An Effortless Cool: Cadence Reviewed
At Cadence, three young chefs are trying to bring a little New American modernism to NoLibs.
The bison tartare was lovely, of course: bloody red in a white bowl, offset by slices of salsify, the yellow dust of egg yolks, beet rye bread tinted the shade of merlot. The stuffed chicken wings were clever — swollen and lumpy with the chicken sausage hidden inside the skin — and came with a salad of julienned mango and ribbons of napa cabbage, dressed with citrus and tamarind.
The service was smooth, the duck was perfectly cooked, the crowd was well-heeled, and the bill was high but not outrageous. On a crowded night in April, Cadence was exactly what anyone would expect from a buzzy new BYO opened by three veterans of Ellen Yin’s High Street Hospitality, one of the best restaurant groups in Philly.
But, weirdly, it wasn’t anything more than that.
And, okay, tough to complain, right? Great meal, friendly service, some creative flourishes, laughing customers all snapping pictures of their plates and stealing bites of each other’s ember-roasted beets. But hang with me, will you? I’m going somewhere with this.
Cadence debuted in March on a lonely stretch of West Girard, with Jon Nodler, Samantha Kincaid and Michael Fry teaming up to do their own thing, which in a lot of ways feels like Fork’s cool indie-rock cousin who just moved to town, got an apartment in NoLibs, and stole everyone’s boyfriends.
It’s understandable. The two outfits share a lot of blood. They’re both New American kitchens with modernist influences and an Instagrammer’s eye for plating. And I’m not saying there’s a problem with it. I love the idea of Fork-gone-hipster, of High Street with an edge. And all of that is there, absolutely — the control, the refinement, the almost gut-level understanding of exactly how far customers are willing to follow a chef down paths of ingredient obsession or technical geekery. It’s a really good place. Yup. Sure is.
Okay, so maybe it’s a little predictable? In a city where so many chefs are chasing after that sweet intersection between seasonal American regionalism with a dash of international flavor and a wild streak of Nathan Myhrvold, seeing someone try to pick up a crown of excellence that literally no one has dropped is a bit disappointing. But wait, because here comes the kicker.
On a cold Tuesday about a week later, I walked into Cadence, and the place was empty.
“Come on in, guys,” said the first person to wander up to the host’s station. “We’re just hanging out, having a nice chill Tuesday night.”
Yeah, that was the welcome. No false formality. No pretending that we’d walked in just two steps ahead of the rush.
We were brought menus, hot tea, thick slices of local bread, and a smear of yellow butter that tasted halfway to cheese. And while empty restaurants normally freak me right the hell out, Cadence just … didn’t. The pale walls and soft music. The comfortable warmth, the good smells of coffee and garlic and roasting meat coming from the kitchen — those all helped. But more than anything, it was the quiet motions of the staff just going about its business. Every now and then, someone would pop over to the table to see how things were going, but the casualness of it was so natural, so unforced in this industry where, sometimes, everything seems forced. It was one of the most comforting meals I’ve had in months.
The kampachi crudo was made of 10,000 ingredients, but somehow they all worked together. The fish, the sting of citrus and kosho chili paste, the tiny leaves of chicory and grilled radicchio, the sunflower seeds, the black olive — all of it. We ate aebleskiver, Dutch buckwheat pancake balls stuffed with crab cream cheese and served with a smear of crab-fat BBQ sauce that tasted like Carolina mustard sauce with just a faint hint of ocean brine.
“Good?” asked a server. And when I nodded, he said, “Yeah, they’re good,” agreeing like it was a foregone conclusion, and then just moved on.
The roasted duck came three ways: fanned breast meat, fatty and rare; a gamey chunk of thigh with skin like fried glass; and thin slices of roasted duck heart. The heart wasn’t great. I like it better when it’s a little charred, and this was a bit rare. But the jumbled pile of local mushrooms and grilled bok choy matched perfectly with the rest.
By the time we were done eating, a few more people had come through the doors, but the cool Tuesday vibe of the place never went away. Where most new restaurants would be tense with panic to see a floor 20 percent committed on any night of the week, this crew wasn’t. And so despite all the time the staff had to fret and fuss, Cadence was actually better on what should have been a terrible night. It was an effortless kind of cool, this sense of You’re here and we’re here, so let’s have some dinner that felt almost anti-industry.
It’s a tough act to pull off. But Cadence did, because I think, here, it isn’t an act at all.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country