440 South Broad Street
Two and a half stars.
Cuisine: New Americana.
Price: Four courses for $45, with
optional up-charges for some dishes.
Nothing sweetens the memory of hardship like getting $125,000 for your troubles. Especially when those troubles begin with concocting a Singapore Sling granita and end with a congratulatory embrace from supermodel-cum-cookbook-goddess Padma Lakshmi.
But not for Kevin Sbraga. The New Jersey native who triumphed on Top Chef’s seventh season still has one overriding recollection of his path to victory: “It was painful,” he says. “I did not have fun.”
But even if the show was the tightest wringer he’d ever been run through (which is really saying something for an erstwhile underling of Georges Perrier), it was also probably the only thing capable of putting Sbraga’s name on a restaurant marquee on Broad Street, where the star (and former Starr) chef began offering $45 four-course prix-fixe dinners in October.
Though Philadelphia is currently having a mid-range restaurant moment, there is still something a little suspicious about that price point—as if it’s been calibrated specifically to lure hordes of basic-cable subscribers into an HGTV vision of an urban farmhouse where the latest klieg-lit hot shot need only outperform the cooks working the Olive Garden pasta trench for as long as his dubious celebrity will cling to him.
That’s basically what I figured I was in for, anyway. But that cynicism vanished with my first sip of Sbraga’s foie gras soup, and hardly got another chance to rear its nasty head for as long as my first meal lasted.
Enriched (but not engorged) with cream, sweetened (but only by a whisper) with honey and brandy, exotically infused with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, then perfumed by crimson rose petals and vanilla-poached pears, the soup is a tour de force: an almost random-sounding hodgepodge of smells and flavors that Sbraga, with bracing self-confidence, coaxes into an uncannily delicious amalgam—and then makes unforgettable with an ingenious micro-dice of raw and pickled onions whose water-crisp crunch summons every taste bud to rapt attention. If you start with this dish, you’ll be tempted to instruct your server to substitute fresh bowls of it for every further course. And that instinct would not be completely wrong.
But hopefully your date will keep a cool enough head to let the arctic char make its way to your table. After a prolonged bath in smoked olive oil, the fillets are seared, crusted like an everything bagel (with dehydrated onions and garlic, plus poppy seeds), then pebbled with paddlefish caviar. Nor would you want to miss Sbraga’s take on a simple meatloaf, in which beef, pork and more foie are bound together not by breadcrumbs, but by a veal mousse that gives the five-ounce patty an almost-soufflé-like lightness beneath its smoky-sweet slick of bacon marmalade.
Yes, bacon marmalade.
Occasionally, this mode of earnestly retinkered Americana can feel constricting. On my second visit, an entrée-course riff on breakfast featured lamb belly over oatmeal, given obligatory heft by a sous-vide lamb chop that proved pink and tender but soul-suckingly juiceless. A fondue-like homage to crab-and-artichoke dip fell into the culinary no-man’s land separating country-club food from Velveeta. And let’s just pretend the falafel torpedoes that Sbraga soon yanked from the menu (recognizing them, apparently, for the dense turds they were) never existed. There are better ways to throw vegetarians a meatless bone. Over-cute missteps and fast-corrected blunders aside, Sbraga more often showed a rare ability to make the smallest detail stand out. His apple cider miso-glazed black cod was good enough to order twice even without the bok choy chip that shattered on the tongue like a brittle autumn leaf. Yet my most memorable bite of that dish was a forkful of bacon-y adzucki beans bearing a single cilantro leaf. It’s hard to say why—hard even to know why—but it was just so right.
And that feeling kept recurring. It was roused by a grilled green tomato slice redolent of wood smoke; by labneh ravioli whose mellow tang was the perfect bridge between pungent anchovies and squash cubes; by a fragile pastry stick that speared a warm chocolate mousse gently muddled with Grand Marnier ice cream; and by the judicious but unflinching use of jalapeño heat in unexpected places, such as in a cold eggplant terrine.
All of which stands as proof that in those moments when he darts out from the shadow of his over-thought meta-American concept, Sbraga can really shine.