What Lies Beneath: Double Knot Reviewed

In the basement of Double Knot | Photo via Double Knot

Breakfast, 9:30 a.m. // Like Garfield and 10,000 novelty t-shirts, I don’t do mornings. Particularly not ones that haven’t snuck up on me accidentally—the sun rising while I’m still out doing whatever it is that insomniac food editors do—and caught me still in last night’s clothes.

One of the reasons I became a writer was so I’d never have to get up before noon. Sadly, somewhere in my youth I missed an important distinction. Some writers get to sleep the mornings away, sure. They’re generally the ones who own more than zero berets and have strong opinions about pencils. And then there are the ones who actually have to make a living.

AT A GLANCE

★★★
Double Knot
120 South 13th Street, Midtown Village
215-631-3868

CUISINE: Asian

PRICES: $$$

SNAP JUDGMENT: Michael Schulson creates a shape-changing concept that’s a coffee bar in the morning, a fast-casual lunch spot at noon, a cool happy-hour bar in the evening, and at nighttime, a restaurant better than almost any other in Philadelphia.

RECOMMENDED: Edamame dumplings ($7) for everyone, every day, and pretty much the entire downstairs menu for anyone who can manage to score a reservation.

Which is how I find myself sitting down at Double Knot in a (reasonably) clean shirt, grinning for a TV camera and making small talk about restaurants with a charming soft-news host. I curse only rarely and know they’re going to cut out all my dirty jokes, and that’s fine. I’ve done this whole thing before, and there are (far) worse places to do it than at Double Knot.

“Look at this place,” I say, gesturing widely at the top floor of Michael Schulson’s new all-day, three-service monster of a coffee shop/lunch stop/happy hour/izakaya mash-up on 13th Street, spiked right into the pulsing main vein of Midtown Village. We’re shooting at the tail end of the breakfast rush, so most of the small cafe tables are still full of late-risers and early-meeting-takers; of dudes on laptops and ladies clustered together over their second coffees. The place is all pale blond wood and clean lines, metal shelves stuffed with books, framed photos, homey bric-a-brac, and a short bar converted to storage space for breakfast pastries. There’s just enough room among the doughnuts and danishes for the baristas to push across their Elixr coffee lattes and Ethiopian Konga hand-pours. They’ve got cold brewed coffee on a nitro draft system and pressed tea in little stoneware cups, and the whole place looks like it ought to be a movie set. Interior cool coffee shop: Day. “I mean, can you believe this place used to be a fucking porno theater?”

We stop, back up, and I try again.

“Look at this place. Can you believe how nice this looks?”

Happy hour, 5 p.m. // When I go out for an early dinner—for a snack, maybe, before getting down to the serious business of eating a proper dinner with courses, vegetables, napkins and whatnot—what I really want is some gin and 20 dumplings. In this way, Double Knot is perfect for me.

I’ve ducked out of the office early for a couple of reasons, including, but not limited to, the fact that I hate ALL offices (and my current one only slightly less than every other office I’ve ever had), and that while I have plenty of gin at my desk, there’s no tonic. Double Knot, I figured, would probably have both. And dumplings, too.

And it does. As a matter of fact, it has an entire section of the upstairs bar menu devoted to dumplings (and their cousins, buns). There are other things, too: four kinds of satay, tempura shrimp rolls better than the ones at most sushi bars in town, chili-and-lemon-spiked chicken wings tossed in an oyster sauce, hamachi tartare and sides of kimchi fried rice. But what matters here are the dumplings. And one particular variety most of all.

For $7, you can get a bowl of what might be the best dumplings you’ve ever had.

And yes, I know that’s saying a lot, but I’m 95 percent serious here.

The edamame dumplings are phenomenal. They’re these beautifully squishy, almost translucent bundles, each about the size of a ping-pong ball, stuffed with smooshed edamame, worked until it’s roughly the consistency of mashed potato, then touched with just a whisper of truffle. Any more and they’d be awful. Any less and they’d just be dumplings full of bean goo. But the kitchen hits a very small bull’s-eye here with the filling, and it does so consistently.

