Twice in a Lifetime: Whetstone Tavern Reviewed
Jeremy Nolen—chef at Whetstone, the man behind Brauhaus and Wursthaus Schmitz, lonely local champion of modern German cuisine and a fella who knows an awful lot about tube-shaped meats—stopped by our table somewhere between the drinks arriving and the menus being taken away. He looked distracted, tired— sucking breath like a boxer in the third round suddenly realizing that the guy across the ring from him is more of a fighter than he’d expected.
He’d just come off a crushing brunch. I don’t remember the number of covers exactly, but it was big. Then he’d rolled right into an early dinner hit, the room filling, emptying, filling again. He looked around while we talked about business, the neighborhood, kids and clam cakes—his eyes bouncing over the polished dark wood, the coolness of the mint walls, the multicolored glass set into the faux windows that separate the bar from the dining room—and there was still a touch of wonder there. A chuckling David Byrne amazement: How did I get here? and My God, what have I done?
Because Nolen–he’s been here before. As a younger cook, when this space, right at the headwaters of Passyunk Avenue, was called Coquette. It’s a good location that’s had some bad ideas born in it (Adsum), bright with windows now, alive on its corner. And Nolen, talking, says “neighborhood restaurant” over and over again. A place for the neighbors. Someplace for the neighbors to eat.
Those, of course, are the magic words. Because Whetstone isn’t any kind of sequel to the Teutonic heaviness of the Schmitzes, but is instead a looping-back. A return. Like what Marcie Turney and Val Safran are doing at Bud & Marilyn’s across town, Whetstone is memoir-as-menu—from Nolen’s mom’s clam cakes and his dad’s Caesar salad recipe to the sense that sometimes the best and most noble thing a restaurant can do is plant its flag, look around, and ask what the people here want to eat.
They want chicken wings with bourbon-spiked hot sauce, some oysters, and bowls of marinated olives at the bar. They want deviled ham done as an admirable rillette, with good mustard and some charred bread to spread it on. They want a beautifully curated charcuterie and cheese selection for when they’re feeling fancy (Spanish lardo, Italian coppa, Benton’s ham and cheeses from Vermont, Veneto and Auvergne) and pork rinds with Cholula for when they’re not.
Nolen’s got all that locked down. There’s nothing fussy about his food here. Nothing contrived. He talks a lot about his dad, Ron Nolen, who was a chef in Reading; who taught his son that flavor matters first, most, and that no amount of work done with tweezers on the pass is ever going to make up for a dish that tastes like shit or ego or nothing at all. Whetstone is like a shrine to that notion. The house that Ron built.
The Passyunk Pork is a deconstructed roast pork sandwich—a 10-ounce bone-in chop mounted across a sharp provolone polenta with broccoli rabe, pan-roasted and garlicky and scattered with crispy little bits of pork cracklins. It’s a large serving, and I don’t finish mine (which probably freaked Nolen right the hell out), but that’s because I’m also working through an order of clam cakes (which were too bready, and stingy in their ratio of clams to everything else), and stealing bites of the rabbit tetrazzini from across the table. It was salty (meaning too salty) and rich, meaty with its sherry cream sauce, beech mushrooms and shreds of braised rabbit, all over hand-cut pappardelle noodles, which, in so many other places, are like class projects from some remedial pasta-making program for idiots, but here are light and springy and perfect for carrying the heavy freight of everything else in the bowl.
None of it is inspired. All of it is good. Which, to hear Nolen tell it, is the point. He’s cooking for the neighbors here—to provide dinners and brunches and bar snacks to people who walk here from their homes, filling a hole in the neighborhood scene that no prix-fixe or tasting menu ever could.
And his father, I think, would be nothing but proud.
Two Stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood.
Whetstone Tavern [Foobooz]