For mountaineers, false summits are the devil. You fixate on a towering peak in the distance that promises the payoff to miles of arduous ascent across rock and snow, but in the final stretch of climbing another more distant summit – the actual summit – comes into view.
Skilled kitchens, in contrast, use false summits to their advantage. Withholding pleasure from diners can become a way of intensifying it over the course of a meal.
False summits are in short supply at Serpico, Philadelphia’s most anticipated restaurant debut of the year. Don’t get me wrong. This kitchen has mighty ambitions and the talent to match, but its most breathtaking views came too soon.
I mean that literally. Stepping into the dining room – an austere palette of grays punctuated by a gleaming open kitchen – from South Street is something like stepping from a cluttered rental RV onto the rim of the Grand Canyon. The design of this restaurant conveys one thing: Confidence.
The armada of smaller dishes that launched our meal gave the same impression. I was silenced by a lettuce salad so unapologetically pure, with crunchy snow peas, pickled shallots, and tarragon folded into its crevices. An archipelago of raw fluke was deftly footnoted with tonburi seed (known as “land caviar”) for texture, the warmth of jalapeño, and a briny undercurrent from soy. Duck liver mousse, brushed across a ceramic plate with orbs of viscous pomegranate, was a sensuous tease. I nodded the way one is expected to nod in the presence of abstract expressionism, but I was secretly longing for the way you get liver mousse at other places around town: plentifully, in mason jars, next to a log cabin of grilled bread.
Precise flavors disarmingly executed. It was as if Serpico deployed these small plates to announce, echoing a line in Melville’s The Confidence Man, “I am a man of the world. Know me for such.”
Readers who can’t approach Serpico as anything other than the progeny of Momofuku, the East Village restaurant pantheon (Peter Serpico was David Chang’s chef de cuisine), will be pleased to know that the fried duck leg with hoisin and scallion tucked into a soft potato roll manages to kick its patriarch, the pork bun, in the balls. I squinted like a hungry lion – my friend had earlier balked at the idea of ordering a double portion of duck rolls – and consoled myself with an empathetic cocktail called the The Fall Guy, which promised whiskey, honey, and a hint of Laphroaig but ended up tasting like peaty iced tea (the bar inexplicably fills cocktails with the kind of ice you find at Burger King).
I was feeling good about this place. Tell you the truth, I was also feeling pretty good about myself.
Then a pair of pasta dishes arrived, seemingly from a different, more tentative kitchen. A dish of hand torn pasta that was winsome on paper – snail sausage, garlic, crispy chicken skin – was coherent only in its saltiness. Corn ravioli, meanwhile, evoked Autumn’s soggy love letter to its perky Summer fling.
The evening’s only special, pig’s tail, came with polenta doused in sauce best described as ketchup-y. For as much as hipsters everywhere embrace the ritual of sucking gelatinous fat off of stubby tailbones, I struggled to find the experience edifying (deep-fried and piping hot, after a night of boozy merrymaking, maybe). Trapezoids of expertly cooked Wagyu beef came with charred broccoli and an aggressively sweet and salty sauce that instantly transported me to Panda Inn, everyman’s “Oriental” buffet. Maybe that was the point, a play on broccoli beef, but after the Heinz treatment of pig’s tail, it felt like a bad joke. By the time we got a $60 bowl of meaty lamb ribs (for two) with yogurt-embalmed eggplant on the side, I found myself looking over my shoulder to the $10 lettuce salad – modest and proud.
Later, as a bevy of tattooed waitstaff ushered us into the glass vestibule, handed us our boxed leftovers, and swung the door open onto the street, I felt a surge of hope. It may be that at Serpico the deepest pleasures are yet to come.
604 South Street, Philadelphia