135 South 18th Street
Cuisine: Seasonal not-quite-small plates.
Dish prices: $8 to $19.
Two stars and a half stars.
Four stars signifies an "extraordinary" restaurant, three stars is "excellent," two stars is "good," one star is "fair" and no stars is "poor."
It’s the season of plenty. The pulse of the city runs up 18th Street from Rittenhouse Square. Half a block from the chessboard sharps, Bryan Sikora presides over an open kitchen whose white marble bar counter gleams like an altar stone. He’s the closest thing Philadelphia chefdom has to a prodigal son.
The wizard of Django (and ex-husband of Aimee Olexy) hasn’t headlined a city restaurant since the couple decamped to Kennett Square in 2005, selling their celebrated Society Hill BYOB to start the still-more-celebrated Talula’s Table. Olexy has just orchestrated her own return, bringing the Talula’s brand into Stephen Starr’s empire amidst a wave of publicity tall enough to topple every mom-and-pop farm stand from here to Lancaster County. If ever there was a moment for a chef to let his ego-flag fly, surely Sikora is smack in the middle of it.
But sitting at the chef’s bar at A.Kitchen, you’re liable to feel you’ve turned your back on the real action. Maybe tonight it’s Cliff Lee behind you in the dining room, weighing a rib-eye skewer against sausage-stuffed quail. Maybe it’s someone else. From power forwards (Charles Barkley, party of seven) to power brokers (David L. Cohen, party of four), the AKA Hotel’s sleek restaurant was a scene the instant it opened in late June.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding the fact that every open kitchen is also a stage, Sikora seems to be striving to be the center of no one’s attention. The servers don’t recite his “philosophy.” The menus don’t even carry his name. Sikora and his line cooks simply assemble A.Kitchen’s dishes—bigger than appetizers, smaller than entrées—and fade into the buzz. There is warm house-made burrata with English peas and candied lemon, under slivers of watermelon radish that complement the creamy mozzarella with their water-stiff crunch. Sugar beets and bitter broccoli rabe line up next to a tangy smear of cow-and-sheep yogurt and a sweet slick of salt-spangled honey. Gnocchi and home-smoked haddock (Sikora likes his personal grill set-up) form a monochromatic nest for sautéed summer squash.
It’s much the same seasonally driven local fare that everyone likes to trumpet these days. Except Sikora and his partner, restaurateur David Fields, have crammed a mute over the end of their horn. The “country-in-the-city” vibe currently ascendant in Philly—nowhere more than at Talula’s Garden—irks both men. “I was like, why do we have to go this way?” Sikora says. “I mean, I stop at produce stands in the country and bring it in, so it’s farm-to-table—but I don’t have to write it on the walls.”
This is part of the reactionary spirit running through A.Kitchen. The restaurant doesn’t want to be about its chef. It doesn’t want to be about its farm suppliers. It doesn’t want to mount a Starr-esque show.
What it mainly wants (or seems to want) is for its food and drink to speak for themselves—though even there, with a voice as quiet as the restaurant is loud. Sikora’s cooking is skillful, from the minimalism of a scallop crudo simply dressed with a red-wine mustard, to more involved preparations like calamari stuffed with (if a bit overwhelmed by) house-made chorizo. Vegetables and fish outshone meat dishes in the summer, when Spain and Italy were the kitchen’s lodestars. The “forest-driven cuisines of Eastern Europe” are on Sikora’s agenda for the fall.
Fields’s food-friendly wine program is one of the most compelling debuts in recent memory, both in terms of producers and pricing. More than half his bottles have heretofore been unregistered in Pennsylvania; most come from vintners who focus on natural production methods, and finesse rather than power.
Yet for a restaurant born of a contrarian temperament, A.Kitchen has a curious attitude problem: namely, that it doesn’t have much attitude. The not-quite-small plates don’t easily cohere into a meal that’s more than the sum of its parts. Some are hard to share. Others make strange bedfellows. And though the last thing this city needs is another restaurant with an insipid Alice Waters quote emblazoned on its walls, A.Kitchen’s blank-faced interior reads less like a rebuke to that gauzy agrarian fantasy than like a bland corporate template for AKA Hotels’ expansion plans.
Then again, maybe it’s a blank template for a city that’s become confident enough in its tastes to have outgrown the need for restaurant stagecraft and spectacle. “It’s for the culture of Rittenhouse, and the city,” Sikora says. “There’s nothing really to buy into.”
To its credit or not, that is a goal this restaurant perfectly achieves.