We were in the Philadelphia area visiting family for Thanksgiving, and since we needed a break from the traditional Thanksgiving turkey and assorted sides, we took advantage by having dinner at Serpico. Serpico, from James Beard Award-winning chef Peter Serpico and acclaimed restauranteur Stephen Starr, is located on a gritty two block stretch of South Street. Inside however, the space is full of handsome dark woods and has a completely open kitchen, full of buzzing cooks.
If you have been reading this blog, you may know that we are big fans of the Philadelphia dining scene. In fact, the Monday before our trip, I received in the mail Craig Le Ban’s Ultimate Dining Guide which I read cover to cover in anticipation. Craig Le Ban, by the way, is the widely respected long-time Philadelphia Inquirer food critic and I was excited to check out another one of his favorites. It also gave us a chance to have a meal with my Mom and Grandmother, neither whom we had seen in some time.
Confit carrot in butter foam with crispy phyllo, ginger sauce and thyme is a stunner. You will want to cut a slice of tender root vegetable and scoop up as much foam as possible, the experience bringing back memories of buttered popcorn at the movies. Expertly crafted cocktails include a classic white negroni as well as walnut-infused mezcal with manzanilla sherry, smoked maple and mole bitters.
A beet and goat cheese salad with pistachio, kohlrabi and thai basil showcases winter’s fruits and vegetables and is a beauty of a presentation, the best of the night. After these two dishes, though, it would have been nice to get new plates. I understand that restaurants do not have unlimited resources but this is a high-end restaurant and I didn’t want to eat the rest of my meal on a blood orange stained plate.
Spicy rice cakes, accurately described by the server as being similar to gnocchi, are enveloped in a sauce of XO, gochujang, white sesame and scallion. The texture from the rice flour makes the cakes gummy and chewy and we enjoyed every bite. The sauce was a huge hit at our table—my grandmother actually scooped up spoonfuls of sauce long after the rice cakes were gone.
The slow poached halibut with charred cabbage, pistachios and raisins gets its “skin” from a light breading and a quick detour to the frying pan, the real skin having been removed. Olives can sometimes be overpowering, but the green olive sauce shows that the kitchen understands this and correctly gives them a supporting role to the halibut.
A seafood stew with mussels, scallops, charred brussels sprouts and butternut squash in a tomato dashi has pleasantly chewy clams and squid and showcases more of winter’s harvest. But at a restaurant where food is meant to be shared, it would have made sense to give everyone bowls instead of plates for the broth. Eating soup from a bowl was futile and I just gave up trying to enjoy the broth.
We finished the meal with tender slices of short rib in a glaze of whole grain mustard with grilled broccoli and fried potatoes. I did not think much of this dish initially, but in the last few days since our meal I’ve had the taste and texture of the short rib on my mind. It’s actually become the second most memorable dish of the meal, after the spicy rice cakes. If you can get past the location, and really, it is not that bad…Serpico is well worth a trip. And if you enjoy good food, get the spicy rice cakes.
Paul and Marnay: Spicy rice cakes
Serpico: 604 South Street Philadelphia, PA 19147
Closest Public Transit: Lombard South Broad Street Line Station