Soaring Ambition

Given the right ingredients, Kite and Key could fly.

By Adam Erace
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Mar. 3, 2009

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Thai one on: Kite and Key's Asian-inspired chili mussels could use more spice.

Searching for the silver lining in the nation’s financial quagmire? Locally, as chichi restaurants cut costs, fine-dining chefs are bringing their well-honed skills to the types of cozy neighborhood haunts you and I more typically frequent. High-five, economic pit of despair!

The latest: Justin Hoke, whose resume reads like a dog-eared Zagat guide—Le Cirque 2000, Le Bec-Fin, Table 31—but since January includes Kite and Key Tavern, two local bartenders’ ambitious Franklintown taproom.

It’s not the food that’s particularly ambitious—actually, it could use a bit of Perrier elan—but rather it’s the fact that owners Jim Kirk and Jake Hampson have recruited an executive chef­—as well as a full-time pastry chef (Dennis Crowley of Water Works)—of such considerable pedigree. It says to me they’re not fucking around.

Neither is the beer program, which also aims high with 16 taps, 30 bottles and a fresh hand pump pouring Yards Love Stout just in time for Philly Beer Week. Kirk and Hampson know beer—the two bartended together at Bishop’s Collar for years—so don’t be too dismayed by the presence of High Life, Ultra and Twisted Tea for that classy gal in your life. Just pretend they’re not there and head right for Stoudts’ insane Smooth Hoperator and that lusty tart, the Duchesse De Bourgogne.

The clientele is as varied as the beer list: yups in pea coats, tenured Penn profs, KKF undergrads and hipsters in their sisters’ jeans all lining the handsome mohogany bar Kirk and Hampson built by hand. The entire transformation of the old Savannah Soul Food into the warm, woodsy Kite and Key is a product of their sweat equity.

And the rehab is ongoing. Once spring arrives and the wood-paned window-wall folds open, they’re looking to add a beer garden in the pub’s adjacent breezeway.

Kirk and Hampson clearly have great expectations for Kite and Key, as I did for Hoke’s cooking. But despite his culinary breeding, the food needed tweaking. Like more heat in the mountain of Thai chili mussels, please. And more of anything in the crepes. Hugging bland chicken and bland button mushrooms in bland cream sauce, they weren’t bad per se. Ordinary is the appropriate word, when—with some wild mushrooms, juicy dark meat, more citrus, more herbs and a Breton-style buckwheat batter for a crepe that tastes nutty and interesting instead of like Bisquik—they could’ve been really delicious.

In an era when even McDonald’s boosts their barbecue sauce with chipotle peppers, Kite and Key’s shredded lettuce, tomato, sour cream and guacamole didn’t cut it as toppings for the grouper tacos. Each bite left me wanting something more. Fortunately, the grouper tasted zesty and crisp, a credit to Hoke’s “calamari dust”—a blend of flour, cornmeal, dried ginger, cayenne and paprika he should probably rename fairy dust ’cause the stuff is freaking magic.

Aside from a mushy crab-cake slider that squished out the sides of its poppy seed bun, the rest of Hoke’s efforts showed promise. Like the perfectly respectable burger, for example, and the eight-hour-braised barbecue pork butt sandwich gone Italian with roasted long hots and sharp provolone, both served (with the sorry crab cake) in Kite and Key’s slider trio. True, the mussels lacked fire, and (except for the chili sauce) the ingredients—shallots, garlic, vermouth, chicken stock, butter, parsley— evoked more Provence than Phuket, but still, the PEI pileup was plump and sand-free, and the broth was charged with all the flavor I missed in the crepes.

I enjoyed Crowley’s vanilla bean-scented beignets (slightly overcooked but tasty nonetheless) dunked into pools of crème anglaise, warm fudge and bright blood orange coulis, but not his pineapple cobbler. He makes the latter’s crème fraiche topping on premises—admirable except that the results were rancid, infecting an otherwise lovely pairing of sweet-tart fruit, buttery pastry shingles and chocolate-pineapple gloss. Attempt duly noted, but an A-for-effort doesn’t cut it in Philly’s competitive gastropub sandbox. Kite and Key’s got the look and the beer. With a bit more finesse and originality in the menu, this tavern will take off.

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Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. Anonymous said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 10:18AM

“Seriously. How do you have a job? Did a fourth grader write this?”

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2. anonymous said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 11:06AM

“Its good that I didn't read this review first, I would not have tried kite and key. I would have then missed out on a great evening. Everyone loved the food, mussels being my favorite. I must say your review sort of reads like a "rape and ravish" novel - Hope you are working on it.”

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3. john said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 11:14AM

“going this sat. .heard good things. will up date.”

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4. Foodie said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 12:51PM

“Not impressed with this review. My own experience with the Kite and Key is that the food is not only fantastic but a great overall pub experience. I recommend the Mussels, any style. This place and chef are worth a trip. (One note to the author: McDonald's, really? I will take fresh lettuce, tomato, sour cream and guacamole as a topping any day over anything from McDonalds. I cannot even believe you used that parallel, seriously)”

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5. Foodie said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 12:53PM

“Not impressed with this review. My own experience with the Kite and Key is that the food is not only fantastic but a great overall pub experience. I recommend the Mussels any style. This place and chef are worth a trip. (One note to the author: McDonald's, really? I will take fresh lettuce, tomato, sour cream and guacamole as a topping any day over anything from McDonalds. I cannot even believe you used that parallel, seriously)”

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6. Carl said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 01:05PM

“MAYBE, just maybe this was an off night for the "reviewer". KnK is an awesome place and we have had several very fulfilling and enjoyable visits. No matter what this dufus "reviewer" says, the place is our new neighborhood spot. The people there are cool and the beers - tops in the area!”

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7. Rick said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 01:57PM

“The food is here if fantastic, and the "rehab" as you call is taking this establishment into a wonderful direction. I live locally and vouch that the food here will not leave you "wanting something more" as the author so dynamically describes. Lackluster attempt at a review.”

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8. Adam said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 03:04PM

“Good grief. Foodie, the McDonald's parallel was to illustrate that these days EVEN an fast food joints are getting a little creative with flavors and ingredients, which is more than I can say for the grouper tacos at Kite & Key. They, and most of the other things I tried here, would shine with just a little extra something. Topped with provolone and long hots, the pulled pork sandwich was a good example of this point in action. Without those additions, it would have just been a regular old pulled pork sandwich.

I'm sure the locals love Kite & Key. If it was my neighborhood taproom I'd defend it to the death too. But the food is adequate, not fantastic, and needs work before it can ascend to the echelons of Standard Tap, Royal Tavern and company.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 03:12PM

“The mussels there are awesome. Some of the best in the city. You would be foolish to not order the mussels.”

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10. Jim said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 03:22PM

“Must give carpentry props on bar to Donal Glass the "horse". Guy is an artist! Go in and try out food for yourself folks.”

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11. Geremias said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 03:33PM

“Great spot for a summer evening beer. It became a Tuesday night hang for us last year, and we're looking to continue the tradition.”

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12. Michelle said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 05:34PM

“You have to write a review and drop the f-bomb?..... that's real classy. I guess your momma has washed your mouth out with soap one too many must have affected your taste buds. By the way the mussels are Sweet Thai chili mussels DUH! If you want hot mussels try the Buffalo variety! The Kite & Key's food is AWESOME!”


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