Saturday night at Stateside, and a music stoppage would strand a dozen people without chairs. That’s a lot of extra bodies for a 40-seat space, and truth be told, their voices drown out the soundtrack anyway. Yet the clamor of this six-month-old street-corner spot doesn’t feel constricting at all. Wrap-around windows turn Passyunk Avenue’s “Singing Fountain” into an expansive backdrop for a bar frontage that tapers like the prow of a ship—an impression that’s underscored by an easy conviviality and light fixtures that could have been ripped off a tug.
You never know what to expect from a whiskey joint that hums like this. George Sabatino can tell you as much. Stateside’s chef worked his way through some “really bad bar kitchens” before falling in with Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran at Lolita seven years ago.
But now you bite into asparagus ribbons stained with pickle juice redolent of sunshine on a Florida orange. Next you’re spooning up a quail-egg-crowned tartare of top sirloin and filet tails strewn with hazelnuts. Then you feel droplets of house-made chili oil tingle your tongue amidst the refreshing springtime coolness of a lightly creamed pea soup pooled around crab lumps tinged with jalapeño, and any worry you had is replaced by a growing certainty that nothing can possibly go wrong, because the line cooks are absolutely crushing it.
That’s where Sabatino is usually to be found—working the hot line or steering cold dishes through the basement garde-manger station in Stateside’s split-level kitchen. The cramped quarters impede neither the breadth nor the execution of his offerings. His white asparagus flan is emblematic. Extending from a bed of baby Swiss chard leaves like a mislaid piano key, the cool flan was one of three asparagus variations: Shaved green spears and pickled white ones flesh out the salad, along with hearts of palm, which appear in another guise as a foamy puree cut with cream. Octopus pressure-cooked with red wine and citrus came dressed with lemon and orange zest, green chili, and slivers of house-cured pig jowls. Sabatino’s minutely wrought and finely balanced flavors bear witness to his growth as Barbuzzo’s chef de cuisine (and to Turney’s salutary influence on Philly’s food scene).
A weekday evening brought lesser pleasures, but pleasures nonetheless: minted peas that sang of spring; cauliflower popping with pine nuts and capers; a bone-marrow-and-truffle sausage with liquefied parsley, tarragon and spinach to cut through its richness. The smoked chocolate tart on a puff of house-made marshmallow is something to rally behind.
And so is Stateside. Even if it takes sipping through two fingers of bourbon to get a seat.