Adsum’s Wild Week(s)

Even at the very beginning of this story, something seemed…off.

It started back in July with the announcement that Matt Levin, chef and owner (along with partner Kar Vivekanathan) of Adsum, was going to be stepping back from the stoves. This was at toward the end of the month, and word on the street was that Levin was easing his way out in order to focus on some new project he had his eye on. There were promises that he was still going to be involved in the restaurant–that he was still going to be kicking around the joint and acting as an “inspiration” for the kitchen–but not, you know…cooking anymore.

A couple days after that, there was another announcement. Levin had named his sous chef, Rah Shabazz, as his successor and chef de cuisine. This seemed like a wise move: Shabazz had been there since day one, working alongside Levin, and was a man who understood the sometimes bizarre notions that whipped through the Adsum kitchen. You know, like making Tastykake sliders or doing a dinner based around the much-maligned 4 Loko. Shabazz got it, in other words. And even though his style was not quite so extreme as Levin’s, he vowed to maintain some of that spirit of weirdness that had animated Adsum under Levin. He worked up a new menu. He did tastings for the staff and for Vivekanathan. Everything seemed to be progressing smoothly.

Then, last Monday, the news broke that Shabazz had quit–walking out over conceptual differences with his new boss. And it wasn’t just Shabazz, either. His sous, Mark Regan, walked out with him. And suddenly, the Adsum team was three men down in a week.

Since then, the position has been filled. Vivekanathan brought in Matthew Harnett from Hop Angel Brauhaus, and Harnett already has a new menu in place–a very basic board of fried oysters, tuna tartare, mussels in white wine broth, hanger steak with frites, a cheeseburger and ricotta beignets. Matter of fact, less a couple salads, that’s most of the new menu right there.

I talked with Shabazz this afternoon, trying to get some sense of how everything went down. And he explained that his disagreement with Vivekanathan was a fundamental one: over the nature of what it means to be a restaurant in this city, at this time.

He explained that he’s been tasked with making a lighter menu, one that fell within the bounds of a reasonable food cost while still offering lower prices for the customers. All reasonable requests. And according to Shabazz, he did that. But it wasn’t enough, apparently, because Vivekanathan had “a different idea of where he wanted the restaurant to go.”

That, of course, is the polite answer. The less polite one came a couple minutes later when I asked Shabazz for specifics. “He [Vivekanathan] wanted to downgrade us to the point where we were like everywhere else,” Shabazz explained. “Like a [T.G.I.] Friday’s or something. But I have integrity. I have pride. And I couldn’t do that, so I left.”

So here’s what bothers me about this whole story. While I understand Vivekanathan’s desire to have a menu at his restaurant which will satisfy the maximum amount of customers (thereby making him the maximum amount of money), and while I certainly understand Shabazz and Regan’s need to walk out under these circumstances, this is really a question of what a restaurant is supposed to be in an economic climate where every operator is scrambling for every last nickel they can get. Is a restaurant there purely to serve the customer exactly what they want and what they’re comfortable with (like every Olive Garden, Applebee’s and T.G.I. Frday’s on earth), or does a restaurant bear some responsibility to educate, enlighten and surprise its best, most engaged customers?

More to the point, is a Tastykake slider (or a 4 Loko dinner or a “Super Poutine”) ever anything but a gimmick?

I say yes. I say that every city needs a few high-flying weirdos and damn fools to subvert the paradigms and upend the expectations of diners; to save them from what can eventually become a rather grim progression of tuna tartare, hamachi crudo, goat cheese salads, short ribs with farm-to-table whatevers on the side and chocolate lava cake, served night after night at hundreds of fine restaurants around town.

I’m not saying that Philly needs an Alinea of its own. Four months into this gig and I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that that shit would never fly among the moneyed Rittenhouse park-strollers or blue-collar neighborhood crowds. But what this city–what any serious food city–needs is a couple of restaurants with chefs animated by that same rebel spirit. Chefs willing to take a few chances, to stretch the boundaries of the possible, and to have a little fun with their food.

Levin, for a time, was that guy. And it’s not like he didn’t bring down a rain of love for doing so (witness: Serious Eats, Chowhound, Huffington Post, Slashfood, Eater, et cetera). But now that he and his loyalists are out and looking for work (Shabazz told me he’s already been talking with folks from the Starr organization, which was where he spent years before signing on with Levin at Adsum), who else is there to blaze the fresh trails and prove that a thick steak, a roasted chicken or a pan-seared bit of fish are not the only dinner options on the table?

Adsum Review [Philadelphia magazine]

Adsum [Official website]