The Revisit: Stateside

The folk of East Passyunk Avenue dwell within an embarrassment of restaurant riches, but when the weather’s as lovely as it was at the beginning of August, apparently only one bar will do. That’s what I couldn’t help thinking when I turned up at Stateside on an evening when its giant windows inhaled a mild breeze. Every indoor stool but one was occupied. The open-air counter facing Cross Street was full, and the sidewalk bar on Passyunk was three deep with what looked like the tail end of a Hugo Boss shoot.

When a stroke of luck swept me into a Steam Age swivel-mount seat on the Cross Street side, there was no denying that life was good.

Then the wait began.

The wait for a menu was easily conquered: there was a stack within arm’s reach, from which I served myself and a stranger who’d snagged another seat. But then there was the wait to order, the wait for a drink, the even longer wait to order a second… Suffice it to say that Stateside did not maximize the revenue it could have siphoned from me.

There was no blaming the bartender. How do you survey three bars for the raised eyebrows of a drink-seeker when you’re already shaking one cocktail in your left hand, another in your right, and using your forearm to modulate the flow of a stout from the nitro tap? You don’t. Not when you’re the only one back there—and you’re doing it all with a broken finger, to boot.

Eventually an admirably frothy whiskey sour landed in front of me, and life was good again. But as a succession of three dishes followed it—arriving in the reverse order of what I’d have expected (a not-quite-entrée of seared porgy slices and almost-crispy black trumpet mushrooms, then lobster salad in lettuce cups, and finally a palate-cleansing chilled watermelon soup)—it was hard not to wonder what exactly was going on. The food was good. My cocktail was good—though I didn’t have the heart to burden the bartender with shaking another. But what on earth was the management up to? Not properly staffing the joint, for starters.

Of course it’s been a while now since Stateside lost the staff member who put it on the map. I thought about that, too, as the syncopated beat of Lorde’s “Royals” pulsed over the bar chatter. Last year’s song of the summer came out the same month opening chef George Sabatino left—March 2013—and already it sounds so old! Philadelphia restaurants face the same brutal marketplace these days. Last year’s toughest reservation is this year’s half-forgotten curiosity on Pop-Up Video.

Stateside replaced Sabatino with Elijah Milligan, who was in turn replaced by Kevin D’Egidio late last year. A week after my hectic dinner at the bar I came back with my wife, who celebrated a memorable birthday here in Sabatino’s day. This time the crowd was thinner and the broken-fingered bartender had help. And though we didn’t have anything quite as stunning as Sabatino’s steak tartare, or as inventive as his asparagus three ways, D’Egidio shares his predecessor’s knack for going eclectic without going overboard.

We ate creamy grits with good shrimp and seared okra pods that still had some of their snap. Lean lamb hearts were the surprise hit of a dish that would have been a winner just on the basis of the rich neck meat taken off the bones, shredded, and formed into a medallion whose edges were finished off to a slight crisp. There was a fine salad of ripe heirloom tomatoes, studded with nigella seeds, garnished with a sprightly puree of favas and green tomatoes. D’Egidio’s bacon-flecked homemade fettuccini had a lot going for it—specifically, broccolini florets cooked in the manner of kale chips, so that they shattered into shards that functioned like breadcrumbs.

Imbalances cropped up in both the food and the drinks. Among two or three dishes, an octopus and pork belly plate stood out in this regard. I loved—absolutely loved—how the high-toned essence of tomatillos permeated the oil slick at the bottom of the bowl. But it couldn’t cut all the way through the caramelized hoisin lacquered too thickly on the proteins. A couple cocktails also needed tweaking. Our attentive server made that happen for an overly sweet Boulevardier, taking it back for some additional bitterness. But it seemed poor form to ask for another ounce of gin in the Pom Collins—a pomegranate spin on the Tom.

The Golden Axelrod, a sneakily boozy yet energetic blend of gin, rhubarb liqueur, Breckenridge amaro and sweet vermouth topped with champagne, was as perfect, in its own eclectic way, as the classic whiskey sour I’d had the week before. And this time the even pacing and proper staffing levels ensured that it arrived while there was still more food to come—unlike the off-dry Muller-Thurgau/Riesling/Gewurztraminer/Pinot Gris blend that ended up being an awkward digestif on my earlier visit.

When my colleague Victor Fiorillo checked out Stateside this past winter, he judged it “just another dimly lit bar with a big whiskey list and slow service.” I rolled snake eyes on the service front, too, before scoring a seven the second time around. And there’s no doubt that summer—even the waning weeks of the season—is a better time to be here. But there’s still more to Stateside than its big whiskey list.

Among other things, it still has the capacity to surprise. The best thing I had over the course of my two recent visits was a dessert to beat any that came my way in Stateside’s earlier eras. It was a thyme-perfumed blueberry pie whose minimal added sugar and a maximally crispy crust distinguished it as my favorite treat of the summer.

Which isn’t over just yet.

Stateside [f8b8z]