling Edison bulbs rattled like there was an orgy going on in the apartment upstairs and the perfectly nice servers were also perfectly incapable of keeping up. Ordering happened with diner briskness, Metropolitan bread took forever and should you request no olives in the tasting, you just might get them anyway.
The defiant Kalamatas arrived, ribboned through mashed potatoes like fudge through vanilla ice cream. A slim, seared fillet of dourade had been draped over top, daubed with a sauce vierge of fresh olive oil, tomato, capers and basil. It was as composed as the penne tossed in nutty Marcona almond pesto was rustic, as sedate as the vegan curried chickpea soup was exhilarating. I liked that last starter best, a tropical cyclone of coconut, kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger and red curry paste that sweeps you up and deposits you on a beach in Southeast Asia. Jacobson wrangles these vibrant, assertive flavors like a Vietnamese grandmother.
The simple chicken stew, a whole leg in a sludgy gravy, didn’t feel right for the season—though rubbery skin is as out of vogue in January as it is in May. Fortunately, there were soft-but-springy dumplings in there, too, studded with caraway seeds—a spice not known for playing well with others. Jacobson, ever the charmer, had coaxed their assertive flavor into a calm, mellow grace note.
For dessert, he did the same with cardamom, another pushy exotic. The flavor was an airy specter of itself, haunting a bowl of lush cardamom-and-vanilla rice pudding crowned with jewel-like strawberries.
That same spice pairing figures into the house-made Indian Ocean soda, but I deferred to the Rosemary Collins, a sprightly lemonade infused with the woodsy herb, a fine mate for vodka or gin. The mixers are sold by the shaker (enough for one DIY cocktail per person) for $8 when they should probably be $6.
The rest of the prices don’t insult, though. They might be a bit big-city, but so is the food. If money’s an object, get yourself to the tasting on Wednesday or Sunday. With modest luxuries like cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crabs, it’s a deal worth driving for.
For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
14 S. Lansdowne Ave
Cuisine: New American.
Hours: Dinner: Wed.-Fri., 6-10pm; Sat., 5-10pm; Sun. 5-9pm. Brunch: Sun., 10am-2pm.
Atmosphere: Tall, skinny storefront with the decor and din of a pre-Prohibition saloon.
Service: As in the weeds as an unkempt garden.
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