The Ugly American Review: Red, White and Bleu

The Ugly American is a celebration of Beef on Wick, apple pie, biscuits — and French technique

For decades, Pennsport has been known for Mummers, Two Street, and corner shot-and-beer bars. But a recent influx of first-time homeowners has created a demand for a hipper haunt. The opening of Ugly American, where chef David Gilberg dishes up his freewheeling vision of contemporary American food, gives those neighbors a place to call their own. An alumnus of Matyson, Gilberg has a style that mixes Philly’s ubiquitous buy-fresh-buy-local philosophy with a decidedly French methodology and a wry sense of humor.

[sidebar]In fact, Gilberg initially served one of the restaurant’s signature items, the Garbage Plate, as a joke. But while the chef may have intended it as comic relief, early customers didn’t laugh, and the dish has become a mainstay. While the menu can seem unfocused, with bar classics sharing table space with more serious cuisine, dishes like the Garbage Plate show a reverence for lowbrow regional specialties that’s only half ironic.

At Nick Tahou Hots in Rochester, New York, where Gilberg grew up, the trademark Garbage Plate is a greasy pile of mass-produced carbs and gristly overcooked meat that’s suitable for drunken students only. There, the Garbage Plate starts with a starchy bed of home fries and pasta salad, to which natives add their choice of meat, chopped onions and hot sauce. Gilberg’s version stars two flavorful medium-rare beef patties over fresh pasta salad and some of the most consistently perfect french fries in Philadelphia.

Two other menu items have roots in Gilberg’s home state. Beef on Wick is the unofficial sandwich of Buffalo, New York. The dish takes its name from the kummelweck roll, a German version of the kaiser that’s studded with coarse salt and anise-scented caraway seeds. Like all desserts and baked goods at the Ugly American — including the addictive biscuits served with every meal — the wicks are made by Gilberg’s wife, Carla Goncalves. Piled high with thinly sliced roast beef, the rolls get a layer of fresh grated horseradish before being plated with fries and a side of jus. Fiery Buffalo wings round out the homage to upstate New York. Gilberg turns out a straightforward version of the bar standard, though he adds minced fresh habanero chilies to the familiar buttery sauce that coats the wings. The accompanying dip’s piquant bite comes from good Danish blue.

Much of the menu is dedicated to this kind of casual pub fare, but other dishes flaunt an unexpected French accent. Gilberg’s take on spaghetti and meatballs, a nod to the building’s old tenant, La Vigna, is a labor-intensive creation that lacks both meat and pasta. The “meatballs” are based on duxelle, the classic French preparation of finely minced mushrooms sautéed slowly for two hours with butter and shallots. Gilberg uses this concentrated, savory paste just as he would ground meat. The mushroom balls, bound with pecorino ­romano and fresh thyme, are hearty and satisfying. The illusion of pasta is created with a nest of vegetable ribbons peeled from carrots, parsnips and zucchini, and sauced with an earthy truffle cream.  

Smoked turkey soup, based on a sparkling consommé, also shows good French technique. Gilberg clarifies the broth with whipped egg whites, which attract any fat or meat particles floating in the liquid. It’s a fussy and time-consuming process that’s virtually never done outside of culinary school, but the refinement transforms a bowl of simple soup into an elegant first course. Delicate handmade dumplings and trumpet mushrooms don’t hurt, either.

Not every recipe in the American canon is equally ripe for a Gallic redo. The Ugly American’s stuffed pepper, inspired by the simple bell-pepper and beef casserole served at family tables nationwide, is filled with lobster and leeks bound by a mornay sauce — essentially a thick white sauce enriched with cheese. The resulting dish is a runny heap of mismatched tastes and textures.

Countries and influences collide again in the American cassoulet. One of France’s most iconic dishes gets supersized into a heaping crock of sausage, pork belly, smoked bacon, black-eyed peas and collard greens. The beans are simmered for hours with ham hocks, absorbing flavor as they become tender. The greens are cooked separately with garlic, herbs, and a ham hock of their own. These two ingredients are eventually combined with the bacon, topped with bread crumbs, and broiled until crusty. Slices of Martin’s sausage are piled high on top of the bowl. It takes an adult with a healthy appetite approximately three days to polish off the dish — what could be more American than that?

This hodgepodge cuisine — along with an easy-to-­pronounce, all-American wine and beer list — establishes a relaxed, pretense-free zone inside the restaurant. At the bar, regulars include a Mummer fresh from string-band rehearsal, a city judge loosening his tie, and a just-21 neighborhood kid wavering between a glass of chardonnay and a Long Island iced tea. In the shadow of I-95, across from Rizzo Rink, where South Philly teens decamp nightly for hockey practice, this stretch of Front is among the city’s least glamorous blocks. But Gilberg’s food (not to mention ample free parking) has brought some excitement and a much-needed gathering place to Pennsport.