In a move considered brave by some and sheer insanity by others, Philadelphia Bar & Restaurant’s executive chef Jordan Sauter doesn’t offer cooking-temperature options for his burger. Instead, the server informs you that the two 3-ounce patties, each of which takes just three minutes to cook on the flat-top, will be grilled to well and arrive more gray than pink. Debate over this has been so heated that it sounds like a throwback to the midterm elections: Strict constructionists, bent on kitchen-centralized power, have argued that it’s a chef’s prerogative to dictate cooking temperature; others argue that it’s the customer’s inalienable right to decide.
In the end, though, the latter argument is rendered superfluous by the dish itself, the best fast-food or diner-style burger I’ve had in a long time. There’s nothing precious or presumptuous about it, just a subtly sweet brioche bun, lettuce, tomato, Cooper sharp cheese, a sour-cream-based special sauce and those surprisingly juicy patties. Simple, honest satisfaction trumps heated rhetoric about heat.
In a neighborhood finally starting to grow beyond the once-dominant and overtly scene-y spots, the cheekily named PBR is an indication that the southerly reaches of Old City are becoming a livable neighborhood rather than a destination for girls in party tops. There’s style to spare here, of course, but it’s of a quieter, less sparkly variety—lots of open space punctuated by I-beams, basic materials (cement, iron and wood), a great soundtrack of familiar songs and local teams on the TVs.
Few right now are more adept with a deep-fryer than PBR. Crispy eggplant fries were good enough to make even this avowed carnivore appreciate how much vegetarian options have blossomed lately. Finger-thick wedges of hand-cut eggplant were salted and pressed overnight to remove as much moisture as possible, tossed in what Sauter would only refer to as “pixie dust,” then deep-fried to a tempuralike laciness. An accompanying goat-cheese emulsion’s earthy tang illuminated the eggplant even further, but wasn’t strictly necessary.
Three nearly perfect cubes of fried macaroni and cheese, golden and glistening, arrived lined up soldier-style on a rectangular plate. While I’d have liked the macaroni to be a bit more gooey, the juxtaposition of the soft pasta and cheddar and parmesan cheeses with the crisp, shattering fried breading was stunning.
Fried chicken and biscuits mined the kitchen’s strength at well-crafted standards with an interesting twist. There was nothing revolutionary about the chicken itself—a leisurely buttermilk soak, a trip through some Wondra flour—but the presentation, like a great bathing suit, highlighted all the right parts. Thighs and breasts were loosely sandwiched between biscuits and drizzled with bourbon-infused honey, making both the crust seem more savory and the bread more interesting. Very smart, indeed.
Of course, Sauter, formerly of Modo Mio, has skills that go well beyond the fryer, as a seasonal sweet-potato-and-fennel soup demonstrated. Dizzyingly creamy in texture, the spoon-coating bowl of vivid soup embodied autumn in the northeast with richness and detail. Under the roasty-sweet depth of the potato, flashes of fennel and the perfume of cinnamon sparked each spoonful to life. If a great sweet-potato-pie filling turned to the more savory side, this is what it would taste like.
Veal cheeks were less successful and more weighed down, literally and figuratively. The red-wine braise would have been enough to amplify the meat’s own sweet-savoriness, but the layer of parmesan grated over it not only leaked an oily layer onto the liquid below, but was unnecessarily obscuring and a step too rich.
Pot de creme may need to be walked back and less-aggressively sauced. Unearthing the jiggly, puddinglike marquis component from beneath the pool of cherries was more difficult than it should have been and not as rewarding as I’d hoped. Stick with the Oreos dunked in pancake batter and deep-fried; the cookie layers turned more cakelike from the heat, the filling more molten than creamy.
Pair this with a beer or wine from Nicolas Moore’s solid selection, or with a cocktail from Shawn Gormley’s creative list (they’re both partners at PBR), watch whatever game is being played, fill up on food that’s comforting and mostly very well-executed, and revel in the fact that this part of Old City is finally becoming more grown-up friendly. Even if it does involve Oreos.
120 Market St.
Cuisine: Gastropub with serious technique.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 4pm-2am; Sat.-Sun., 11am-2am.
Atmosphere: Neighborhood, with plenty of style.
Service: Low-key, exactly as it should be.
Food: Hearty, with excellent attention to detail. Fried items are standouts, and even the meats for the butcher plate are cured in-house.