Boardwalk: Morgan’s Pier’s pork board is home to nose-to-tail rillettes and croquettes.
The clouds crept in from Jersey. They hung around the shoulders of the Ben Franklin like wet black gym towels, drip, drip, dripping onto the iron PATCO caterpillars rumbling along the iron seams. The wind picked up, pushing the precipitation piñata across the river, where the bridge’s sky-blue spires gutted its belly and dumped tanks of water on Morgan’s Pier.
By the time I arrived at Four Corners Management’s riverside beer garden, currently in its second season, the rain was beginning to taper off. Customers who didn’t cash and dash were huddled like refugees beneath the canopied bars, attending to their wet clothes and watermelon slushies. Last summer, there would have been no reason to visit Morgan’s Pier in weather this dismal. Though the built-for-speed menu, concepted by David Katz of now-closed Mémé, was tasty and fun, the al fresco environment and endless-summer vibe were the true allures of this hip waterfront paradise. This year, it’s the food.
Four Corners’ Avram Hornik snapped up rising star George Sabatino to direct 2013’s culinary offerings. The newlywed chef is coming off a banner year, earning best-restaurant daps for his work at Stateside, the whiskey den he left in March. Morgan’s Pier is a mere six-month layover for Sabatino, a detour en route to his own restaurant with wife and cocktail whiz, Jennifer Conley. But he’s hardly cooking like it.
Petals of scallop, lightly cured with fennel seed, wear pea shoots, pickled shallots, tomatillo puree, fresh blueberries and blueberry dust in an elegant crudo befitting a restaurant with four-bell ambitions and, you know, walls. Globe-shaped baby eggplants soften in a 78-degree mint-brine sous vide, then hit the pan, where the halves are seared until crispy outside and creamy inside, a mild foil for sous chef Mike Blau’s white-boy kimchi laced with peach scraps. Custardy chèvre shoulders summer melon in four forms: extra-juicy honeydew and cantaloupe compressed with ginger beer, smoky plancha-charred watermelon and pickled watermelon rind. Sabatino recalls one guest’s reaction to the dish, laughing: “She said to a server, ‘Who is this George Sabatino and why can’t he make me a watermelon-feta salad?’”
Managing expectations — of his corporate employers and of everyday guests for whom a ramp is something to roll wheelchairs up and not to forage for — has been a challenge. “At Stateside, no one told me what to put on and not to put on [the menu]. I was cooking every night, and if I wanted to try something, it just happened.” That’s easy to do when you’re cooking for 50 seats. Five hundred, not so much.
To start the season, Sabatino ran two separate menus: one of speedy snacks like baskets of outrageous root-beer-brined peanuts whose warm, soft, fatty meats taste like the offal of some exotic, delicious species; the other, a loftier prix-fixe tasting. “I bought a whole rib eye, cold-smoked it, and I thought it was the most badass thing ever. We sold, like, three.”
Now the two have merged into a single collection that flows effortlessly between spruced-up street food and haute cuisine, but even the lowbrow bites show a serious level of care and refinement. The coral sheen on corn on the cob is lobster butter, born of steamed and seared crustacean bodies. Crumbles of house-made ramp-and-scallion sausage scent the bowl of steamed Manila clams. Addictive kale croquettes on a stripe of hazelnut romesco ooze aged Grafton Village cheddar. Wings are garlic-onion cured, applewood-smoked, stock-poached, fried, glazed in a mahogany sauce charged with lemongrass, ginger and orange and garnished with scallions, poppy seeds and electric pickled-chile relish.
Repeatedly, the ultra-intensive prep lists defy the super-cheap prices, but none of it is all that impressive or unusual until you consider the daunting volume. Those wings are prepped nine cases at a time. Potatoes? Eighteen hundred pounds a week. “Before we opened, we prepped 3,000 burger patties. They lasted from friends-and-family on Tuesday, May 9, till Monday the 15th.”
A month later, on Independence Day, Sabatino counted 1,200 covers when he stepped off the line at 10:30 at night.
He leads a team of 16 cooks, including his chef de cuisine, Paul Lyons, a fellow Barbuzzo alum, who make these eye-popping numbers feasible. Recently, to keep morale up during the lethal service, he offered a pig’s head to any cook who was game. One turned out creamy face-and-ear rillettes with tamarind chutney, a winner that later graced the glorious family-style pork board, a hearty spread also featuring a plump Victory Summer Love beer-infused sausage link on tangy rhubarb puree, lush pork-belly rillettes dotted with pickled mustard seeds and housemade “Bac-Os,” and a crispy Latin pork croquette shot through with garlic, cilantro and citrus.
Desserts are the only area that need some work. I loved the pink watermelon water ice, but would have loved it more in a waxed-paper cup instead of a salad bowl. (And, what, no pretzel rod? Are we barbarians?) The funnel cakes were too crispy and their root-beer caramel didn’t taste like root beer. Served in a paper-lined basket, the ice-cream sandwich leaked not-minty-enough mint-chocolate-chip semifreddo all over the table.
Fortunately, the dessert-time downers don’t detract from the overall experience of Morgan’s Pier 2.0. Sabatino is serving food that impresses on many levels, the highest of which is its ability to be laid-back and cerebral, at a price point accessible to the wide cross-section of the city the Pier attracts. When you’re serving 1,000 guests a night, it’s impossible to please everyone, but Sabatino gets damn close.
MORGAN’S PIER | 221 N. Columbus Blvd., 215-279-7134, morganspier.com. Hours: dinner, Sun.-Thu., 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; lunch, Sat.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.; late-night menu, Sun.-Thu., 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Bar open until 2 a.m. Appetizers, $3-$15; sandwiches, $7.50-$9.50; boards, $17-$30; desserts, $5.
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