Back to the Future: Aldine Revisited
I have never before been stricken speechless by beets, but I was at Aldine. Big beets—chunks of them cut like kebab meat, that require days of preparation (marination, dehydration, poaching, having bedtime stories read to them, whatever) to give them the texture of rare steak. Beets that taste of pickle-y bitterness and garlic and a lingering, building chili heat. They came on a plate as beautiful as all the plates at Aldine, a shallow bowl in which they sat clustered together, punctuated by razor-thin slices of radish and a smear of sour yogurt and curled puffs of beet chips that I would’ve gladly eaten from a bag while sitting on my couch.
I had no idea what would arrive when I ordered the beets. But at the first bursting taste of the acidity and heat and soft, almost creamy texture, my eyes went wide and something in my head short-circuited and I was there—at Aldine, present in the moment, thinking of nothing but the plate in front of me. It’s the effect, I think, that George Sabatino wants everyone to feel when tasting his food—the high bar he has set. The one that, early on, he failed to clear with remarkable consistency.
This story began more than a year ago, in October of 2014. Opening night for George and Jennifer Sabatino’s restaurant, Aldine.
I don’t remember a lot about that night, but I remember some. A room empty of anyone but a profusion of staff. Muddy cocktails. Carrots so inedible I had to hide them in my napkin just so it looked like I’d eaten, you know, something. And a menu that was nearly incomprehensible in its homage to the minimalism of Grant Achatz—dishes whose descriptions ran like halibut : beetroot : yogurt : roe, or sunchoke soup : apple : chips : ash.
There were bright spots, sure, but the problem was, this was George-effing-Sabatino in the kitchen, the golden boy of East Passyunk Avenue, and it should have all been bright spots.
Some history: There was a moment in Philly (somewhere around 2013) when George was the champ—best chef in the city running the best restaurant in the city (Stateside), at a moment when restaurants like Stateside (cool, casual and modern, with a serious bar and lots of pickles) were reaching the apex of their post-gastropub popularity. He was just this skinny tattooed kid cooking his ass off on the line every night, but he came with a wild talent and a nimble mind that saw flavor and texture combinations like no one else around. At Stateside, he was shaping the future direction of Philadelphia’s cuisine.
And then he left. Bailed out for a summer gig working the beer-drunk crowds at Morgan’s Pier and the promise of a restaurant of his own on the horizon.
Aldine was that restaurant. But there were epic delays—equipment problems, money problems, court dates, a stop-work order. Opening took so long that George had to release his first crew to get other jobs while they waited for Aldine to pick a date. And at some point during all this, there was a research trip to California during which the Sabatinos (recently married, still trying to get a handle on this thing they were trying to create) maxed out a credit card tearing through Michelin-starred restaurants like they were trying to win a bet. George came back with stars in his eyes and ideas about side-by-side tasting menus and the kind of food that only works when you’ve got a million dollars in the bank and movie stars in the dining room.
It didn’t work. There was so much promise there, but not all of it was being fulfilled. Sparks of brilliance were muffled beneath artifice that didn’t always serve the diner. Over the course of a year, Aldine’s menus evolved from à la carte to tasting and then back to à la carte. The seasons flickered by, marked by whole hogs and hazelnuts, blood orange and kumquat. Aldine was finding its way, but slowly. In the early weeks of December, I decided it was time to check back in and see how things were going.
So then, those beets—first course on a menu that has abandoned organized tastings (again) and organization by primary ingredient (vegetable, meat, seafood) for a simple three-act structure: first course, second, then third.
I eat the way the menu demands, and the beets are amazing. And then, because I’m a sadist (and because I have to, bad memories be damned), I choose the carrots for my second course. George has changed their presentation, their prep, their accompaniments. This time around, the elements are baby carrots whiskery from the dirt, sour cherry, slivered almonds, leaves of micro sorrel, and a cumin and corriander aioli. Everything is arranged in a circle—a fairy ring of vegetables and foliage, beautifully composed.
George might understand the layering of flavors better than any chef in the city, so in order to get the most out of his plates, everything has to be eaten together. If you eat out of order or in imperfect bites, everything goes wrong. The carrot alone (cooked sous vide, with burnt orange and earthy spices) is boring—just a carrot, barely cooked, still as hard and fibrous as nature intended. Eat a cherry with some aioli, a couple almonds, a flurry of chopped mint and parsely and chive? Kinda gross.
But when you get it right—a little bit of everything meticulously piled onto the fork—it is amazing. Everything comes together, the tastes and textures elevating and complementing each other so that the crunch of the almonds makes the stiffness of the carrots seem less bothersome and the juicy sourness of the cherries combines with the creamy nuttiness of the aioli to wrap everything in a smooth jacket of strong flavors that make you forget how dull, thick and stupid carrots are all by their lonesome. I don’t love the plate at all, but there’s a brilliant cohesion to it. Inasmuch as any plate of food can, it makes sense.
George has more potential for greatness than almost any chef I’ve ever met. He does revolutionary things, it sometimes seems, without even thinking about them. And there are moments when tasting one of his plates is like a glimpse into the future—not just of Philly’s cuisine, but of American cuisine. The thing that will come after New American cuisine. New New American. Post-New American. Whatever.
His stuffed quail gives me one of those moments.
Quail is ridiculous. No one but idiots and Frenchmen put quail on a menu. The yield is too low for the effort involved, and most people won’t order it anyway because who goes to dinner and says, You know what I want to eat tonight? A really small bird. Worse, there are a million ways to do quail wrong and only one way to do it right. George found that one way.
One tiny little bird, cured with nutmeg and coriander and Middle Eastern spices, its minuscule legs folded, sitting behind a berm of royal trumpet mushrooms and pickled grapes, a puddle of black pepper caramel sauce on the other side. The mushrooms (scored, seared, cut thick) are grilled and taste like steak. The grapes, cut in half, pop like candy between the teeth. Cut open the quail and out spills dirty rice, rich with chicken liver mousse, like the world’s smallest piñata. Take one of the four bites of meat you can get out of a roasted quail, drag it through that caramel sauce, and you taste the full sum of Aldine’s brilliance. Perfect technique, counterintuitive flavors, surprise combinations.
“It has heart and represents who we are,” Jennifer told me about Aldine at one year old. “That’s what it was always supposed to be. It took George cooking on the line every night and me working behind the bar to get us to this point, but here we are. Almost one year in, and somehow, by pure stubbornness and will, we are still open.”
Which is a miracle by some measures. Proof, maybe, of Philadelphia’s growing tolerance for dinners satiating hungers that are more than purely physical. But whatever the reason, I’m glad Aldine made it this far. I’ve often said that all young chefs need to fail once, hugely and publicly, or they never really grow up. If the core of their talent is never challenged, they’ll never be forced to think deeply about what they do, and why.
I don’t think Aldine is yet entirely the restaurant it wants to be (or needs to be), but it’s closer today than it was a year ago, approaching by inches some convergence point between Michelin and Passyunk.
3 stars – Come from anywhere in the region.