At Adsum, a top chef back to his first love

Recalling his days at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, chef Matt Levin says, I wasnt cooking anymore, and I wanted to be back having fun in the kitchen. At his new playground, most entrees are less than $23.
Recalling his days at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, chef Matt Levin says, I wasnt cooking anymore, and I wanted to be back having fun in the kitchen. At his new playground, most entrees are less than $23.
Posted: October 10, 2010

Matt Levin isn't the first creative cook to clash with the administrative demands of being an executive chef at a luxury hotel. But for a guy who'd rather be fiddling with his sous-vide machine and working to build a better duck-fat fry, the notion of sitting in long meetings on whether or not to have a harpist in the lobby or discussing the chafing dishes for banquets was its own special form of five-diamond hotel torture.

"I wasn't cooking anymore, and I wanted to be back having fun in the kitchen," Levin says, looking back on his days at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.

It was a celebrated tenure, no doubt, when the restaurant under his watch earned four bells. But even that privileged perch, turning out high-priced gastronomy for an elite slice of the dinerati, began to wear thin on the tattooed chef, now 36, who began to wish for a more down-to-earth place where "I'd like to go hang out and eat myself."

Judging from my rollicking meals at Adsum (Latin for "I am here"), that place will not lack for chef-y indulgences. There have been garlicky roasted marrowbones with onion marmalade and foie gras galore - creamy pads of which glisten atop the house-ground brisket cheeseburger as well as the bowls of Montreal-style "poutine" - french fries cooked in duck fat (of course), topped with squeaky cheese curds and streaked in two kinds of gravy. There are all sorts of molecular cooking gizmos in action: agents to powder bacon fat and turn Irish whiskey into jellied beads for the tater tots, foaming canisters and high-tech cornstarch to give the "KFC" fried sweetbreads (and chicken) a staying crisp.

There are also reasonable prices, with most entrées at $23 or less. And the kitchen stays open late, until 1 a.m., in the hopes that Philadelphians (other than off-duty cooks) will learn to eat out after 10 p.m.

Actually, I hope the locals start finding Levin's Queen Village bistro before 10 p.m., too, judging from the light crowds in the dining room for each of my three visits. Because the no-shows are missing out.

Yes, there were young foodie couples rocking baby carriages in the dining room while polishing off sublimely fried oysters with pickle juice-spiked rémoulade. And there were a fair number of eating groups out sampling (and blogging, no doubt) the trendy bites du jour, grazing on the Kool-Aid pickled watermelon (all vacuum-compressed crunch and bug-juice-intensified melon) and bowls of melt-away ricotta gnudi with tarragon and sweet corn, and sipping cocktails infused with Earl Grey topped with an egg-white froth.

But that vast middle ground of the dining mainstream has yet to find its sweet spot here, it seems, which is tricky for a place that must ride a thin line between go-to neighborhood haunt and gastro-destination. I sense Levin easing back a notch on the adventure throttle, hedging a shade conservative with his ever-changing menu, since the gangbuster opening weeks. I hope he doesn't too much.

Levin, partnered here with entrepreneur Kar Vivekananthan and Jon Runyan (former Eagle and aspiring congressman), is without doubt one of the city's most gifted chefs. And pushing the envelope is what he does best, whether it's with the haute ingredients of his former post, or figuring out how to vacuum-infuse the buttermilk inside the flesh of his sous-vide poached, shatteringly crisp, velvety fried chicken. He shouldn't lose that edge while fine-tuning his message for a wide-open audience.

Already, Adsum has a shot at becoming that rare place where innovation meets accessibility, and there's something for everyone at a fair price.

The space is pleasant enough, the former Coquette at 5th and Bainbridge lightly renovated but still very bistro with its hex-tiled floors, bentwood chairs, patina-backed bar, and cafe seats lining the sidewalk corner. The young servers are welcoming and well-informed, capable of making astute suggestions for pairing the affordable list of good wines or craft beers with the food. (And yes, that Brunet pinot noir from Limoux really does sort of smell, as manager Heather Rodkey's wine list muses, like "the air before it rains.")

Mostly, though, Levin's cooking is the reason to come - although I wish the menu didn't change so often, because there were favorite bites worth holding on to. Among the standbys are the pierogi, fantastically crisp yet delicate pastry moons, stuffed with silky potatoes and "burnt onions" then sided with little hickory-smoked poufs of whipped buttermilk that add earthy depth despite their cloudlike weight. The Adsum burger is a gem, too, easily one of my top patties in town. Made from beefy house-ground brisket that gets a well-caramelized plancha sear, it steps up to pure decadence with a thick pad of foie gras that triggers creamy pleasure the moment it hits the roof of your mouth, followed by a wash of juicy beef, then the piggy tang of a pancetta-onion fondue.

Along those lines of all-out hedonism, the foie gras poutine - actually mild-mannered compared to the original at Montreal's Au Pied de Cochon - is now one the city's most sinful late-night munchies.

The high-tech fried chicken should also enter our growing pantheon of crispy birds. Though not quite up to Meme's Thursday lunch special (still my fave), it has a unique tenderness that comes alive when chased by a forkful of the spicy ham hock-studded greens.

Among the more fleeting flavors, there was a gorgeously seared fillet of wild striped bass with chanterelles, golden beets, and vermouth cream. An unconventional bouillabaisse, its anise broth emerald with herbs, bathed a medley of seafood, each individually cooked to perfection. An eight-hour-braised pork belly, crisped to order beneath the broiler, brought crackle crust and melting flesh in the same BBQ-scented bite.

I had small complaints with a few less-inspired dishes - a boring chicken noodle soup for Restaurant Week (compensated for, though, by a stellar pork mole and fantastic wine pairings for each course); likewise, the cubed tuna crudo brought stellar fish, but a dull pairing with raspberries and miso.

It was obvious only because Levin's eye for striking combinations is usually so vivid. He reignited my interest in rarely used Gouda, for example, by matching its waxy butterscotch tones with the piquant caramel of a garlic-infused dulce de leche. Add a snifter of fiery Armagnac or one of the unusual sweet wines - a musky Tokaji, or a deeply honeyed late-harvest Aussie semillon - and that could be dessert.

Then again, the sweets here shouldn't be missed, whether it's the mini-skillet of caramelized bananas Foster bread pudding, or the densely silky Manjari chocolate pot de crème, or those addictive beignets. Fresh doughnuts may not be original anymore, but these delicate ricotta orbs were exceptional, light as yeasted clouds, on one night rolled in the spicy sweetness of ancho powder and sugar with a quenchingly dark chocolate dip, on another night with white chocolate sauce that prickled with the fruity heat of habanero peppers. It won't be long, surely, before Adsum's desserts begin smoking with a liquid-nitro deep-freeze.

"Just biding my time," says Levin.

It already tastes, though, like this chef is having fun again.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Sonata in Northern Liberties. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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