Kennett Restaurant

The kale and beet salad is a vegetarian pleaser that exploits the farmers produce of the season.
The kale and beet salad is a vegetarian pleaser that exploits the farmers produce of the season.

A crunchy green place that delivers with imaginative fare.

Posted: March 13, 2011

A lot of restaurants talk sustainability these days, about sourcing ingredients locally and paying homage to the seasons, the farmers, the heirloom roots and little piggies that go into every dish.

But Johnny Della Polla is a man obsessed with earning his "green cred" at Kennett Restaurant. That means plenty of prime-time action for root veggies and brussels sprouts during these winter months, not to mention braised collards instead of fries beside the burgers.

The greens are an offbeat "healthy" flourish, I suppose, that I found somewhat shrill beside the brazen decadence of a burger blended with bone marrow. Still, I love people and places that live their convictions, and Della Polla with his business partner, former-Starr server Ashley Bohan, have given Kennett the full eco-treatment from top to bottom.

Della Polla, who previously helped Yards Brewing build its beer tasting room from mostly reused materials, knew just how to tackle this space. The Queen Village pub, a 1920s-vintage tavern that's lately been a revolving door for forgettable bars (most recently the Lyons Den and its 11 TVs), got a fresh coat of soy-based paint. The banquettes, built from the old bar rail, are covered with material made from recycled milk cartons and stuffed with old blue jeans. The wood-fired pizza oven was built from bricks found on-site. The kitchen equipment, Della Polla says proudly, is secondhand.

Even the leftovers here get packaged up in biodegradable boxes with instructions: "If you don't compost at home," Della Polla says to our table, "bring it back, and we'll compost it for you!"

He was so darn cheery about it. But I was nonetheless momentarily struck with the unexpected guilt of a non-composter: Is this the gastropub equivalent of a Whole Foods cashier giving passive-aggressive grief for forgetting (yet again) to bring those reusable grocery totes?

The moment passes when we uncork a few special beers (another passion for the Yards alum) - a hard-to-find ceramic bottle of Rogue 21 ale, a bewitchingly complex deep amber brew that tastes like licorice and roasty malt. There's a tart saison from Sly Fox, a smoky bourbon-barrel-aged porter from Yards on the hand-pump, and a powerful pint of Avery Salvation's golden strong ale, among others.

The entirely domestic beer selection, mid-sized by Philly standards but smartly chosen, is one of Kennett's best assets. But the long bar near the door is also host to an excellent repertoire of well-crafted drinks that pay homage to the bar's Prohibition-era roots (Quarter Deck #2 - black rum, Scotch, sherry, and orange bitters) and nouveau cocktailians (The Pynchon - rye, vermouth, sweet potato shrub). There's a reasonably priced international wine list, too.

Ultimately, though, it will be Kennett's kitchen, run by chef Brian Ricci, 36, that determines whether this pub becomes an enduring destination for neighborhood diners.

The Pub & Kitchen alum, who also did turns at Django and at Tabla in New York, has a rustic approach that is satisfying when it's on the mark, and is especially strong with starters that seem inspired by a cold-weather farm market. Creamy stewed butter beans come ladled over grilled brioche toast beneath a panfried egg. Brussels sprouts roasted with coriander and bacon tumble with thick slices of sunchoke, their nutty snap reminiscent of a fresh water chestnut.

Vegetarians should love this place, if only for the hearty salad of ribboned raw kale, lightly wilted in its vinaigrette before being tossed with matchsticks of raw beets and roasted chunks of butternut squash. Cooked and pickled beets, meanwhile, rise up on a gingery herb dressing with mild Bulgarian feta. Pan-crisped chickpeas, meanwhile, show Ricci's Indian experience in a tangy yogurt dressing accented with cumin and preserved lemon. The veggie burger, a cuminy blend of vegetables, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and an egg (alas, it's not vegan), is one of the better house-made faux-burgers I've had, complete with spicy Thousand Island dressing.

Still, left to my carnivore devices, I'd find it hard to resist the lamb burger, touched with smoked paprika and drizzled with yogurt and purple cabbage slaw. Can I please just sub the roasted Parmesan parsnips for the collard greens?

Ricci's true passion lately has been his plans to open a mobile wood-fired pizza oven, a side-project still in the works. Judging from the hickory- and beech-fired pies at Kennett, though, those recipes are still works in progress. I loved the free-form, rustic shapes. But the chunky milled texture and concentrated sweetness of the Vineland tomato sauce was out of register. And the soggy middles of the pies cooked for us midweek by Della Polla (more often out front) left much to be desired.

I far preferred the white pizza on my weekend visit, a nod to the nearby Italian Market topped with shreds of slow-roasted porchetta, house-made ricotta, and an odd but tasty "whipped lardo" made from fatback emulsified with herbs and garlic confit. A drizzle of honeyed gremolata, though, was one subtle flourish too many.

Being "green," obviously, doesn't preclude getting the chef's hands deep into the butcher's craft, and Ricci shows a special zest for intense charcuterie. The restaurant's "brawn," a British-inspired terrine made from the pickings of a stewed pig's head, is a wonderful grisly mosaic of crunchy, chewy, intensely flavorful pork parts suspended in herbaceous meat jelly. Not for everyone.

Less in-your-face, but with an equal flavor payoff, is Ricci's beef burger, which gets mixed with marjoram and shavings of frozen bone marrow, micro-planed into the meat like Parmesan cheese. It's clearly an inspiration borrowed from his time at Pub & Kitchen, which lately has taken to basting its burgers in "marrow butter." But it isn't the only wink.

There's a beer-brined chicken roasted with brussels sprouts and a hearty bed of barley kissed sweetly, and unexpectedly, with brown sugar and vanilla. A thick fillet of seared wild striped bass served over a yellow chile broth that snapped with briny sea beans and earthy maitake mushrooms was among the most ambitious entrées, and the most expensive, a modest $21 for a menu that hovers in the teens.

One P&K classic that flopped was the gnocchi Parisienne, usually delicate choux pastry dumplings that here were a big pile of mush tossed with hash of root vegetables.

All complaints evaporated, though, with three sweet words: sticky toffee pudding.

Yes, there was a perfectly fine chocolate bark with vanilla ice cream, and a semolina cake with tart raspberry preserves. But when my spoon sank into that warm hunk of caramel-soaked sherry date cake - crispy on the outside, moist in the middle, and a cool scoop of Franklin Fountain rum raisin melting into the flow - I knew I'd be willing to endure a bout of non-composter guilt again. I'd even eat collards with my burger. That's called sticky toffee sustainability.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Corner in Midtown Village. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|