Elevated picnic food, no matter how you look at it, is a tough trick to pull off. At every turn, it seems, the temptations would be significant for the chef to peddle in cliche, to pander down to his guests’ most basic expectations, and offer little more than spiffed-up versions of exactly the sort of thing any one of us could whip up at a family cook-out.
But amazingly, the team at Morgan’s Pier have yet again managed to avoid all the pitfalls that line their path and offer us all one of the more pleasant warm-weather dining experiences around.
This year, under the watchful eyes of Executive Chef David Gilberg and his wife, Sous Chef Carla Gonçalves, both formerly of the beloved and much-missed Koo Zee Doo, the menu skews toward the classic, albeit with a couple of touches that nod subtly toward the Portuguese magic he and his wife whipped up in Northern Liberties for so many years. Still, even though this is a very different cuisine than they crafted at Koo Zee Doo, their eye for detail and palate for memorable flavors remain very much intact.
Piri piri chicken, for example, brings together the great traditions of grilled American chicken with just enough of a swirling heat from their homemade hot sauce to find a happy middle ground between the two. Gilberg also has the good sense to offer up only the dark meat: It’s far better suited to the heat of the grill and to eating with your hands, and within its crisp skin the meat remained moist and tender. (This should be a lesson to all home cooks who insist on destroying skinless-and-boneless chicken breasts on their grill, a practice that usually results in flesh closer to shoe leather than anything that was once a living-and-clucking bird.)
Ribs are a well-portioned serving of half a dozen St. Louis-cut beauties, first roasted under pressure and then finished on the grill and brushed with the same baste as the piri piri chicken. Dipped into one of the two homemade sauces (BBQ or hot), they’re excellent. Their lobster roll, the most expensive dish on the menu at $18, is slicked with lemon butter yet never overwhelmed by it: That glistening addition clearly is employed in the service of framing the inherent sweetness of the meat itself, not supplanting its claim to primacy. And anyway, those generous knobs of meat demand attention in their own right. I just wish that a larger bun had been used: It looks great overflowing with meat, generous to be sure, tucked into the flank of a New England-style roll, but a better bread-to-lobster ratio would allow to it be shared that much more easily among everyone at the table. And yes, everyone will want a bite or three.
Morgan’s Pier also offers serious options for vegetarians and vegans. Elote corn, occasional kernels blackened along their flanks and smoky against the sweetness of their neighbors, packed the spice of chili paste alongside the almost briny cotija cheese, as well as aioli, green onions, cilantro and a zip of lime juice. Scooped up with fried corn chips, it’s addictive. (And washed down with a Longtrail Blackberry Wheat Shandy, it’s a stand-in for the entire summer season in one bite). French fries are perfectly crisp and well-paired with a exuberantly garlicky aioli. Compressed watermelon, half a step too sweet from ginger simple syrup and a finish of lime honey, is crowned by mint and a scattering of Maldon salt, which does work to bring it back down to earth.
The only significant issue came with dessert, a strawberry rhubarb pie that had fallen victim to the recent hot weather and the humidity in the kitchen. (They have since switched to a more refrigerator-friendly graham cracker crust from the traditional pie crust in order to avoid the issue in the future.) And while I wish someone had spotted the issue before the suspect slice had left the kitchen, it was handled swiftly and with real professionalism: Our excellent waitress whisked it away, and when the check came, management tried to comp our entire meal.
I insisted on paying (I cannot accept comped meals no matter what sort of snafu occurs when visiting for a review), but the way it was handled—quickly, quietly and without question—speaks volumes about the high quality of the team at Morgan’s Pier. Of course, when you’re handling over a thousand covers on a busy day, everything must be done with alacrity and professionalism.
They did insist on buying us our drinks, and it was clear that pushing too hard against that would have been rude on our part. Not that we did all that much damage in that department…but we could have. An extensive and smart selection of beers—from both draft and can—as well as season-appropriate cocktails and a small wine list well-chosen for the context, are tempting no matter what time of day you visit.
Just like so much else here. And sipping on your drink, munching on your casual yet thoughtful meal, watching the shifting shafts of sunlight illuminating the passing boats and New Jersey off in the distance—it’s all a decidedly pleasant way to spend a few summertime hours. I can’t wait to return.
221 N. Columbus Blvd. 215.279.7134. morganspier.com
Cuisine: “Foodie picnic menu.”
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 4pm-2am; Sat., noon-2am; Sun., 11am-2am.
Price range: Under $18.
Atmosphere: Open-air and festive.
Service: Casual yet highly professional.
Dinner with Luke Palladino