In the annals of faint praise, neighborhood restaurant is a peculiar epithet. People usually apply it to the places that make them feel most welcome. Yet it’s a dismissive classification—not just because it implies that a place merits only limited attention, but because it suggests that one neighborhood restaurant is more or less interchangeable with any other. Warm hospitality, a menu that’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, consistent cooking, and bang—your Brewerytown pals are all, “Why can’t somebody open a place like this by us?”
Nobody would ask that about Society Hill Society, because Reed Barrow has remade the old Artful Dodger into a public house that looks like pints have been sliding across its hammered copper bar since the first bricks were laid on Headhouse Square (and only lately, eclectic cocktails). Locally crafted spindle chairs and coarse-grained chestnut soak up the warm light of yellow globe fixtures on patched plaster ceilings. The upper bar shelves hold objects so random, it seems they must have taken decades to accrue. Is that a femur wedged in next to the ship captain’s hat?
Chef Yun Fuentes tunes his cooking to the surroundings, tapping Pennsylvania’s culinary heritage to turn out a middling chicken and waffles that evokes potpie, better croquettes that do the same, and (winning this particular round) bourbon-apple-butter-stuffed doughnuts that stand to be the champion dessert of autumn. A nifty spread of bar snacks includes deviled egg yolks set in whites stained crimson with beet pickling liquid, and toasts heaped with pickled white asparagus spears pressed into a creamy homemade “egg cheese” that’s one of Fuentes’s best old-cookbook finds.
My favorite entrée in the PA Dutch mode was a schnitz un knepp variation centered on pork belly brined in a citrus-and-clove-spiked apple cider whose bright flavor—and radish-and-apple salad accompaniment—was pitch-perfect for a late summer that felt like fall.
But for Fuentes, heritage can also mean paying tribute to our Polish and Ukrainian communities via pierogi and deeply caramelized onion jam—or cooking in the modern mode that will be our own legacy. Which brings us to my favorite summer meal. Fuentes used a Betty Groff chilled peach bisque recipe as license to gussy up his girlfriend’s peach gazpacho with goat-cheese marbles (made with sodium alginate). Then he covered an olive-oil-poached fluke fillet with zucchini “scales” and set it on an island of sweet corn surrounded by corn nage.
If Society Hill Society lasts as long as it fools you into thinking it already has, it’ll be in no small part because of dishes like those.
Two and a half stars – Good to Excellent
Society Hill Society [Foobooz]