a.Kitchen Brings Soulful Market Fare to AKA Rittenhouse Square
by kristin detterline-munro
The restaurant’s minimalist design conveys its unpretentious, casual feel.
It’s easy to forget that a.kitchen is a hotel restaurant. There are no vaulted ceilings, no starched table linens, no vested servers, those clearly marked clues that signal a traditional hotel dining experience. Gleaming hardwood floors and three-tiered cheese carts are also noticeably absent. Even the restaurant’s name, a nod to its proprietor, AKA Rittenhouse Square, the upscale extended-stay digs favored by visiting celebrities, is subtle enough not to immediately tip off diners that the two are affiliated. Coincidence? Hardly.
|The relaxed atmosphere belies a rich culinary experience.|
“Although a.kitchen is a hotel restaurant, we wanted it to feel like a neighborhood restaurant,” says general manager Larry Morris. “Not pretentious, with a casual feel, and menus that are appealing to everyone.” Luckily, such a democratic approach to the mood and the food does nothing to underscore the wholly different culinary experience that a.kitchen has brought to Philadelphia.
Debuting last June, the Center City concept, open seven days a week from as early as 7 am, has garnered rave reviews for both its minimalist atmosphere of pale-blond oak, glass light fixtures, and marble anywhere worth resting a dish upon—a vision brought to life by a.kitchen creator (and Salt alum) David Fields—and a European small-plates menu by lauded chef Bryan Sikora, who famously put Django and Talula’s Table on the national culinary map. Despite the growing wait for weekend reservations (currently clocking in at around two weeks) and setting the Philly food blogs ablaze with accolades, Sikora is decidedly relaxed.
|Varied preparations of octopus regularly engage and delight dinner guests.|
This isn’t his first rodeo, after all. “This is a great fit for me,” says Sikora. “I’ve always been into a European style of cooking.” It is nearly lunchtime on a chilly Thursday in January and the dining room has suddenly filled up, a phenomenon not lost on the chef as he watches the comings and goings of the room in a mirror’s reflection. “All of the success really comes from allowing customers to learn about you and listening to them. We have a good clientele.” At that he pauses, having just spotted Charlotte Calmels, one half of the husband-wife team that owns Bibou. “We also have a lot of restaurant people come in,” he adds.
Beyond the culinary crowd, a.kitchen has played host to many local athletes: former Sixers star Charles Barkley, Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee, and Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. And it’s quickly become a coveted reservation for power lunching, where the likes of lawyer Michael Medway and Comcast’s David Cohen are known to talk shop not just over sandwiches but Sikora’s rotating lineup of seasonal dishes, a carefully plotted array of vegetable, fish, and meat courses.
Many of these are offered at dinner, too, with favorites like chorizo meatballs, a changing preparation of octopus (on this day, it’s smoked with curried lentils, cauliflower, and Clementine) and homemade pastas, from a simple spaghetti dish to duck with wild mushrooms and butternut squash. Explains Sikora: “Dinner is more creatively driven, and guests create a tasting menu for themselves.”
|Charles Barkley is among some of the notable locals who dine at a.kitchen|
With a.kitchen really hitting its stride—as Sikora says, “We have a good foundation based on a concept. There’s a soulful balance of structure that gives us our food style”—the chef is considering new ways to excite and engage his guests. He mentions theme dinners inspired by one main ingredient, like pig or lamb. Such novel opportunities for curious palates to “learn something,” Sikora notes, are not common here, although they are popular in Europe. The drinks program also promises an education, featuring hard-to-find wines with an old-world focus (some available in Pennsylvania for the first time, says Morris) and European-style bottled beers.
For now, those curated menus will have to wait. Sikora is on his way to the kitchen, greeting Calmels and other guests in the busy dining room. 135 S. 18th St., 215-825-7030.
photography by andrew kahl
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREW KAHL (SANDWICH, SIKORA); GETTY IMAGES (BARKLEY)