Restaurant chefs sure ain’t what they used to be.
Once they were stalwarts who manned the stoves in obscurity, if not outright anonymity, cooking for customers who expected a restaurant’s personality to come from somewhere else: a gregarious owner, a schmoozing maître d’, a head waiter who knew the table you wanted and the drink you always wanted on it.
Now they want to be the center of the show, these chefs today. They cook for creative fulfillment, for celebrity, for adoration. Sure, they cook for customers, too. But only as a means to an end: an invitation to Top Chef, a book deal, a restaurant empire of their own.
At least that’s what everybody says.
And I guess everybody’s right, as far as it goes. But that doesn’t change the fact that obscurity is still the baseline condition under which most chefs labor, whether they like it or not. And that goes double for chefs who inherit a kitchen from someone else. Because for every Eli Kulp—who took over Fork in its fifteenth year and became a household name among Philly gourmands—there are a hundred guys like Justin Swain, who came into the head cooking job at Rex 1516 with a charge to more or less stay the course.
“As a young chef taking over for an already reviewed spot,” he remarked during a recent online chat with the Inky’s Craig Laban, City Paper’s Adam Erace and me, “I find myself asking how do you each decide to re-review a place? I’m eager for my chance to shine but hold onto the hope that I won’t be overlooked because a previous chef already got his.”
It’s a good question. Because the most obvious answer—“Do something daring and risky to get attention”—is anathema to the owner of any place that’s been making money. And unfortunately, the wiser choice (i.e., improve around the edges to keep a good thing going) is hardly bait for critics who are forever playing catch-up to new restaurants—more than 30 of which have opened in the Philly area in the last four months.
But a chef like Swain can get one thing on his side, and it’s the one that matters most: word of mouth. Luck helps too. A combination of the two led me back to Rex 1516—a couple weeks before that online chat, as it happens.
Word of mouth cuts both ways. Not long ago, my neighbors went on a date to Rex 1516, had a great time, and enthusiastically described their meal—which sounded much like the Southern comfort cooking I’d had back when it opened. Not too surprising, given that Swain has worked there since the beginning, starting out as a line cook and eventually taking over about two years ago. But still, what I mainly heard, through my neighbors’ praise, was: “No pressing reason to go back.”
There’s no accounting for luck, though, which struck in the form of a brunch opening for four people who had just struck out on their Plan A. Swain’s Croque Madame didn’t quite clear the bar his old boss Regis Jansen set with his Monte Cristo, but for me that’s a little like comparing baked turkey to fried chicken. The sandwiches just weren’t created equal. And Swain more than made up for that menu swap-out with an exquisitely cooked burger, plus two more plates that exemplified everything you could ever want out of brunch as long as healthfulness isn’t one of them.
One was the bananas foster French toast, made with banana bread so rich and moist and decadent that it reminded me just a little (heresy alert) of the pumpkin-bread foie gras preparation at Bibou. But even better are the huevos rancheros, which feature two improvements to the standard version that make it, hands down, my favorite in town. For one, it’s a vehicle for Swain’s crawfish-forward etouffee. For another, he deep fries the corn tortillas, which will make you wonder why anyone would ever do otherwise.
The drink menu brought me back for dinner. I’m not much on liquor before noon, but I really wanted to try bartender (and general manager) Heather Rodkey’s “High Tea,” a milky gin cocktail touched with smoky Lapsang Souchong and orange-blossom water.
I hope it won’t sound too harsh to say that it gave me everything I could possibly want from a cocktail except the desire to drink another. The layered flavors seemed to come in waves: first the sweetened milk, whose foam bubbles popped around a star anise pod; then the slight smokiness of the tea; and last, an herbal slick of gin that awakened and cleansed the palate. It was like someone had taken my memory of the oversweet chai young boys once sold in Indian train carriages—in terra cotta cups that passengers routinely threw out the window, dashing them first into fragments and ultimately to dust—chilled it, and stiffened it the way an English officer might have done during the Raj. If only the cocktail could have conjured up that memory without all the sugar that helped spark it.
Dinner at Rex 1516 is not for calorie counters. Fried Cape May oysters, too big for one bite, come on a mass of cheddar- and bacon-fortified grits that must have killed a hundred appetites for dessert right at the get-go, including mine. A $13 skillet crammed with shrimp, clams, mussels, and andouille sausage was filled halfway with broth and the rest of the way with melted butter. It’s an appetizer that all but screams, “Get one entrée to share.” And here’s what that entrée should be: the smoked pork cheek Swain recently added to the menu.
The pork cheek, braised in barbecue sauce after its cherry- and apple-wood smoke bath, is tender and sweet. And the “crispy collards” on top are a pleasantly chewy (if rather oily) spin on the now-ubiquitous kale chips. (Deep-fried Brussels sprouts, a different side dish, were just too salty and too damn fried.)
But what cemented my appreciation for Swain’s cooking was the Hoppin’ John substrate beneath those pork cheek hunks. He uses Carolina Gold rice for his, and cooks it perfectly al dente. One of these days, when heirloom rice gains the cachet of heirloom tomatoes, that sentence will spring people into table-reserving action.
So should you revisit Rex 1516? Sure. I’m glad I did, especially for brunch. It’s a solid, affordable neighborhood spot with style to burn—especially if you dig Basin Street jazz and old movies, which are always on in the background. Are you going to find anything radically new or unexpected in Swain’s cooking? No, not really. But the way I see it, that’s to his credit, not his detriment.
Chefs are all kinds of things these days. Some are anonymous laborers. Some are full-blown celebrities. And some are good stewards of restaurants that deserve one—which is more than ample cause for our appreciation, and our gratitude.
Rex 1516 [f8b8z]