The dumplings come in a bowl. They’re topped with pea shoots (you can just throw those away, like I do) and served swimming in a shallow puddle of golden sake broth that’s as clear as consommé and, all alone, so delicious that you’re going to want to pick up the bowl and drink it once the dumplings are gone (which I also do). They’re singularly amazing, and I’m mentioning them here because later, I’m going to be saying a whole lot of hyperbolically enthusiastic things about a lot of different dishes, but I want you to remember these dumplings. They are amazing. You should go to Double Knot right now and get three orders, eat them all, and then order a fourth.

It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Lunchtime at Double Knot | Photo via Double Knot

Lunch, somewhere around 2 in the afternoon. // When I was in for breakfast the first time, Double Knot had only been open a couple of weeks, and everything was running smoothly. At the counter, they were moving customers with admirable speed. On the floor, everyone seemed cool and relaxed. Because I’m a terrible klutz sometimes, I spilled my first cup of tea, and was descended on by two different servers who fell out of the sky like Stukas with rags and napkins and a replacement cup.

When I go back for lunch, it’s like everyone is running on rails. If I spilled something this time (which I don’t, because I’m not that bad), they’d catch it before a drop hit the floor.

At lunch, Double Knot has a menu that’s essentially a diagram—nested circles full of proteins and presentation choices. They do noodle bowls, rice bowls and banh mi, made with pork, shrimp, beef, chicken, tofu or meatballs, dressed with cabbage, pickled carrots and daikon. And that’s it. Those are the options, neat and simple. They’ve got a punch for day drinkers. It’s delicious and sweet and dangerously easy going down. All lunches are $7, and they’re just better than the bowls being done at a hundred other quick lunch spots around town. Cleaner. More composed. The rice is sticky and salty in just the right way. The proteins are simply grilled.

That first time through, I spent a long time chatting with Michael Schulson. Not for TV, just for fun. We talked about a lot of things—restaurants, our kids, the fact that my little brother didn’t get his first cell phone until like three years ago—but the most interesting thing we talked about was Double Knot itself. More to the point, we talked about its essentially schizophrenic nature.

See, Double Knot is the Cher of Philadelphia restaurants, going through more costume changes than seems possible in a single day. Breakfast, upstairs, is pastries and coffees. There’s still a bar there (and they’ll Irish up your morning joe, for a price), but it’s predominantly a coffee bar—space given over to the caffeination of the people. Come lunch, that bar becomes a counter across which quick-serve noodle bowls and banh mi are passed. Then there’s happy hour—dumplings and cocktails and bottles of Hitachino—and upstairs dinner, which is a quick, casual, fun affair, and generally crowded as hell.

But then there’s downstairs, and that’s a whole different ballgame. Schulson and I talk about the phenomenon of hidden basement restaurants—of that bullshit urge that restaurateurs with more than a little showman in them get for making pretend-hidden speakeasy spaces accessible only through secret doors or via the tendering of embarrassing code words. They are, almost without exception, terrible.

The only way to make it work is to make it worth it. To make it so worth it that the artifice becomes part of the draw. “You have to make an upstairs where people want to hang out,” Schulson says. A beautiful, comfortable space full of good things all on its own. “And then you have to spend 10 times as much on the downstairs. It’s gotta be like, BOOM.”

By the time I make it in for lunch, Double Knot has got the dichotomy down. Upstairs is bright and casual and comfortable, filled at all hours with delicious things to eat and drink. It’s bustling in the best possible way, and staffers move with a confidence born of the fact that they’ve been busy since day one, hour one.

And downstairs?

Boom.

Long after dark. // On a Monday night, the bar at Double Knot is still crowded, the tables full. We wind through the narrow spaces between bodies and approach the host’s stand at the back. Reservations for two, 9:15. It was all that was available.

