I’m not sure whether it was the plain brick façade along Philadelphia’s buzzing South Street that made us walk on past Serpico. We had a reservation, we had an idea of its whereabouts, but thanks to its understated exterior, we missed it completely. South Street is all about inexpensive restaurants, neon take away’s, tattoo parlours and shops. Not fine restaurants such as this.
These guys haven’t even been open a year yet they seem to be sending ripples through Philly’s food scene. The chef is Peter Serpico, ex Momofuku Ko and the digs are pretty damn easy on the eye. Well-spaced tables, cosy booths and a wrap-around kitchen counter for those of us that like to watch the chefs create their dishes in quiet, orchestrated precision. And then there’s the service. Attentive, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable. Ask them a question about any dishes components and they’ll confidently rattle off an explanation.
The menu can be seen scribed in chalk up on the black walls, but it’s printed on paper as well. And you can see. Restaurants these days seem to think it’s ok to dim the lights to virtual darkness. Not here at Serpico. So no squinting to see the person opposite you, or any need to bring out the iPhone torch to read the menu. Food this fabulous needs to be seen, as well. So let the eating begin.
Following some complimentary house-made rice cakes with sesame, it’s straight into something that you won’t see on the average menu. Sliced country time farm pig head (8). Curious? What we have is the removed face of a pig, it’s skinned, rolled and put in a warm sous vide bath. It’s served thinly sliced with a slightly bitter burnt onion mustard and crunchy nubs of freshwater chestnuts. Some of you may be squirming, but think of it as ham.
The marinated clams (15) is all about the soft textures. Raw seafood fans can rejoice with a medley of oysters and razor clams, strong with oceanic flavours. Seaweed, chive-infused olive oil, lemon juice and fennel fronds add varying flavour layers, but I was wanting an element that had more of a crunch. Maybe even some thinly shaved fennel.
There’s a bit of a play between a hot dog and a pork bun with the deep-fried duck leg (13). Served in a toasted potato roll, the duck is juicily coupled with cucumber, scallion, hoisin and some pickled vegetables. So delicious that a repeat order was contemplated.
The next dish stopped us in our tracks. Egg custard & caviar (25). It’s very much like the Japanese chawanmushi; a silky, sexy and warm savoury custard studded with cauliflower mushroom (white fungus) and crispy potato. A final decadent flourish of brown butter and Siberian sturgeon caviar crown the custard.
The humble ravioli meets the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch classic in Cope’s corn ravioli (15). The dried sweet corn is ground and rehydrated for the creamy filling, sauced up with sour cream, chorizo, white cheese, pickled and roasted onion and shavings of palm heart.
Of all the fabulous dishes we’d tried, it was the duck breast (21) that was the least arousing. With so much creativity and excitement, it was as if the duck was served last to bring us back to reality. Perfectly cooked with honey, a couple of unpeeled yellow carrots, coriander, malt vinegar and jolting discs of pickled radish.
Desserts cranked it up somewhat with this tasty little number. Yuzu curd (8) topped with lemon foam and fried rosemary leaves. It’s served with sugared camomile crackers. I guess you tackle it any way you wish; whether it’s by eating them separately or spooning the foam onto the crackers. Whatever the approach, it’s a good way to get your dose of sugars.
I couldn’t help myself with the foie gras (16) dessert. It may look like a pile of granules, but what we have is frozen green grapes, elderflower jelly and candied peanuts. Then there’s the powdered foie gras. It’s created by freezing regular foie gras which is spun in a pacojet to remove any air. Then it’s broken into tiny granules. You take a spoonful, and as soon as it hits your mouth it warms and softens; a reminder of why some of us love foie gras in the first place. Sensational ending to a fabulous meal.