BAR NONE: Southern bar snacks like pimento cheese and pickles and a well-crafted draft list set Strangelove’s apart.
Asked if opening a gastropub in Center City comes with more pressure than opening one in Fishtown, West Philly or the hinterlands of Graduate Hospital, local keg kingpin Brendan Hartranft has this to say: “There is a little bit of a perception of more built-in pressure — but, you know, fuck it, man.”
Hartranft and his wife and business partner-of-all-trades, Leigh Maida, have built their modest Camelot on hops and hope, running successful beer bars on the outskirts of Center City. First came Memphis Taproom, then Local 44 with its adjacent bottle shop, then Resurrection Ale House. Now the couple has taken their first shot at colonizing Center City with Strangelove’s, a 20-tap saloon with a Southern lilt. That perception of pressure, Hartranft explains, is mostly off-base: “Being in a more competitive area, there’s a lot less soul-searching. When you’re an island of a restaurant, it’s a lot harder.”
Strangelove’s is anything but an island, situated in the heart of Jefferson’s medical campus in the two-story 11th Street storefront formerly occupied by a pair of disappearing acts. And with the hard-won experience he, Maida and third partner Brendan “BK” Kelly bring to the space, there’s no reason to think Strangelove’s won’t have a long and happy life here, even if the edible side of the business doesn’t quite keep pace with the drinkable.
Chef Paul Martin is best known locally as the guy that gave Queen Village’s Catahoula its Southern swagger, but between leaving there and opening Strangelove’s, he did time at Cantina, Alma de Cuba and Parc. So you’d assume he knows how to cook all sorts of stuff. A brick of cinnamon-clove-and-coffee-cured pork belly, sandpaper-dry despite a six-hour poach before searing, said otherwise.
Riddles riddled my dinner. Why were the fried green tomatoes red? Why did the nicely cooked flatiron steak smothered in basil chimichurri have a salt level programmed for one of Jeff’s hypertension patients? Why so little peach in the peach crostada? Their star-anise-enhanced flavor was so lovely, I’d have liked them in the limelight instead of mummified in gummy dough.
Why the strange combo of edamame, pecans and farro in the raw “Russian” kale salad — Tuscan kale in mine, for the record — painted with sumac vegenaise dressing? And as for the superfood’s sturdy leaves, why cut them so large ? I felt like I was eating a salad of lavishly textured wedding invitations.
No artist wants to be pigeonholed, and I’m sure Martin doesn’t want to be known as “that Southern chef.” But the native of Lafayette, La., is best when cooking food from his childhood, like his grandma’s smooth and frosty lemon ice-box pie with a hard-packed chocolate-cookie crumb, or that indulgent Low Country snack, tangy orange pimento cheese served with a garden of vivid veggie pickles.
Magnificent maque choux, a classic Cajun/Native American dish from southern Louisiana, showed up beneath the dry pork belly, a pile of sweet summer corn stewed with spicy tasso ham, peppers, onions, butter and cream that was like succotash on a French vacation. Tender black-eyed peas also accompanied the pig, cut with jewel-like red and yellow cherry tomatoes and bright sherry vinaigrette. Cloaked in horseradish-charged ravigot dressing, a fresh salad of lump crab, chopped tomato and cucumber, parsley and chives topped those crispy, cornmeal-crusted fried “green” tomatoes. Voluptuous crawfish stock filled a bowl of mussels and blackened andouille, with a plank of crusty sourdough in the bowl like a flag. I could have those tender bivalves, a couple beers and leave Strangelove’s happy.
Like the beer programs at all of Hartranft and Maida’s establishments, Strangelove’s is thorough, interesting and sized just right. “There are bars I walk into that have 30 taps, and I can only find two beers,” says Hartranft, who eschews a brainless roster of “four I.P.A.’s, two double I.P.A.’s, six wheat beers in the summertime” for a more balanced mix on 18 taps and two engines capable of satisfying many different beer-drinkers’ palates. Hop heads, look no further than Thornbridge Jaipur from a town in England enveloped in a national park. Belgian-style buffs will find the honey-blonde abbey Sublimation from Brewer’s Art, an excellent brewery in Baltimore that doesn’t get much local play. Sour obsessed? The cellar has a rich stock of lambic and geueze from Cantillon and others, including Rose de Gambrinus for $35. “Even better when somebody else is paying,” laughs Hartranft.
Strangelove’s seats drinkers at a marble bar, one of the few pieces of Butcher & the Brewer that survived a $200,000 renovation led by Maida, the project’s designer and general contractor. “Some stuff about the space was really nice, but so much of it was done half-assed,” Hartranft says. “Leigh had to be a surgeon, like, ‘This 50 square feet is fucking perfect, this 3,800 square feet is fucking horrible.’ It was an insane job” — a job Maida did five-through-nine-months pregnant.
Now, a handsome paneled cream overlay on the brick facade advertises “Purveyors of Fine Craft Beers” and gives way to a dimly lit brick-and-wood restaurant. Strangelove’s seems to be having no problem filling it with a mix of bescrubbed medical students, happy-hour-ing office bees and even Hartranft and Maida’s followers from Fishtown, West Philly and GradHo. “It’s definitely a little more of a grind,” Hartranft admits. “We’re always trying to do better tomorrow than we did today.”
The kale salad would be a good place to start.
STRANGELOVE’S | 216 S. 11th St., 215-873-0404, strangelovesbeerbar.com. Hours: daily, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sat.-Sun., brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; bar until 2 a.m. nightly. Appetizers and salads, $4-$15; sandwiches, $11-$14; boards, $13-$18; desserts, $7.
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