PARTY OF TWO: George and Jen Sabatino at the table.
In our Turning the Tables series, food editor Caroline Russock invites some of the city's best chefs to dinner in her South Philly home.
George Sabatino has cooked for me more times than I can count — sous-vide burgers and baby eggplants with kimchi at Morgan’s Pier, award-winning sausage at the Hop Chef competition, parsnip soup with vanilla-poached lobster during his last service at Stateside, pork-butter-glazed focaccia at Boot & Saddle and a few meals at Barbuzzo — before I had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. Those who have experienced Sabatino’s food firsthand know that he doesn’t mess around; plates are perfect and flavors are spot-on. There’s a reason Philadelphia magazine named this guy the best chef in Philly.
So when I decided to invite George and his wife, Jennifer, over to dinner at my place, I was, let’s just say, a little nervous. “Don’t go crazy. Keep it simple,” was the mantra I repeated when planning the menu in my mind, wheeling my cart around Whole Foods.
The original plan was a citrus-and-herb-roasted pork shoulder, scallion mashed potatoes and a broccoli salad, but by the time I got home I had added grape-studded focaccia, radicchio with oranges and pomegranate seeds and a mango upside-down cake to the menu.
I headed into the kitchen with to prep. Dinner was at 7.
“7 is awesome, but George can’t eat anything after 9:00” was the text message that I received from Jen after inviting the Sabatinos to my place for dinner on a recent Wednesday evening. George was scheduled for 5:45 a.m. surgery the following day to mend a broken clavicle, an injury he had sustained in April only days before opening Morgan’s Pier.
“I was busy,” George nonchalantly explains, asked why it took seven months to schedule the surgery. Jen shakes her head. Over olives and apertivos, the pair told of the spill George took from a Vespa he had received as a signing bonus when he went to work for Avram Hornik at Morgan’s Pier.
Broken bones aside, Sabatino has had quite the year. After leaving East Passyunk’s Stateside, Sabatino went from a tiny subterranean kitchen serving a restaurant with 35 seats to Morgan’s Pier, where the capacity is closer to 1,200. And while the transition was nowhere near seamless, he went on to receive a glowing two-bell review from the Inquirer’s Craig Laban with summer-perfect plates like an all-kinds-of-melons salad and a Goldfish-cracker-crusted Filet-O-Fish.
When the Pier shuttered for the season, George made his way down Broad Street to open the kitchen at Boot & Saddle, masterminding a menu of refined bar fare.
Those close to the Sabatinos thought that after Boot & Saddle was riding along smoothly, it would be time for the couple to focus on the solo project that they have been talking about for a while now. But, in typical Sabatino fashion, there was another project on the Delaware River horizon.
Four Corners asked George to head up the kitchen at Waterfront Winterfest, an ice-skating rink/winter wonderland. Never one to shy away from, well, anything, George knocked out a warming cold-weather menu. Simple enough if, say, you were cooking in a fully outfitted kitchen. But George was prepping at nearby Morgan’s Pier and serving out of a makeshift (and freezing-cold) kitchen set inside an old shipping container.
As we sat down to dinner at my place, we began to talk about the Sabatinos’ next project, Aldine. They had been looking for a space to open their own place for nearly a year, but the search was reminiscent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears until they found Noche, a second-floor club on the corner of 19th and Chestnut. “It just felt right,” Jen tells me about the first time they walked in.
George and Jen married in the fall, and their honeymoon trip to San Francisco included food R&D, eating around the city and gathering inspiration for their new endeavors. Saison was a favorite, along with SPQR, where the personable yet totally unstuffy service challenged ideas about the Michelin-star rating system.
George is unabashed about his Michelin aspirations. “I just want it to be the best,” he says about his hopes for Aldine. The plan is to offer herbivore and omnivore tasting menus at $55, along with a small a la carte menu and beverage pairings both boozy and non-alcoholic. The set menus will be a series of small bites interspersed with larger plates. He shares a sample menu that he recently demonstrated for investors in New York with elegant and intriguing combinations — spot prawns with fennel and oyster tartare and coconut, granola and white chocolate.
As dinner winds down, I ask George and Jen if they’ve eaten anywhere notable lately.
“We’re creatures of habit,” Jen tells me. “We love Nam Phuong.” And for special occasions, their go-to spot is Vernick. “Greg’s flavors are always spot-on,” says George.
Three hours and a few second helpings later, it’s time for George and Jen to weigh in on dinner at my place.
“Everything was seasoned perfectly. You can come and work for me anytime.” A pretty serious compliment coming from a chef like George.
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