Or in this case, a culinary one in South Philadelphia, where I tiptoed past neon eateries, tattoo shops, a blitz broken mirror art project, to meet a black tinted door in what looked like a restaurant shaped entirely like a box. Almost like a hidden secret. Having spent my youth in Philadelphia, the city’s evolving and shifting landscape always crept upon me like a secret. A secret I relived time and time again.
A foodie comrade from some of these years took me to South Philly’s homely escapes from the cosmopolitan, to Serpico. Obviously knowing me and my Michelin tastes well, this was a collaboration between James Beard Award-winning chef Peter Serpico of Momofuku, and Philadelphia‘s famed restaurateur Stephen Starr. With a long chalkboard for a menu, cozy booths with inventive bulb lighting and a bar table next to a stainless steel kitchen (where we sat), it was contemporary, cool and inviting.
The meat heavy menu left a few things for the vegetarian for me to nibble on, but was compensated for by the chef’s promise of double the trouble of sumptuous desserts. Clearly multiple desserts were trending, again and again and again, even in Philadelphia. And in retrospect, everything about Serpico went beyond architecture on a plate, but rather became a kaleidoscope on a plate.
I started with a remarkable cocktail which arrived with less liquid and more cubical ice, an ode to its innate strength. And strong it was: with Monte Alban Mezcal, smoked maple and mole bitters, this one tested my manhood with its boxing-fisted punch. After rubbing my eyes on first and second sip, I resorted to nibbling on the cheese flaked rice crackers as a snack break, broken up only by snippets of conversation.
I then got a colorful looking chilled soup with a vegetable broth that was as clear as the Greek oceans. As a reminder of my childish glee, I smiled ear to ear when the broth was poured table side.
The vegetables swam in the oceanic gold like a kaleidoscopic tale of adventure. Topped with fresh cucumber, yellow watermelon, Swiss cheese cubes and pea tendrils, it was a surprisingly flavorful bite, definitely not one expected from soup. The crunchiness and rawness of the vegetable and fruit married brilliantly with the sourness of the cheese, brought together by a tang of sweetness in the broth. The best part was a dehydrated spinach cube in the center, as a nod to healthiness.
My buddy ordered the signature scallop dish: raw scallops with buttermilk cream and chive oil with poppy seeds. Like visually spinning art and architecture on a plate, this one was a treat to the eyes.
I found the short dessert menu to be a promise of seasonally inventiveness, which got me excited to order two dishes to share.
The first was their signature, a toasted apple cake which arrived looking alarmingly like a British toffee pudding. Similar in tastes and aromas too, with a burnt apple sauce, brown butter, caramel and a scoop of classic vanilla ice cream. A spongy cake with a sour apple undertone, I liked the contrast with the cloying caramel and apple sauce combination that was reminiscent of toffee, licked most recently in Hollywood no less. With no salty escape except for a plain vanilla ice cream, this was one of those sweet ending desserts that left my tongue licking itself in satisfaction, but my mouth panting for digestive tea.
The second dessert was a goat cheese sorbet on a pistachio graham crumble, topped with fresh tart blueberries. Looking like a character from a Pixar movie with many globes and a stark color palette, it was visually stunning, owing to the spherical wholeness of the berries and ice cream scoops. The goat cheese ice cream was exactly as delicious as it sounded: salty and lacking sweetness but punchingly cold, it was the kind I could devour buckets of. With a penchant for pistachios off late, the crumble blended well with the ice cream and the fresh tartness of the berries, making this a perfectly refined dessert, lacking the sweetness that I often escape from.
As we sipped the last of our cocktails, still surviving off of the first one, whimsical conversations with hipster plaid waiters in swoonworthy mustaches reminded me of how much I loved this city.
And eventually, we made it out of the glorious box, having nibbled on a kaleidoscope of flavors, and watched them with stupor filled eyes.