A couple months back, the Philly food blogosphere exploded with the entree of an anonymous, vitriol-spewing, self-important blogger who fancied himself something of a César Chávez for restaurant folk. Unfortunately, he turned out to be more of a Johnny Hayseed than a John Steinbeck. After he outed himself (or was outed, depending on who you ask), and his blog posts became increasingly redundant and boring, the making-waves portion of his online lifespan slowed to a mere ripple. People stopped paying attention.
That he made waves at all, though, proved something: For a few moments at least, anyone can make a name for themselves in this town’s food scene. Even if they are a talentless twat. Just scream loud enough and someone will listen. Many restaurants here are packed full of tchotchkes and gimmicrackery, and serve subpar food that lures tourists and the naive in droves. So it’s refreshing when you find a restaurateur and a chef, Bryan Sikora, who is in it for the right reasons and has gone about making an impact in the right ways—by quietly creating great food on a stage in an understated, refined manner. And being comfortable enough to make their respective waves with their trade and talent rather than their attitude and Twitter handle.
Sikora’s spot, a.kitchen, is the antithesis of the crabs-in-a-barrel bullshit that goes on far too often in Philadelphia’s food culture. The walls are bare save for a few trendy looking Italian light fixtures, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows look out onto 18th Street. White oak barstools and tables add freshness to the minimalistic 45-seat dining room, and a tasteful but elegant white marble wrap-around counter surrounds the open kitchen, framing the art and the artists. At this counter, the real experience of dining at a.kitchen shines; you’re so close to the action you can see your bleary reflection in the highly polished stainless steel equipment.
Tiny 1/12 pans are lined up like good little soldiers, so close you could touch them, filled with a back log of ammo/mise en place for that night’s dinner rush. The thwap, thwap, thwap of chef knives are the readibly audible beating rhythm along with the Black Keys as a line cook close enough to cut you slices woody ends from earthy chantrelles. You may even feel a slight breeze from the bird-wing-like flopping of another cook’s artificially outstretched ear lobes as you watch him bounce around the kitchen delivering prep to each station. Try to avoid being sucked into all the action like an ADHD-riddled preschooler sans adderall, and pay some attention to the food in front of you. It’s worthy of your focus.
The menu is split into three simply named categories of small plate, Euro-tinged offerings: Vegetable, Fish and Meat.
Under Vegetable, spicy watermelon radish and Point Reyes blue cheese smeared crostini add a piquant counter balance to a crisp baby lettuce hearts salad dressed in a cooling buttermilk dressing that sasses, “Hidden Valley ain’t got nothing on this!” A house-pulled mozzarella burrata filled with Doe Run Dairy ricotta (Coatesville, stand up!) is a fresh and creamy canvas to a mélange of fruits and vegetables that include frizzy pea tendrils, black-pepper-spiced honey dew and sweet watermelon cubes. The watermelon cubes are the cantaloupe to this dish’s salty country ham’s prosciutto.
Under Fish sat a hard-to-resist, tender-as-your- mama’s-kisses octopus paired with a small slab of glistening, caramelized watermelon, salty pickled watermelon rind and a chiffonade of Thai basil all sitting in a liquid harissa. The dish hit on all taste regions of the tongue and on all cylinders. Another fish dish impressed just as much: a giant, seared and sliced U-12 scallop that would logically get lost in a choucroute of cabbage, house-cured meat and pickled mustard seed, but it actually added that all important sweet note to this Kind of Blue jazz masterpiece of a dish.
The Meat category introduced me to my soul mate of a dish, the sugars coaxed from a perfectly cooked loin of lamb caramelized on a searing hot la plancha. First, the lamb’s natural sugars mingled casually with bitter Greek-style yogurt, then it flirted hardcore with salty black olives, and finally decided to take the bitter Treviso home and bang the hell out of it. The lamb went great with a stunning outside-the-box cocktail of a bitter artichoke liquor cynar and orange mixed expertly by bartendrix Catherine Manning.
The next day, at brunch, I ordered a disappointing Bloody Mary (no Catherine this time) to go with some pillowy pancakes with apple compote and maple syrup from Pa. (nice touch). I also tucked into an herbaceous olfactory pleasing side of breakfast potatoes and promptly fell in love all over again.
The crew of a.kitchen quietly cultivates its gift and serves quality, quite ingenious dishes. It’s time to stop paying attention to the one-hit wonders, and focus on the future Hall of Famers.
135 S. 18th St. 215.825.7030. akitchenphilly.com
Cuisine: Bistro farm to table small plates.
Hours: Dinner: Sun.-Thurs., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-4pm. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 8am-4pm. Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 7-10:30 am.
Price range: All but one dish under $19.
Atmosphere: Understated chic.
Food: Balanced and inspiring.
Service: Friendly and knowledgeable.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014