The first meal I ever ate in Philadelphia taught me a lesson that I probably could have gleaned, at deep discount, from the dietary journals of Mohandas Gandhi: Social activism is a poor indicator of good cooking. It was at the White Dog Cafe in the 21st year of Judy Wicks’s reign as the gustatory conscience of West Philly, and the only thing sadder than my ham-handed fish fillet was the fact that I’d abandoned the culinary utopia of northern California to get it.
But the worst part was that I required a second session for the lesson to sink in — during which a sinewy piece of flavorless strip steak got lodged in my esophagus for half an hour. “Attention!” I tried to shout. “Does anyone here have an endoscope? Or a toilet snake?!”
So it was a touchy situation, walking into the White Dog’s new outpost in Wayne. It and the West Philly flagship now belong to Marty Grims, of Moshulu fame, but there’s no escaping the restaurant’s pedigree — not when Grims had to sign a “social contract” as part Wicks’s terms of sale.
And not when there are this many dogs peering from every picture frame, shelf and tabletop in the new location’s magnificent interior. From the muscular timbers lining the barroom ceiling, to the lustrous wood paneling in the “library” — where open books hang whimsically from the ceiling — to the bright colors in the rear dining room, the space is as lushly furnished as a country club. But, my lord, the hounds! There are dogs rendered in oil, ink, pencil, pastel. A statue of a dog playing the violin. Topiary dogs. Photos of a dog wearing a football helmet, a dog on skis, a dog held aloft by multicolored balloons. I kept expecting to spot a live Saint Bernard toting barrel kegs to and from the bar.
But there are no actual dogs here — and more importantly, not many figurative ones on the menu, either. Chef Zach Grainda, who, after Grims took over, cooked for nine months at the West Philly location aside chef Eric Yost, is turning out tastier dishes than those I fell victim to years ago.
His sherry-kissed mushroom soup varies along with the yield in Kennett Square (though he also sources fungus from further afield), but in December its intense aroma took me deeper into the woods than I manage to get with hiking boots. January brought a special of exceptionally tender lamb chops over celery root puree, topped with sweet braised cabbage and tart wedges of pineapple quince. Perfectly cooked lamb sliders — like the chops, courtesy of Lancaster’s Meadow Run farm — popped with olives, tzatziki, and microgreens that did as much for the tongue as the eye. The quail egg topping a mound of beef tartare should have been runnier, but the meat was tender and terrific, its faintly mineral profile complemented by the musty funk of purple mustard painted across the plate. A well-balanced apple brioche bread pudding rode atop a thick swell of vanilla-spiked whipped cream — packed into a glass jar in a portion big enough for two. And in cold weather, a hot toddy with farm-fresh apple cider is not to be missed.
Not every dish and drink was a winner. A lunchtime pulled pork sandwich was oversweet, as were brussels sprouts slathered with maple syrup. A sea bass fillet came with flavorless shrimp, but not the advertised chorizo, which it needed. Specialty cocktails cater almost exclusively to sweet tooths, and the uninspired, overpriced wine list is depressingly heavy on mega producers.
But there were many pleasant surprises, from the olive-oil-poached tomatoes crowning a deeply flavorful Duroc pork chop to the deep-fried polenta croutons whose warmth added dimension to a cool salad of Lancaster beets.
Such successes are partly due to a supplier review occasioned by the owner-
ship change. According to Grainda, there’s a reason I didn’t need a gastroenterologist after eating the steak this time: Appalled by the quality offered by White Dog’s original source, he sought grass-fed beef elsewhere — locally when possible, but as far away as Montana, too. Half the restaurant’s suppliers are still the same ones listed in the old White Dog cookbook, he says. But that means half aren’t. That fact may disappoint those who value a particular formulation of “responsible business practices” — to lift a phrase from White Dog’s old website—but it can be good news for eaters. (Though it’s not a guarantee, as demonstrated by those shrimp from Vietnam — an iffy proposition both environmentally and flavor-wise.)
There’s no doubt the White Dog lost some of the countercultural cred for which its early years were celebrated. And the vibe in Wayne is more Merion Cricket Club than Chefs for Social Justice. But the cooking trumps either of those concerns. I’m even beginning to think that it’s time to give the original location another shot.