Seeds and Stems: Hungry Pigeon Reviewed
The first time I went to Scott Schroeder’s new restaurant, Hungry Pigeon, I showed up for breakfast and liked it so much, I stayed for lunch. There was just something so … welcoming about the place. Comfortable. It felt cool without even trying (which, I suppose, is the essence of cool), and as though it had been living there forever, in its little corner on Fabric Row, rather than for just a few weeks: the pale wood, the tarnished and mismatched silver wrapped in a side towel on the counter, the birdcages everywhere. It just worked in a lo-fi, garage-sale kind of way that rich restaurateurs pay tens of thousands of dollars to try to mimic.
It didn’t hurt that I am, by nature, a lazy man and relished the excuse to just hang out there for a couple hours, scrunched up in a corner banquette seat, sipping tea and eating Schroeder’s one-punch takedown of the Egg McMuffins of our collective youth. His version is assembled from a house-made English muffin toasted on the flat grill, an egg done just tight enough to hold together as part of a sandwich, local jack cheese and, variously, bacon, ham, or chicken sausage—the latter being the perfect accompaniment unless you’re into scrapple, in which case the scrapple is even better.
My plan on that day had been to come back again for dinner, but I didn’t. It just seemed nuts—to hit the same place three times in a single day. Plus, after the breakfast sandwich, the tea, a croissant from Schroeder’s buddy and partner Pat O’Malley (fresh off a long tour through the baking department at Balthazar in NYC), then a smoked salmon on rye with red onions and watercress (which I liked, but not nearly as much as the breakfast sandwich), I felt like I’d had enough of the place for one day. I left, grudgingly, and went back out into the real world.
The second time I went to Hungry Pigeon, I showed up for breakfast (pancakes this time, made from a sourdough batter and topped with cider-poached apples, then a whole sack of pastries picked up in a strange one-of-everything-and-two-of-those flurry that definitely would have had any addiction counselor giving me the side-eye) and figured there was no way it was going to be as good as it was the first time. And I was right, because as good as pancakes are (and pancakes are good), nothing can really be as good as that breakfast sandwich was.
Still, it was a wonderful morning: sunlight, soft music, a crowd of neighbors and regulars and weirdoes and kids slowly cycling in and out. For breakfast and lunch, all ordering is done at the counter. They give you a little numbered flag. You sit down with it and wait for someone from the kitchen to bring out the grub. It’s all very casual and very comfortable.
I ate my pancakes. I rolled the top of my bag of pastries. I had some business of my own in the neighborhood that I figured if I did it just right would take up just enough time that I could come back for lunch without it being super-weird all over again.
My business in the neighborhood was eating pastries in the park.
And seriously? Schroeder deserves some sort of humanitarian award for bringing O’Malley back to Philly. Because while Philly is already in the middle of a bread-and-baked-goods Golden Age, O’Malley is something special. His croissants are crisp and flaky and deeply, murderously rich in the way that only comes from using a pound of butter in each one. And then sometimes chocolate, too. There was an apple tart that was merely fantastic, some kind of sweet walnut pinwheel thing that may very well have been one of the greatest pastries I’ve ever had, biscuits that could hold their own against all comers, and sticky buns that were refined enough to eat with my hands, but still sweet and sticky-bun-ish enough that I felt guilty about eating more than half in one sitting. To make the guilt go away, I walked around the block a couple times (for exercise) and then went back for lunch. Again.
The lunch menu is as straightforward as breakfast—some sandwiches, a couple salads, pastries still on the counter. They weren’t serving the cheeseburger that day, which sucked. I had grilled cheese instead, with fries. It was childish in the best possible way. And by the time I was done, I was in no mood for dinner.
Still, I was curious. I’ve watched Schroeder go from unabashed carnivore doing stoner bar food for nighttime crowds to a healthier, more considerate cook, in love with vegetables and the balance that can come from looking at the whole plate, not just its most notable elements. Coming from where he did (bars, gastropubs, always among the outspoken vanguard of Philly’s new galley revolutionaries), he brings to Hungry Pigeon a grounding in junk food, refined junk food and real food, equally practiced. So I wanted to see how this would all translate in an environment where the lights were lower, the plates were larger and the stakes were (at least somewhat) higher.
At night, Hungry Pigeon becomes a different restaurant. Counter service becomes table service. Coffee and tea give way to cocktails and a fantastic beer list. The space becomes five percent more classy (napkin-wrapped silver on the tables, wineglasses), which is exactly the right amount of classy to make the place feel like a proper restaurant without betraying its essential funky iconoclasm. And the ever-changing menu gets a million percent more mutable and weird.
