CAVIAR DREAMS: Sturgeon caviar tops a dashi-scented egg custard at Serpico.
Eleven months ago I wrote a story for City Paper about the star-spangled influx of out-of-town chefs. Philly appeared to be on the precipice of a new era, but things didn’t totally go as planned. The chef of the Le Bec Fin reboot, Walter Abrams, was gone in six months; in another six, so was the Le Bec Fin reboot itself. The sweet promise of a restaurant by John and Karen Shields dissolved like cotton candy.
Fortunately, the brightest jewel in the import box, Serpico, opened in June behind an unassuming screen of gunmetal-gray bricks. Drawn blinds block the three-pane picture window carved into the facade of this South Street space, a fitting hermitage for Peter Serpico, a publicity-shy New Yorker who’s laid low since Stephen Starr lured him to Philly more than a year ago. Thanks to his well-chronicled Momofuku credentials — he won a James Beard award as the chef of Ko — the hype was white hot before he even passed through the Lincoln Tunnel.
Inside, a glass vestibule whispers open like the 13 Ghosts house, and prosecco hostesses direct you into the shiny onyx dining room designed by Thomas Schlesser, whose resume includes Bar Boulud in New York and Blackbird in Chicago. Tucked in the front of the restaurant, a low freestanding oval table functions as the nifty bar, where a pair of friendly bartenders pour five house cocktails made with trendy ingredients like mescal, amaro, vintage rum and hibiscus liqueur brewed in Brooklyn. The beer list is equally petite, and built for food, but wine’s what you want here; the program is a treasure map with crosses in Catalonia, Alto Adige, the Loire and the Finger Lakes. There’s a brief sake addendum.
Tables fill the center of the room, and booths flank the brick-and-blackboard walls listing the menu, a front-of-house stage calendar and chalk doodles that included a top-hat-wearing octopus, a turtle named Tim and an American flag with “AWESOME RESTAURANT” in child’s writing. That kid is on to something. The food coming out of Serpico’s open kitchen, a glimmering steel peninsula surrounded by 18 counter seats, is everything we’ve waited for.
Consider the scallops, like quivering quartz stepping stones in a white lake of buttermilk swirled with green chive oil, ponzu and poppy. They have a sour-cream-and-onion thing going on, but not in a pandering-to-stoners way; the dish bleeds elegance, led by the scallops’ sublime texture and sweetness.
Though the menu is not Asian, Asian elements play a defining role. Succulent, hoisin-lacquered duck-leg “hot dogs” mimicked Peking duck buns, with smashed Martin’s potato rolls standing in for bao. Honeyed hot mustard laced with mirin inched down smoky charred broccoli and pyramids of pink-centered wagyu chuck for a Chinese beef-and-broccoli effect. Heirloom cherry tomatoes got cozy with tender pan-roasted squid, charred favas and bean sprouts in a bowl of XO sauce whose initials could have stood for eXtraOrdinary; its innate sun-baked, dried-seafood funk was tamed by scraps of ham, Chinese sausage, ginger and cinnamon.
The dashi haunts my dreams. It comes ice cold, an umami-dense tonic of kombu broth fortified with bonito, mirin and soy so inexplicably refreshing it should be served with a Collins glass and a straw. Instead, the staff pours it tableside over a landscape of purslane, charred pea tendril, shiso, compressed zucchini, cucumber pearls in sugar-snap pea pods and cubes of chilled crème fraîche that look like tofu and taste like mozzarella. If you order only one dish at Serpico, make it this one. If you order only two dishes, make the second the decadent egg custard. The mix of eggs and dashi steams in its own little cocotte till barely set; wobbling like a panna cotta, its brown-butter-submerged surface bears enough rare Siberian sturgeon caviar to explain the $25 price tag.
Hits kept coming: Ravioli with gushing cores of liquid corn. Crispy, roe-jeweled trout floating on crabmeat suspended in orange whorls of pepperonicini puree. A bar of confit duck breast glazed in a lip-smacking elixir of malt vinegar, honey and coriander. Even the salad, lightly painted with tarragon-pea vinaigrette, is masterfully done.
So is the excellent service, directed by ex-Momofuku manager Richard Fell, and that’s even if you’re not a restaurant critic whose picture is taped up in the back. I managed to fly under the Starrdar my first visit, or at least my sterling server, Liz Dloeslazsky, a beer wiz with a mop of Carrie Bradshaw curls, didn’t let on. Another night, when I sat at the bar, Peter Serpico delivered my food (red flag), and Fell said the kitchen wanted to know if I thought the unnervingly large bowl of marinated clams and oysters had enough salt. They did, and it was part of the problem; tomato and fennel accessories were too demure to balance the mollusks’ intense natural brine. If you need another dish to eliminate, make it the buttery torn pasta, which clung to bits of escargot that would have more impact if kept whole. It’s a great dish anywhere else, merely a good one in the context of what else is served here.
Desserts fall under “sweet” and “semisweet” categories, and the best in each is the sprightly yuzu curd/rosemary foam with jagged chamomile crisps and the ugly but delicious take on peanut butter-and-jelly, respectively, the latter featuring candied peanuts, elderflower gel and peeled grapes buried like fossils beneath frozen foie gras dust.
Coffee is roasted in house. Teas are interesting. There’s so much I want to say about Serpico, and I’m running out of room, so I’ll end with this: The staff and kitchen were beyond accommodating to a dining companion with dietary restrictions most establishments of Serpico’s caliber would have sneered at. That level of hospitality is what separates a great restaurant from an extraordinary one.
Serpico | 604 South St., 215-925-3001, serpicoonsouth.com. Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-12 a.m. Appetizers and entrees, $8-$26; desserts, $8-$16.
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