Restaurant Review: Kensington Quarters

Kensington Quarters rewrites the meat-house rules.

Kensington Quarters | Photo by Michael Persico

Kensington Quarters | Photo by Michael Persico

You walk by Bryan Mayer’s butcher case at Kensington Quarters, and you develop certain expectations about what awaits you in the dining room. These deepen as you pass the meat locker, a sauna-paneled light box punctuated by widescreen windows framing floodlit views of hanging hog carcasses. By the time you reach your seat (the chairs face butcherblock tabletops anchored to honest-to-God I-beams), there’s just no two ways about it: You’re in for meat haunches so stupendous, they apparently require structural-grade steel to hold them up.

Only this warmly renovated Fishtown warehouse isn’t your father’s steakhouse. Indeed, Mayer and partners Jeniphur and Michael Pasquarello are aiming for something like its polar opposite. Not that they just want to feed you salad — though chef Damon Menapace turns thick winter carrots and half a dozen radish varieties into a vibrant one, mounded with Little Gem lettuce over a honeyed carrot puree. It’s more interesting than that. They’re committed to whole-animal butchery, and that’s simply incompatible with everything the American steakhouse is about.

So for all the things Kensington Quarters is—a retail butcher, an upstairs education space, a bar, a restaurant—it’s emphatically not a place that means to clobber you with a bone-in rib eye. After all, a cow yields only 16 to 18 rib eyes, which comprise a tiny fraction of its dressed weight. The only way to sustain rib eyes on a menu is to order them by the box, along with a few other cuts you prize, and forget about the rest.

Kensington Quarters, though, is an exercise in accounting for all the rest. Like Brooklyn’s Marlow & Sons, it embodies an old-world ethos that stokes Slow Food fantasies everywhere. When you start with animals raised humanely in local pastures, and force yourself to use every last ankle joint, you have no choice but to change the way you cook.

Which is one reason KQ is full of surprises.

One of the best is the balance Menapace strikes between proteins and everything else. I sat down expecting meat in a half dozen guises—and got it. But I rose from my final meal appreciating other elements as much or more: the spelt berries and root vegetable escabeche that harbored bacon lardons, svelte parsnip/Lanchego cheese ravioli, and my new favorite lasagna in town.

Sticky inside with shredded trotters and collards doused in piggy stock, that last was truly a stunner—at least, until I later discovered the chef’s identity. If anyone should be able to foil such hearty ingredients with delicate pasta sheets blistered to shattering crisps at their edges, it’s a Vetri group veteran like Menapace.

He’s also rising to the challenges posed by cuts that intimidate casual shoppers. His chicken heart and gizzard terrine (a complimentary amuse) would have been worth ordering in its own right.

But it’s not all offal, either. A fernet-spiked cured and smoked pork loin was too good not to order twice, and it’s hard to imagine anybody complaining about a plate of Mayer’s luscious pastrami twined around deepfried zeppoli, crimson sauerkraut and candied squash. A hunk of pork shoulder, treated with little more than salt, pepper and a night of smoke (yet so succulent I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been braised), testified to the quality of KQ’s animals (supplied primarily via Philly CowShare). Too bad the accompanying torta was rubbery and bland.

Not everything’s as good as it could be. Smoked sausages paired fine-ground boredom with ho-hum apple-butter mustard. No entrée cleared the bar raised high by Menapace’s shareable starters and vegetable/ starch sides. Desserts were a crapshoot. And a nifty tap list—beer and wine—outshone most of the cocktails.

Yet KQ is more than its bar and kitchen. The tri-tip and corned beef I took home from the butcher counter were phenomenal, and the lamb loin chops, from mildflavored Katahdin sheep, were quite good. For years, Philly’s best high-end butcher has also been its grumpiest. So Mayer, whose good-humored enthusiasm and background training other butchers bodes well for KQ’s classroom component, is a welcome alternative to (though certainly not a replacement for) the Italian Market’s Sonny D’Angelo.

As a matter of fact, “welcome alternative” is a fitting verdict for the whole enterprise. After all, any butcher can quote you a price on a T-bone. But Mayer is the rare one who’d rather quote Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Like I said, this isn’t your father’s steakhouse. And you know what? Another one of those is the last thing anybody needs.

2.5 Stars – Good to Excellent

Kensington Quarters [Foobooz]

Originally published in the March, 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine