Restaurant Review: Adsum

A neighborhood bistro prefers over-the-top indulgences to simpler fare

Belly to the cold prep station and back to the kitchen, chef Matt Levin presides over Adsum like a man bent on embodying the Latin translation of his restaurant’s name: “I am here.” He’s whispering distance from the garde manger, a raised eyebrow from the bartenders, close enough to the service station to hold court. Three steps over the black-and-white floor tiles are enough to place him in the center of his dining room, where other Philly chefs have come to pay tribute.

Take the sous-chef from the Garces empire, who arrived one night with a malady that called for poutine. The Quebecois french-fry specialty is not for the fainthearted. Levin, most recently executive chef at Lacroix, soaks press-cut potatoes for two days in a succession of water baths. Starches flushed out, the fats sweep in — the spuds are then blanched in oil and deep-fried in duck fat. As in Canada, the fries are topped with meat gravy and cheese curds. But that’s still not enough. Following in the footsteps of Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, Levin crowns this gut-buster with foie gras gravy and a pan-seared slice of foie gras.

[sidebar]After polishing it off, the Garces man found the only fitting compliment for this gastronomic grenade. “He came up to me,” Levin recalls, “and said, ‘The poutine was so good that I want to get drunk. So drunk that I can have another.’”

A bong hit may be more conducive to such an attempt, and not just for the poutine. Adsum’s fried pierogies, swimming in smoked buttermilk, are even more outrageously delicious — and just plain outrageous. Finish the oversize foursome served, bafflingly, as an unaccompanied entrée, and you can only hope darkness conceals your carbo-fat stupor from street thugs as you stagger home. The man who pairs that dish with an appetizer of Green Goddess-slathered tater tots — dense interiors reminiscent of unusually moist latke, topped with glistening dewdrops of jellified whiskey — will know the wages of gluttony well before confronting a dessert pitch for ricotta-stuffed doughnut holes.  

The menu goes on like this. Prodigiously fatty pork belly served with pepperoni and black beans. Bone marrow. Fried pork rinds. Short ribs plated with mussels, not a green thing in sight. Adsum bills itself as a “refined neighborhood bistro,” but its menu reads like a catalog of calorie-bomb pick-me-ups for overworked, under-exercised chefs. In one of the meals I ate here, four people ordered nine unique dishes and only encountered a single green vegetable: Bibb lettuce. It was excellent lettuce, crisp, dressed with sesame, and tossed with another rarity at Adsum (even on the summer dessert list): fruit, a few slices of Asian pear in this case. But why, in the name of late summer’s bounty, was it the sole exception to what verged on a vendetta against the vegetable kingdom?

A subsequent outing brought a few more: hot-and-sweet stewed collards beneath fried chicken whose crust crunch was almost spookily long-lasting; a miserly scattering of segmented asparagus upon the rich gouda sauce skirting a striped bass filet; the odd leaf as a garnish. But if you aren’t careful here, the only green thing you get could be the dill sprig floating in the Logical Consequence — a refreshing mixture of gin, tea, honey, lime and absinthe that’s one of several splendidly conceived specialty cocktails by APO veteran Preston Eckman. 

Does it matter? Levin’s kitchen turns out sumptuous fare. And there’s nothing like Adsum’s backdrop of Erlenmeyer beakers and antiquarian books — flanked by a wall-size photo of the Wagner Institute’s lecture hall — to give indulgence a patina of intellectualism. As the autumn harvest fades, gooey tater tots and batter-fried sweetbreads may well start to sound like the surest way to survive winter. Especially if those luscious, ancho-dusted sweet-cheese doughnut holes stay put.

But I would have enjoyed my meals here far better if Levin offered more safe harbors from the barrage of butter and animal fats. The two in which I did find cover were marvels of delicious simplicity. A roasted black sea bass, its sweet flesh jacketed in skin as crispy as the accompanying confetti of puffed wild rice, was hands-down the best whole fish I’ve eaten in Philadelphia. And Adsum’s green-vegetable deficit was ameliorated by an ambrosial bowl of heirloom beefsteaks raised in a 120-plant Kennett Square garden by some sort of tomato whisperer. 

If you ignore a disappointing appetizer that married flaccid squid and underripe peaches, there’s no reason to doubt Levin’s ability to provide more light counterpoints to his heavy blockbusters. 

I wish he would. A gong struck once rivets the attention; banged every downbeat, it deafens the ears. So it is with stomach and tongue. As a fatty snack with an excellent cocktail, Adsum’s indulgent specialties might knock you out. But a whole meal of them is liable to put you down for the count.