The Revisit: Serpico
There’s only so much a clean bathroom can tell you about a restaurant, but every now and then they speak volumes.
To face the poster of Olivia Newton-John wearing her “Physical” gear in the Juniper Commons men’s room is to know, conclusively, that there’s no escaping the 1980s there. The inexplicably unflattering powder-room lighting at the late, unlamented Avance — which had inherited perfectly good illumination from Le Bec-Fin — encapsulated the misguided priorities that sank the place. Even the community chalkboards lining Crow & The Pitcher’s facilities testify to that restaurant’s yearning to be adopted by a neighborhood that’s never really rallied behind a tenant at that address. (And where else but Miami Beach could have a setup like this?)
But for my money, the tiny restroom at Serpico beats them all. There’s not much too it, really. Just wallpaper. But it’s perfect: a vast expanse of your grandmother’s porcelain china — white plates and bowls adorned with blue lambs and flowers — lying chipped and shattered in a heap of shards that rises up to the ceiling.
Now that’s a bathroom that tells you where you aren’t. You aren’t in a theme park. You aren’t going to be soaping up beside bluebloods in blue blazers. You aren’t in a place where people come to see and be seen. You’re in an eater’s lair. You’re the guest of a chef who’s scrutinized every element of restaurant dining, tossed plenty of them onto the scrap heap, but hasn’t lost sight of how every great meal ought to end: in a pile of empty plates, their contents demolished by people who’ve come for the cooking above all else.
And you really are Peter Serpico’s guest.
I hadn’t been back to Serpico in the year-and-a-half since I first reviewed it. In that time Marc Vetri’s group has opened three new places, Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook have opened four, and Jose Garces has added six. Meanwhile, Serpico is still drizzling chive oil on caper-brined trout filets and wiping the stainless steel counters in his open kitchen, laser-like in his quiet focus until someone catches his attention from the dark wooden bar at the prep counter’s rim, whereupon he opens up to volunteer anything you could possibly want to know, right down to the temperature of his sous-vide short ribs bath.
That would be 59 degrees Celsius, for 48 hours, followed by a charring session on a gas grill to crisp up the shreds. The result — doused with with jalapeno mayo and tucked into a warm, knotted roll — was a pit beef sandwich whose deep flavor and textural diversity had my companion (nickname: Meat) pronouncing it the gold standard of any sandwich built around animal flesh.
Serpico retains the choose-your-own-adventure ethos that distinguished it from the get-go. Our meal began with a deceptively simple salad of Boston lettuce fronds cupping mint leaves and pickled shallots, arranged over a bright green tarragon dressing that had the thickness of a puree. The dressing’s combined with the mint to produce a dreamy suggestion of Vietnam, only one where the pungency of Thai basil had been swapped out for the subtler anise inflection of tarragon. Dinner ended with a blockbuster kimchi stew. A broad bowl positively crammed with squid and mussels got extra depth from shreds of pork shoulder that seemed almost to have melted into the thick, sweet, spicy, orange-accented soup. The only knock on it was that it landed between place settings still occupied by slow-roasted venison resting atop a subtle mélange of radishes and pomelo supremes melded together with a French-style shallot butter—a dish that grew on me with each bite, but simply couldn’t compete with the fermented funkiness of the steam rising off that kimchi.
In a way, that epitomized a meal in which virtually everything that came our way was not only very different from everything else, but so exquisitely conceived and prepared that you simply hated to divide your attention between any two at once. But that’s a problem most chefs would kill for, and it’s not that hard to navigate. I wish our server, who was attentive but never intrusive, could have shaved a few minutes off our wait for cocktails and injected them back later to create a little transition space.
Nevertheless, if the worst consequence is getting distracted from Serpico’s profoundly ugly but utterly bewitching long-hot ramen a little too soon, I’ll take it. Coated in a layer of nori powder that looked like menacing blanket of dark green volcano ash, that noodle bowl tasted like sushi one bite, South Philly the next, and packed a cargo of leafy greens that scratched all my winter itches.