Creative riffs on classic American dishes are dominating menus across Philadelphia. Here, five top chefs talk about their signature plates.
Jon Nodler: a.kitchen+bar
This chic American bistro off of Rittenhouse Square excels not only in the kind of steakhouse flavors found in its steak tartare, but in crudos, salads, and charcoal-grilled game and fish, such as the grilled octopus with winter greens.
“This is our nod to classic steakhouse flavors,” says chef Jon Nodler of the steak tartare, his signature starter at the polished a.kitchen+bar (135 S. 18th St., 215-825-7030). It starts with grass-fed tri-tip steak from Happy Valley Meat, which Nodler sears directly on blazing hardwood charcoal sourced from the forests of western Pennsylvania. Diced and glossed in a gherkin vinaigrette (made with red wine vinegar, dry-aged beef fat, and first-press sunflower oil from Nodler’s native Wisconsin), the beef sits astride comets of béarnaise aioli greened with chive and tarragon. Shuttle a bit of beef and sauce onto puffed fried potato skins, pop it in your mouth, and let the umami cascade wash over you—a steak dinner in miniature.
Jonathan Petruce: Petruce et al.
Jonathan (ABOVE) and Justin Petruce have created a rustic menu broken down into small, medium, and large plates, with almost every item, from breads to roasted meats, emerging from their seven foot wood-fired hearth and grill.
Though Italian in origin, lasagna long ago crossed over onto the American dinner table, a fact underscored nowhere better than wood-oven eatery Petruce et al. (1121 Walnut St., 267-225-8232). In the moody blue restaurant, Poconos-bred brothers Justin and Jonathan Petruce re-create a recipe from their father’s Italian coworker. “[She] came for Thanksgiving one year and brought a lasagna that she made,” Jonathan remembers. “It was the best we ever had.” The secret is the nutmeg-scented béchamel that hides between the sheets of pasta in lieu of the usual ricotta. Blanketed in tomato sauce and baked until the edges are crispy and brown, the lasagna arrives in a smoking-hot cast-iron pan. The server will warn you to give it a minute before diving in. The advice is impossible to follow.
Sam Mink: Oyster House
The soul of Oyster House is in its name: the exceptional raw bar, offering 10 rotating oyster and clam varieties. However, the last few years have revealed another specialty: the perfect-to-share clambake for two.
The iconic Oyster House (1516 Sansom St., 215-567-7683) has been in business since 1947 (though originally as Kelly’s on Mole Street), but it wasn’t until the founder’s grandson, Sam Mink, took over in 2009 that the now famous clambake appeared on the menu. Served family style, this Philly take on a New England tradition combines lobsters, shellfish, house-made sausages, potatoes, and corn in the summer or kale in the winter. “We’re not a fancy restaurant, so with a clambake you’re going to get your hands dirty,” says Mink. “You’re playing with your food and having a good time.”
Erin O’Shea: Percy Street Barbecue
At perpetually packed Percy Street Barbecue (900 South St., 215-625-8510), you can get your brisket sliced with sides or layered in a sandwich, but as chef Erin O’Shea points out, “If you have a group, the best way to experience the unique profile of this cut is to order [it] whole.” That’s right, 10 pounds of pure Creekstone Farms beef—“nothing else compares in terms of flavor”—brined for 36 hours in a caraway-and-all-spice-scented solution, then smoked for eight hours in the barbecue. “The whole-brisket service is unique in that it changes as you get through it, from the burnt ends to the fatty moist meat, and you really understand what an interesting cut it is to cook and eat.”
Scott Calhoun: Lo Spiedo
Just can’t help himself: Marc Vetri adds a touch of Italian—a cinnamon semifreddo—to Lo Spiedo’s proudly American apple pie.
The scoop of cinnamon semifreddo, melting slowly over the oven-burnished crust, is the only Italian concession in the resolutely red, white, and blue apple pie at Marc Vetri’s Navy Yard spit-house, Lo Spiedo (4503 S. Broad St., 215-282-3184). “In keeping with the style of the menu, we wanted to stick to a classic dessert that is approachable to everyone, simple and rustic,” explains chef Scott Calhoun. Approachable, simple, and rustic though it may be, this pie is also the best you’ll find in town, prepared with shaved heirloom apples, a spice trader’s haul of cinnamon, and flaky pastry baked chewy and caramelized in the corners of the cast-iron pan in which it’s served.