The city’s best breakfast sandwich has three ingredients: English muffin, an egg, some cheese. Four, if you count the butter. Schroeder’s lemon-poached shrimp has … I don’t even know. A dozen ingredients? Twenty? There’s shrimp and lemon, sure. Then pink lentils, lentil sprouts, celery, potatoes, espelette, cracked peppercorns, hard, round coriander seeds (I think), microgreens of some variety, a sour-cream cheese sauce, and probably more stuff, too.
I’m not saying it’s bad, because it’s not. I’m saying it’s busy. With so many different things happening in any given bite that removing half of the ingredients still would have left Schroeder and his crew with more than enough Tinker Toys to build deeply layered flavor on a base of lemon and shrimp and potatoes.
This overwhelming-ness, the sense that the dinner menu (unlike breakfast’s traditionalism and lunch’s simplicity and the pastry department’s rarified brilliance) is just a mad, ridiculous let’s-see-what-happens-next jumble, continues on. The crab dip with scratch-made butter crackers is simple and homey. The roasted chicken is presented in Mexican fashion, draped with tortillas, salsa, shaved radishes, guacamole, refritos and cheese, as a kind of DIY taco platter. The namesake Lancaster pigeon is good—served rare, with nothing done to hide its gaminess, with one curled foot right on top of the plate just so you never forget what it is you’re eating, or where. But it comes over a terrible, hard-to-chew jungle of field greens (all woody and full of thick stems) and green beans and flaccid, cold oyster mushrooms in a dull lemon vinaigrette that tastes vaguely of furniture polish. There are oysters and deviled eggs, a sourdough bread basket with cultured butter that is (unsurprisingly) fantastic and worth paying money for (not something I say often), and goat stroganoff that’s just a mess, but an indicative mess, bearing out Hungry Pigeon’s willingness to experiment. It’s a dish that seems to work entirely by accident.
It is, at its core, homemade stroganoff, as comforting a dish as exists anywhere. Only made with goat. The egg noodles are great. The sauce? All creamy with goat milk, spiked with mustard that haunts every bite, then turned sour and odd with the inclusion of sliced pickles, which pushes the entire dish out of the realm of “interesting experiment” and into the world of “So I was really stoned last night and there wasn’t nothing left in the fridge but mustard, pickles and goat milk. … ”
The most surprising thing about all of this is that it manages to hang together at all. It shouldn’t. Pickles and goat’s milk? Come on. But Schroeder balances everything on a razor’s edge, with steep drop-offs to potential total failure on either side. And somehow he pulls it off.
Until, on top of all this, the kitchen adds a literal pile of rough-cut dill and green herbs so thickly applied, it’s like they were dumped on with both hands. It is a distractingly large amount of greenery, and, worse, the rustic, casual, un-fussy way it’s chopped leaves the entire dish threaded with stems that are both unpleasant in texture and astringent in flavor and do nothing but get caught in my teeth. From bite to bite I hate the dish, then love it as I catch some resonance between sweetness, sourness and the creamy, warm richness of the sauce and want more.
Schroeder is a wickedly talented chef. Everywhere he’s been in the past five years (South Philly Tap Room, American Sardine Bar, Twitter), he’s made better. And with Hungry Pigeon, he’s come very close to setting a new standard for how a neighborhood restaurant that’s really about serving the neighborhood ought to operate in Philly in 2016. At breakfast and lunch, the place is right next door to perfect—the kind of place I want to go to all the time, hang out and never really leave. At dinner, he and O’Malley have created a deeply personal, deeply odd, risk-taking and partly screwball menu that can maybe only accurately be described as Schroederian: careful and reckless at the same time, excessive and restrained, heavy on the vegetables, easy on the proteins, and smart, always, even in its failures.
And all of this makes for a restaurant where fun is a kind of sustenance. He and O’Malley? They’re in that restaurant industry sweet spot where they’ve scraped together just enough capital and just enough name recognition to open a place of their own and do exactly what they want. The thrill of liberation shows, in both good ways and bad. But the coolness and ease of the daylight hours buy these two old friends the opportunity to play once the sun goes down. Yes, I’m looking forward to the day when breakfast’s simplicity and easy competency take a bit of the edge off of dinner’s wild variability. I think Hungry Pigeon has a shot at being truly great. But even now, each service has its purpose and its particular charms. More than anything, Hungry Pigeon is a restaurant that just sucks you in, and makes you want to be a part of whatever happens next.
2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood
Hungry Pigeon [Foobooz]