You know it’s a bad sign when a restaurant’s worst item offers its best food for thought.
Such was the case for the “cheesesteak soup dumplings” at Sophia’s when I reviewed it last month: a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dish that articulated a vision of Philadelphia cuisine so beholden to kitsch that it made me feel embarrassed for the city itself. It wasn’t just that the dumplings were soggy on the bottom and heat-hardened on the top, or that their parmesan crust made them more like sad nachos than a sandwich, or that the whole sorry show was staged on an escargot plate. It was more the idea that the cheesesteak itself remains the lodestone of Philadelphia’s food culture, and that we, as Philadelphians, can still be counted on to lap up any homage to it, no matter how forced or half-witted, as though the entire last decade of culinary development never happened. As though everything from Paesano’s to Vedge, Taquitos de Pueblo’s Headhouse Market truck to Little Baby Ice Cream, Stateside to Bluecoat gin just never saw the light of day in this city.
It’s easy to stumble on unfamiliar terrain, sure. So perhaps it’s no wonder that co-owner and chef-at-a-distance Chris Lee had such a hard time finding his footing at Sophia’s. Philly’s dining landscape has changed since the former Striped Bass chef left town in 2006—and nowhere more than on Passyunk Avenue.
And not to belabor a point, but those misguided dumplings also highlighted an underappreciated fact of the food world, which is how hard it is to make lowbrow food work in a highbrow setting. Lee has plenty of company on the wrong side of that line. Like whoever it was that came up with the lobster corn dog. Or any one of a thousand pastry chefs who’ve concocted peanut butter-and-jelly desserts that simply aren’t as satisfying as a PB&J pulled from a wax-paper bag. And even if you’re down with the increasingly dated idea of cheesesteak homages, Lee’s soup dumplings still run into the same problem that dogs tributes of all kinds: they just aren’t as good as the genuine article.
Which, in the case of the cheeseseak, isn’t even Philadelphia’s highest use of a hoagie roll to begin with.
That, of course, would be roast pork with provolone and broccoli rabe, which, believe it or not, is the subject of a tribute that actually delivers (along with an uncommon number of others), at a restaurant that seems to have really found its groove: Sbraga.
I hadn’t been since I’d reviewed it for Philly Mag’s February 2012 issue, when I’d enjoyed the Top Chef winner’s cooking but thought that his focus on rejiggering American classics occasionally constricted his creativity. So after being let down by Sophia’s, I went back to Sbraga, and what I found was that rarest of things: a restaurant that had markedly improved in almost every department, being run by a celebrity chef who was actually working in his own kitchen.
And man, was that kitchen cooking. Let’s jump right in with that roast pork—partly because I almost didn’t. I was wary, you see. Other entrees sounded more appealing and less likely to disappoint. But since those cheesesteak soup dumplings had been part of my reason for revisiting Sbraga in the first place, I felt obliged.
Nothing primes the happiness pump like low expectations, but Sbraga’s ode to roast pork will have to beat high ones from here on out, or this paragraph is a total failure. The pork was a Berkshire belly, topped with Italian sausage, topped with more belly—the layers stuck together with Activa meat glue and slow-roasted until all the belly fat had impregnated the meat and melted away, yielding a deceptively lean brick of mouthwatering deliciousness. The hoagie roll was recast as a savory provolone bread pudding, speckled with sesame seeds. The long hots were long hots—because listen, you’re not going to improve on those.
What more can I say about this entrée? Nothing, at least not out loud, or the drool on my tongue would short out my keyboard. But now I know two things: those cheesesteak soup dumplings had an upside after all, and the next time I have a roast pork sandwich, I’ll be measuring it against Kevin Sbraga’s pork pavé and bread pudding, not the other way around.
And there was more happiness in that particular stage of Sbraga’s $49 four-course fixed-price menu. My wife got a spring lamb dish featuring asparagus spears and ribbons, pearl onions, and a tangy yogurt sauce that sung purely of the season—not of any iconic American dish associated with spring, just spring itself. The shreds of lamb were crisp-edged but tender, the vegetables were no more or less than themselves, and the result was as outstanding as it was simple.
And the pleasure of a dish unconstrained by the compulsion to reference Americana at every turn was not isolated. As yummy as Sbraga’s meatloaf was back when the restaurant opened, I was moved more by dishes on this visit like octopus arms in an herbacious piri piri sauce—actually more like a chimichurri—that had one foot in Portugal; and gnocchi, escargots and slender beech mushrooms that found both excitement and harmony in the Thai aromatics of a Tom Ka soup sauce. The chef might be more likely to tweet about his Tennessee hot chicken, but his restaurant is about more than just Americana now.
But even when it is—like with a French onion dip that was unexpectedly copacetic with a quinoa-lightened, jalapeno-touched steak tartare (served with fried heart-of-palm chips!), Sbraga gets the lowbrow homage thing right. He’s not lazy about it. He doesn’t just throw taco fillings into a Doritos bag, or pickle watermelon in Kool-Aid and call it a day, as at the execrable Square Peg. Nor does he shoe-horn a cheesesteak into his menu just because, you know, cheesesteak. For the most part he picks his inspirations wisely, and manages to zero in on what actually makes them inspiring.
Sbraga has also matured into a place with uncommonly good service. Our waiter had the confidence to steer us away from some of our initial choices (a Pollock entree; that chicken), sometimes gently, sometimes firmly, but in every instance increasing our enjoyment. I doubt I would have picked the “roasted red pepper pineapple” for dessert without his reassurance, for instance, but it turned out to be the sleeper dish of the night. The pineapple, sous-vided with bell pepper juice, was scattered with baby shiso leaves and flanked by a pleasantly tart yogurt sorbet. Now I know what you’re thinking, because I just re-read that sentence, and it does not sound like what I want for dessert. But damn if my first thought wasn’t, “Who would have thought that red pepper is exactly what pineapple’s been missing all these years! And this herb, too!”
If you’ve thought you weren’t missing anything by letting Sbraga slip off your radar, it’s time to go back.