The Heart and the Head: Buckminster’s Reviewed
It was the bologna that threw me.
I mean, really, it was everything. But it was the bologna most of all, because I loved the bologna at Buckminster’s—thick-cut quarters of Ely Farm honey bologna, stiff as salami, delicately sweet, tasting precisely nothing like anything you’re thinking of when you think of bologna—and I truly, honestly believe that everyone in the city who loves food and gives even a passing damn for locality and the bounty of this region ought to go there and eat it right now. It was far and away the best bologna I’ve ever had in my life (a life dedicated, more or less, to finding best things and loudly telling people about them), and like all best things, it’s worth going out of your way for.
Buckminster’s is owner Mike Pasquarello’s new restaurant at 21st and Federal in Point Breeze, and it was freezing the night I showed up. Bone-breaking cold, with a wind that made refugees out of anyone who found their way inside—wide-eyed and blowing out shocked breaths as though they’d really survived something in making a two-block shuffle-sprint from wherever they’d come from. The woman working the bar had a triage face while she did her chores—glancing up at new arrivals, assessing their level of trauma, and finding the proper entry point for them into the short, uneven cocktail menu.
When Buckminster’s was initially announced, it was going to be a cube-shaped restaurant named for the man who (among other things) popularized the geodesic dome. Pasquarello called it a “neo-bistro” (a perfectly semantically null description). He said it would offer “refreshed bistro cuisine” (though not French food) and got a chef in Rob Marzinsky, fresh off tours at Pub & Kitchen and Fitler Dining Room and just back from a trip through Asia that Pasquarello claimed was going to be informing the way Marzinsky assembled the menu. Which, obviously, is why his first swing at it included stuffed cabbage, chicken marsala and pierogi.
The bar was good, though—with a long row of taps pouring a rotating list of beers and wines, plus a six-entry cocktail list that was a little bit daring (a gin flip, a vegan flip, and a cocktail of bourbon, orange and anise that came together better than I thought it would). Sure the house gin and tonic was terrible (made with citrus-and-lavender-infused gin and a house-made tonic, the whole thing tasting like your mom’s decorative soaps smell), but the Palmer’s Lament (rye, black tea, honey, lemon) was gorgeous and smooth and felt like winter armor in a glass.
But then there was that menu. The space. I sat down at the bar on that very cold evening, and my first thought was, Gee, this place will be really nice when they finish the interior. Except that it’d been open since November. Gee, this menu could be really good if the kitchen ever figures out exactly what kind of restaurant it’s cooking for. Except that Marzinsky had been on the line for months (with pop-ups and test dinners before that) and had already been through multiple menu changes (RIP pierogi), meaning this was the refined version.
And yet it made no sense. There were oysters presented three different ways, Good’s potato chips right out of the bag, chicken liver mousse, and charred squid with espelette pepper set over a fennel and apple salad. There is no burger on the menu, no easily accessible sandwich, nothing that’s particularly comforting or welcoming on paper. No one in his right mind has ever said, “Hey, let’s go grab a beer and a bowl of beet and apple soup” on a cold day, but Pasquarello and Marzinsky must have thought people would, because why else would they have created this restaurant? This menu?
(That soup, by the way, is amazing—warming and rich, spiked with kvass, dotted with tiny little balls of pickled apple, and set with a dollop of cultured cream that twines like marbled fat through the red soup when stirred.)
There’s this thing I say a lot when I’m talking about reviewing restaurants—about what I’m thinking when I’m sitting there like King Dick passing judgment on people who work a lot harder than I do to make a living. “Look,” I say. “I don’t care if a restaurant sits me on an old peach crate in an alley. If they serve me great food, I’m going to tell people to go there.” And I mean that.
I mean it because I’ve done that. I’ve written about restaurants operating out of people’s living rooms. About illegal backwoods BBQ pits and creepy Russian bars where if you didn’t govorit enough po-russki they’d just tell you to fuck off and go home. And I’ve told people to go to those places.
But I’ve also trashed joints for their terrible service or awful spaces, so to say that the food is the only thing that matters to me is provably untrue. I care about service. I care about the chairs. I care (deeply and passionately) about bars with hooks beneath them where you can hang your coat or bag. It’s just that I care less about all those things put together than I do about the food in front of me.
At Buckminster’s, the bologna comes on a plain white plate. It’s sliced, then each slice is quartered, and the quarters are kind of loosely stacked on the plate with a smear of beer mustard glopped onto one side. It looks, more than anything, like the kind of plate your grandmother might compose for you if you came over for a visit. Like the kind of plate you’d make for yourself during the commercial break of a 3 a.m. Welcome Back, Kotter marathon. It is absolutely one of the ugliest plates being put out by any restaurant in Philly that knows better. But what’s on it (the bologna, which Buckminster’s had no hand in making, which Marzinsky and his crew only order, cut, and stack so haphazardly) is remarkable, so I don’t care. The ugliness only makes me like it more, because, seriously, would a sweet spoon-drag through that mustard improve the plate in any real way? No, it would not.
But it still bothers me, because Buckminster’s has some glaring flaws. It’s not a comfortable place to hang out. The interior design is just pale green walls with some odd geometric designs painted on them (in honor, one assumes, of the namesake), riveted metal, random wood paneling. The rattling bar stools feel cheap. The whole place seems unfinished, like a work-in-progress. And the menu put together by Marzinsky makes no rational sense beyond Here’s a bunch of things that I think taste good so please eat them now.
My head says screw this place. It fails on virtually every standard to which modern restaurants ought to be held. It’s ugly, weird, cold, confusing and unapproachable. The menu changes so frequently that there’s no way for regulars to settle on some dependable dish they love, and the space doesn’t have enough personality to make it a draw on its own. It’s either a fancy restaurant masquerading (badly) as a neighborhood bistro, or a neighborhood bistro pretending (cheaply) to be a fancy restaurant.
But in my heart, I know I’m going back, because Buckminster’s succeeds in the one category that matters most: the food. Everything on the menu (literally, everything) is twice as good as it ought to be and way smarter than it has any reason to be. And even just sitting here now, I want to go back. I want more of the massaman curry (because yeah, there’s curry here, too, and a whole curry menu on Sunday nights), with its smoky spice, big chunks of sweet potatoes, sweet cubes of pickled pear and soft Carolina Gold rice. I want to try the buttermilk-fried parsnip with horseradish that I didn’t notice before, and the roasted mushrooms in soy milk that sounded too ridiculous even to order; to have another plate of spelt gnocchi with tomatoes and razor-thin onions, all of it tasting of heat and char and vegetable sweetness, and more of that beet soup because those little pickled apple balls have haunted me for a week now.
What can I say? Even though my head knows Pasquarello can do better, the heart wants what the heart wants, man. And mine wants more bologna.
Stars: 2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood.