Howard Johnson is dead to me now. For much of my youth, following everything from middle-school band concerts to Little League games, my parents would take my sister and I to HoJo for a meal of fried clam strips and milk shakes. And for the longest time—until a few weeks ago, in fact—I held that totemic chain’s fried clams in higher esteem than anyone else’s. They probably weren’t all that great, of course, but they were perfect for what they were, which is no small feat.
But then I sunk my teeth into the tender New England jewels at Pennsylvania 6, soft-shell Ipswich miracles breaded and fried until a nutty cocoon crisped up around a center as sweet and briny as some sort of unsullied seashore.
Frying clams this well is a lost American art—which is surprising in this age of highly accomplished bistros. Thank goodness, then, that Chef Marc Plessis and company do it, and so much else, as well as they do in their 12th Street digs.
For fans of Plessis and his highly successful run at XIX, it should come as no shock that fish and seafood are treated so lovingly here. His lobster roll, for instance, was a wonder of dignified simplicity, the lobster cooked in a court bouillon just to the point of tenderness and not a moment longer, the brioche roll gleefully buttered and toasted until the edges took on the texture of a creme brulee’s crown.
On the other end of the oceanic spectrum are his crudos, ambitious setups that, in general, succeed very well. Yellowfin tuna was cast in an earthier light than usual, its accompanying parsley-caper vinaigrette and olives framing the fish in a unique and riveting manner. Kampachi, with its hit of cumin salt and cilantro, and the bright tang of lime and gooseberry, was a gently spicy, vaguely Latin-inspired plating that lingered on the palate long after it was swallowed. Only the fluke was a disappointment: It glowed promisingly within its sheen of curry oil, beneath its bright frizzle of julienned breakfast radish on top, the pine nuts and sea beans providing a toothy counterpoint to the tender flesh, but the fish itself was underseasoned to the point that it was barely discernible in context.
That wasn’t an issue with anything else I tasted; this is a kitchen that revels in the sort of exuberant flavors that should define this school of American eating. Simply named “ham & cheese” is an homage to the glories of southern-comfort gluttony. You slather toasted slices of baguette with unctuous, cheddar- and cream-cheese-rich pimento cheese, lay a slice of pickled green tomato on top, and drape it all with a muslin-thin sheet of Benton’s ham. Alongside a beer from the well-considered selection, it’s manna.
It’s also a great prelude to the bistro steak, a generous cut of teres major rubbed with cumin and black pepper, grilled up, and accompanied by some of the best Swiss chard in town, the texture almost creamy, the better to match up with the intensely rewarding creamed corn. It all comes with spritely little marble potatoes which, on their own and especially dragged through the red wine beef sauce, are lovely little interludes ... but they didn’t really stand a chance when compared to the duck fat fries. (If no one at the table orders a dish that comes with them, make sure to get a side.)
This, then, is serious American food devoid of pretense, just as it should be. And it’s served in a space that’s fittingly clubby and full of old-school charm, the blown-up photos on the walls of golden-age Hollywood luminaries amplifying and reinforcing it.
I do, however, wish that the wine list were more suitably tailored to the food: The selection of whites you’re presented with, for example, consists of five Chardonnays, three Sauvignon Blanc or SB-based blends, two Rieslings, a Pinot Grigio and a Pinot Gris. With crudos this complex, why no Albariño, no Viognier, no Rueda? Food this well-conceived deserves more interesting wine. There are plenty of solid bottles, yes, but too little range. The cocktail program, however, also under the watchful eye of the charming, welcoming bar manager Ryan Fenton, is full of potential and succeeds quite well right now.
Overall, then, Pennsylvania 6 seems to be hitting on the vast majority of its cylinders. Even desserts embodied the unique American fervor that so much of the food here does. Dark chocolate pot de creme, all velvet-textured and paired with caramelized banana, brought me back to banana splits of years gone by—but infinitely better than they ever were. Almond cake, served with macerated strawberries and a tangy, funky goat cheese and yogurt gelato, proved to be a deliciously refreshing way to end the meal.
It all adds up to a restaurant that finally fulfills the promise of the bi-level space on 12th Street that, over the years, has had its share of disparate occupants. This is the kind of grown-up American cooking that I think we need more of. Those fried clams, it turns out, were harbingers of all the good stuff that was to come. With apologies to HoJo, Pennsylvania 6 is where it’s at.
114 S. 12th St. 267.639.5606. pennsylvania6philly.com
Hours: Daily, 11am-10pm.
Cuisine: American bistro, elevated.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2am; Sat.-Sun., 2pm-2am.
Price range: $6-$26.
Atmosphere: Clubby and unprepossessingly sexy.
Food: Deeply flavored, thoughtful and certainly worth a visit.
Service: Friendly and accommodating, with real knowledge and enthusiasm.