Who Wants a “Grown Up” Pod?

With the Kpod experiment over, Starr gets the old band back together for a new, adult-ified version of his eccentric classic, Pod.

pod university city stephen starr yanaga omori sushi

Kevin Yanaga and Kenjiro Omori team up to bring a more grown up version of Pod to life in University City. / Photography courtesy of Starr Restaurants

The best thing about Pod — back in the days when anyone cared at all — was that it didn’t take itself at ALL seriously.

The food, sure. It was serious about the food, or as serious as any kitchen can be when they’re doing that kind of amorphous, fusion-y, pan-Asian thing that Pod (and, it sometimes seemed, half of all other restaurants in America) made bank with back in the early aughts. But the design, the space, the vibe was pure Wonkavision — a goofy, hyperbolic dream of tomorrow, an imagined future that was all smooth curves, blobby chairs and conveyor-belt sushi. It was designed to be the opposite of cool and was fun as hell in the early days.

And to be the opposite of Morimoto, too — Starr’s cross-town collab with the coolest of the O.G. Iron Chefs, Masaharu Morimoto. See, Starr already had Buddakan in Philly (which was doing a glammed-up, high-end version of Asian fusion wearing only the fanciest of pants). And he had a serious Japanese restaurant in the works with Morimoto. Thinking (maybe rightly) that Philly back then couldn’t handle more than one of any type of restaurant, and not wanting to siphon business away from either of those other two concepts, Pod found a middle ground. It did spaceman noodles and robot sushi and everyone sat in weird little dining pods and had a blast because the place was so defiantly strange.

Enter COVID. Pod dies an inglorious death and that big space in University City is just going unused. But there’s a solution. Another Starr partner, Peter Serpico (ex of Momofuku and elsewhere) is struggling to hold things together at his namesake restaurant on South Street. He’s doing takeout and curbside, calling his operation “Pete’s Place” and serving up casual, “kinda Korean” dishes to walk-up customers from an otherwise empty kitchen and silent dining room. So the two of them — Starr and Serpico — hit on a plan. They’ll combine forces, shutter Serpico, and re-make Pod together. It’ll be part Pod, part Pete’s Place, with an interior facelift that would preserve the bones of the original Pod but make it look … I dunno. Like a more modern vision of a blobby future that never quite arrived? Like a retro-throwback-80’s-that-wasn’t head trip that involved plywood and color-changing fixtures and the removal of the sushi conveyor entirely.

Whatever. I dug it. Seriously. It somehow managed to walk that tightrope between excess and overkill, between goofiness and stupidity. It worked because there was a lightness at the heart of it. A post-shutdown sense of Well, what do we have to lose? that was incredibly attractive.

But maybe not attractive enough. Because word has come down that Kpod is no more. Serpico (the chef) is out, the Korean-American experiment is over, and the Sansom Street space that once was Pod is becoming Pod all over again.

More than that, Starr is putting some of the old team back together, too. Know who ran the sushi bar back in Original Pod’s salad days? Kevin Yanaga — a name that is familiar to pretty much anyone out there in Hotcakesland who cares at all about sushi or modern Japanese cuisine. Yanaga worked at Zama, in the basement at Double Knot and, most recently, he had his name on two concepts in Fishtown with GLU Hospitality — Izakaya by Yanaga and Omakase by Yanaga.

Now, he’s back with Starr to run the sushi program at Pod 2.0 which, rather than shying away from it, is embracing it. Philly is a different town now. There’s no more reason to think that a sushi restaurant in University City is going to rob the spotlight from one on Chestnut Street. Also, when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about Morimoto?

Starr has also got Kenjiro Omori standing as executive chef after almost a decade of service and 10 Starr restaurants in his rearview. And the menu — both sides of it, sushi bar and kitchen — has been developed under the supervision of Starr corporate chef Mark Hellyar with the notion that the new Pod is going to be like a “mature” version of the old Pod — a sushi bar and izakaya with miso soup, gyoza, Japanese fried chicken (called “JFC” on the new menu in an abbreviation that I’m not sure is going to hold) and robata alongside the maki, sashimi and handrolls from Yanaga and his crew. Even Starr himself has said that this new-and-improved Pod is going to be a “grown up” version of the original, with a more refined menu and concept, and no more conveyor belt sushi.

And that’s what bugs me. Because I don’t think anyone needs a “grown up” version of Pod. I can’t imagine that anyone would want one. The original Pod lasted 20 years because it was unlike any other restaurant anywhere. It was unique and weird and, on its best nights, going there was like watching one of those big Hollywood movies that is so odd or so ahead of its time that you can’t understand how it ever got made. Pod was the restaurant version of that: Sometimes you couldn’t quite believe that this place ever got made.

If Kpod didn’t work or couldn’t fill the space night after night then fine. I can accept that. And if — as the press releases claim — people really were clamoring for the return of Japanese sushi rather than the (seriously good) Korean simulacra that Kpod produced, then getting Yanaga behind the bar was a solid move. But “grown up” to me means serious. Means staid. Means safe — with a 401k and homeowners insurance and everything. I haven’t been to the new-and-improved Pod yet. The transition has been going on since March and is still in process (the signage just got changed recently, and lunch service won’t start until the end of August) so maybe I’m wrong about all of this. There’s a good team in the kitchen and the new menu looks both thoughtful and creative with some interesting hits of traditional Japanese cuisine balanced against more modern interpretations. But it’s that idea that Pod ever needed to grow up in the first place that makes me worry. Because Philly has enough serious, “grown up” restaurants already.

Let the weird be weird, man. No one needs to grow up if they’re earning a buck childishly.

I mean, seriously. Look at me.