You know those people who go to new restaurants purely to order the same dish they order everywhere else? Because the “litmus test” of a good place is how well it makes a roasted chicken—or guacamole, or steak frites, or chocolate mousse, or whatever that person has arbitrarily determined to be the whole point of eating out?
It’s a dwindling species these days. Fewer and fewer chefs want to cook what the other guy’s cooking; straight-up comparisons are harder to find. And I’ve never counted myself part of that tribe anyway. Meals out are too ripe with potential adventure to waste them looking for litmus tests.
But there’s no need to be dogmatic about it, so today I’m going to nominate one anyway: stuffed squid.
I know, I know...a hundred red-faced people out there just woke up their neighbors shouting, “No! The real test is fried calamari, you jackass!”
But that’s just because none of them has tasted what Jon Nodler is doing with the stuffed squid at A.Kitchen.
First we need to back up a quick minute, though. A.Kitchen opened three years ago under chef Bryan Sikora, of Talula’s Table fame, and became an unofficial hub of the Rittenhouse power crowd in the space of about two minutes. The food was good, and the wine list was Philly’s first real salvo in the counterrevolution against the Parker Supremacy, but the restaurant as a whole had a strange personality deficit. There was plenty to like, but somehow it added up to less than the sum of its parts.
One of the things Sikora cooked—before owner David Fields let him go in 2013—was stuffed squid. They were little buggers, stuffed with chorizo. I remember thinking that they were perfectly fine, but that’s about it. To be honest, what stuck in my mind most was the image of my companion sort of poking at them, with a little bit of a frown.
Well, Fields went out looking for new leadership, and scored the hottest chef in town: Eli Kulp, who has driven Ellen Yin’s Fork and High Street on Market to the heights of city dining. Kulp’s new menu for A.Kitchen debuted in March. And Nodler, a transplant from Minneapolis who helped Chris Kearse open Will before working his way through the ranks at Fork and High Street, was absolutely crushing it when I went for dinner not long after.
Start with the stuffed squid. (Actually, start with the fried pickled green Basque peppers. Their translucent tempura shells shatter to reveal a bracing duel between the chilies’ cool brininess and their slowly mounting heat—the tortoise that wins the race.) But order the squid before that, right when you sit down, just to make sure that they don’t run out while the bartender whips your Clover Club to a foamy crest.
Nodler packs his little squid until it seems like one more grain of rice would rupture them. Swollen with pork shoulder and ’njuda (a sort of fatty, fermented, soft salami spiced with Calabrian chilies) made from Mangalitsa hogs—whose fat Ruth Reichl once called “the single best pastry fat I’ve ever found”—the white tubes look absolutely taut. You fear that the prick of your fork or the stroke of your knife will send everything flying in a spring-loaded snap of rubbery squid tissue. But then it slices like a warm butter stick: the braised tube meat almost impossibly tender, the stuffing a sausage held together by its own richness, and the rest of plate awash in a pool of cilantro sauce as bright green as an algae bloom, patrolled by a squadron of tiny tentacles.
If there’s ever been a dish that said This restaurant knows what it’s doing, A.Kitchen’s stuffed squid is it. And better yet, that litmus test was a sign of almost everything else to come (or that already had), at this thoroughly revitalized place.
Uni rice cakes, draped with smoked pork jowl sliced so thin it looks like rose-colored Saran Wrap, are another must-have dish. The cakes—little dominoes of overcooked Arborio and wild rice deep-fried to crisp the edges around a soft chewy center—made the most out of the wild rice’s earthy wholesomeness, and that translucently thin pork jowl accented the sea urchin without overwhelming it. There’s a well-executed beef tartare, dressed down with seriously crispy potato skins. An iron-rich salad of duck hearts, hazelnuts and exquisite baby kale fronds was tarted up with a rhubarb vinaigrette that might just change my whole approach to farmers’ markets this spring.
A charcoal grill serves as the center of gravity of Kulp’s new menu. From it came a superlatively crisp-skinned duck breast slathered with XO sauce and charred radishes, which was impossible not to like, and a butterflied whole ocean perch, which was impossible not to admire. The fish had been cooked on its skin and was presented like a book splayed face-down: the crispy skin being the cover, and the pages the pin-boned filets. I wish it had been yanked from the grates a minute earlier, though; the collar meat was perfectly done, but the filet portions had seized up a little in the dry heat. They weren’t quite rubbery, just not perfect.
And yet, that was pretty much the only thing that wasn’t. The compelling wine list still bears the fingerprints of Tim Kweeder—who is now offering some of the same bottles by the glass across town at Petruce et al. A.Kitchen’s attentive servers pour them in 3- and 5-ounce portions, and each time started me off with a taste. This remains one of the best restaurants in town to acquaint yourself with food-friendly wines. A food menu that sang of spring had ample vinous company to match that fresh energy—in reds as well as whites: try the Knauss Trollinger, a German red as vivacious as dry rosé; or the feminine Malbec from the Loire Valley’s Domaine de la Pepiere.
And speaking of litmus tests, make sure to finish with the chocolate mousse. A hint of juniper gives the chocolate a peppy buoyancy, and minted whipped cream doubles the refreshment.
Spring has finally come to Philadelphia, and Yin and Kulp have come to A.Kitchen. Winter-beaten Philly foodies may have a hard time deciding which development to celebrate more.