The Leftovers: Double Knot


DoubleKnot2

Stray thoughts, random musings and extraneous details from this week’s review of Michael Schulson‘s new izakaya/cafe, Double Knot.

  • “This is one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia!”

That came from the comments on yesterday’s review, and the guy who wrote it is absolutely right. It is one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia. It’s one of the most ambitious, the most daring, the most exciting in a long time. So why didn’t it score 4 stars?

We talked about this a lot around the office. And I can tell you that, for a moment, Double Knot was my first 4 star review. It came closer than any other restaurant in town has. But I backed it down to 3 at the last minute because something about it just felt…wrong. The wording for a 4 star restaurant says “Come from anywhere in the country” (as opposed to “Come from anywhere in the city” for 3 and “anywhere in the neighborhood” for 2). To me, a 4 star restaurant is a destination not just for Philadelphians, but for everyone–a restaurant that is good enough and unique enough and important enough to stand up on the national scene. But perhaps more importantly, 4 stars is reserved for a place that’s trying to be that kind of restaurant, and I don’t think Double Knot is.

This is no knock against Schulson, chef Kevin Yanaga or anyone on the staff. With the coffee, the pastries, the noodle bowls at lunch, the cool, casual vibe of the upstairs and the way it balances the dim, raucous excellence downstairs, Double Knot feels like something that is ours. Would I send someone there if they were coming to Philly from New York, San Francisco or Paris? Absolutely. In a heartbeat. But should someone take a trip to Philly solely to visit Double Knot, the way people do for, say, The French Laundry or Le Bernardin? I’d be pleased if someone did, but I don’t honestly believe the place is built for that.

There’s this thing among chefs competing at the Michelin Guide level where many of them want the 2 stars, but not necessarily 3. 2 stars are excellent. But 3, they say, is just theater. I’ve always liked that idea. And while Double Knot certainly has some theatricality to it, it’s not done solely for show. It’s not $100 steak knives and a wine list as thick as a family bible kind of show, but a candlelight, smoked cocktails and tattoo-inspired art kind of show. And that’s the sort of show that serves the place very well.

Granted, this means that getting 4 stars in Philly is a daunting task. I can think of only maybe three or four restaurants in town that deserve that 4th. But that’s how it should be, right? A level beyond being simply the best in the city, and a desire to be considered among an elevated company of national destinations.

 

  • “That place blows…Fuck that place.”

Also from the comments section. Because that’s just the way these things go. And while I (obviously) disagree, I love the fact that we get to argue about these things. And hell, even that hater agrees that the dumplings are awesome.

 

  • In the review, I talked (albeit briefly) about the urge some restaurateurs have for making hidden bars or dining rooms, speakeasy-lite rooms requiring code words, etc. I said that they were all pretty much terrible, which makes it all the more remarkable that Double Knot is able to pull the same trick WITHOUT it being supremely annoying, pretentious, goofy or weird.

What bothers me about most of those situations is that the “secret backroom” or whatever breaks the necessary illusion of dining, which is that we’re being swept into comfort, welcomed into a place where we’re going to be taken care of and catered to. The hidden speakeasy set-up places a barrier between the diner and that illusion, makes them jump through an unnecessary hoop which instantly adds a sense of stress and anxiety to the start of the meal. And who wants that?

The worst thing any diner can hear when walking into a restaurant? “Oh, your table isn’t quite ready yet, but if you’d like to wait…” Halfway through that sentence, most people are ready to bite the maitre’d. The hidden speakeasy formalizes that discomfort and makes it an integral part of the experience. And that’s just stupid.

Double Knot removes this hurdle by letting you make reservations for their downstairs dining room for starters, and then flipping the standard restaurant set-up. The host stands at the back of the upstairs space, book before him, earpiece in his ear, but is there to facilitate, not to block entrance. You approach just as you would in any normal restaurant. Your table is already there waiting for you downstairs. It’s a small change, but it makes a difference. The experience is just different enough to feel exciting (the walk down those candlelit stairs and stepping into the downstairs dining room for the first time now stands as one of the great restaurant experiences in Philly), but not so weird or nerve-wracking as to be uncomfortable. It’s a fine line, but Double Knot walks it perfectly.

 

  • Finally, am I the only one who thinks the cocktail program could be improved if it skewed, like, 10% more tiki?

I can’t be, right? I mean, the cocktails being shaken behind the bar there now are good, interesting, creative and all that stuff, but there’s something about the list as a whole that feels just slightly too dark and heavy. A modern Mai Tai or some jumped-up Suffering Bastard would not go unwelcome amid all that smoke and infusing.