The host radios down to the basement to check on my table. It’s ready, and we’re shown the unmarked door behind him. Go down the dark, candlelit stairs. Push through another door and step into a space that’s wood and stone and flame—a warren of dining spaces, all pulsing with energy and noise, and an open kitchen packed with cooks banging out food as fast as they can.

Kevin Yanaga’s robotayaki | Photo via Yanaga’s Instagram

Kevin Yanaga runs the line here, and I’ve rarely been so happy to see a chef come back home. For years, he’s been biding his time in Atlantic City at one of Schulson’s other properties, Izakaya, turning out (and obsessively Instagramming) some of the most beautiful and interesting food in the region. Asian, but with a global spice palate. Modern, but simple, clean and elegant, except when he chooses not to be. Like when he throws down a duck scrapple bao bun, messy with a sticky-sweet maple teriyaki and razor-thin slices of red chili, or tempura cheese curds with yum yum sauce.

Downstairs, time stops. Appetite is all that matters. The menu is enormous, expansive, bonkers with ambition and double-bonkers in that it fulfills that ambition time and time and time again. Order five plates, 10, 20. Cocktails from the interesting list of smoked and spiced and infused classics that exist somewhere halfway between Prohibition and tiki. Sake from a bottle list that goes on for pages.

The Japanese fried chicken comes in finger-food chunks like the Devil’s own McNuggets—small and tender, panko-breaded, addictive as hell with their smear of togarishi mayo. The beef tataki is the best I’ve ever tasted, smoky and salty, wrapped around bundles of daikon for crunch and set in a dash of white soy. A special of spear squid arrives, classically styled, brushed with soy and draped over balls of rice as big as two thumbs. Yanaga’s rice is unbelievably good (served warm, sticky and salty, cooked in small batches and almost sweet with varying levels of rice vinegar) and the care he takes with it is proof of that old kitchen axiom that getting the small stuff right matters more than anything—provided you get the medium stuff and the big stuff right, too.

Lamb chops off the kitchen’s tiered robotayaki grill arrive with their bones wrapped in foil, and I eat them like a savage. The skewered kobe beef is buttery in exactly the way it’s supposed to be, flooding my mouth with salt and fat, and I chase it with pork topped with an astringent mix of scallions and vinegar. A whole fish arrives (another special, aji tartare) with its body twisted to stand up off the plate and cup its own flesh, turned into sashimi, sharp with citrus, served with wasabi and batonet radish. If I hadn’t already had five things that were the best things I’ve tasted in weeks, this would be the best thing. The cold salad of shredded hearts of palm dressed in yuzu and scallion seems dull by comparison, but could still easily stand as the perfect side to any plate of Korean fried chicken anywhere, or to all but the most traditional barbecue.

And the food just keeps coming. Cubes of perfectly fried tofu glazed in sweet caramel and set over a Japanese mizzuna pesto should have been awful, but the unusual flavors harmonize and complement each other. The broiled sea bass is tender in a way I’ve never experienced before: It doesn’t flake, but comes apart in chunks that almost seem to melt when I put them in my mouth. The serving is golden, the size of a fist, glazed in a sweet soy so that it appears candied, and set in a geometrically perfect spiral of truffle gel. Again, it’s amazing. Again, I can’t believe how much care has gone into it when it’s just one of a hundred different plates the kitchen knocks out every night. Again, it stands as the best I’ve ever had.

In the candlelight, in the wood-planked basement with its sailor tattoo art and gleaming fixtures, we eat and eat until we can’t hold any more. When the short rib arrives, we laugh. Last course. As long as my forearm and just as meaty. Can’t eat another bite, we think. Until we do.

And then, as all nights eventually must, this one ends. Technically, the kitchen closed an hour ago, but they’re still cooking for late-night stragglers as we stumble upward and into the quiet upstairs dining room. It’s empty of customers, but the crew is already behind the bar, wiping down, rearranging items for tomorrow’s breakfast service.

It will start all over again in something like seven hours.

Boom.

3 stars – Come from anywhere in the city.

Double Knot [Foobooz]

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