Taste: Reviews: Marigold Blooms Again

A newcomer brings roasted sweetbreads and sweet potato gnocchi to this West Philly institution

For more than 70 years, the Marigold Dining Room was a living archive of American home cooking, a haven for budget-minded students, thrifty professors, and young families living in West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill neighborhood. Tucked into the first floor of a well-worn rowhouse, the restaurant felt like someone’s home, which it was — the tenants who lived upstairs had to pass through the dining room when they came and went. Framed family photos lined the wallpapered walls, and a box of toys near the hearth kept the kiddies amused while Mom and Dad finished their meatloaf and chicken fricassee.

Marigold’s new owner, Steven Cook, an alumnus of Twenty Manning and Salt, has made a clean break with history. He changed the name to Marigold Kitchen, stripped off the wallpaper and the fireplace mantel, replaced the Kodak moments with contemporary art, and posted a menu of dishes that aren’t anybody’s home cooking, unless Dad was a chef, or Mom liked to clip recipes for sweetbreads and veal cheeks. The old Marigold is but a misty memory when Cook dishes up feather-light roasted cauliflower lasagna with truffled pecorino and almond-infused béchamel, or sends out a savory endive and confit tomato tarte Tatin appetizer that’s a witty pretend-­dessert, right down to the goat cheese mousse masquerading as ice cream. The renovated dining rooms are attractive, but no longer charming, with a blazing hearth as the best feature.

The new Marigold’s backstory is remarkable because Cook, who is 31, began cooking professionally just four years ago. A graduate of the Wharton School, he was an investment banker in New York for six years, though working in a restaurant was always on his mind. Eventually he completed a night-school program at the French Culinary Institute in New York and returned to Philadelphia to take an entry-level position at Twenty Manning.

Cook’s trend-tracking repertoire and presentation style is strongly influenced by his former boss and mentor, Salt chef Vernon Morales, whose unorthodox combinations drew plenty of attention during Salt’s fleeting existence. With two other Salt veterans in the kitchen — sous-chef Angie Wolfe and pastry chef Julia Kovacs — Marigold is off to an impressively smooth start.

This creative crew is bored by repetition, so ingredients and dishes are often here today, gone tomorrow. Sometimes shiitake mushrooms and butternut squash are stirred into the wonderfully creamy risotto; or it may be red and golden beets. Beef carpaccio may be topped with blue cheese, roasted beets and pickled eggplant, or artichokes, pine nuts and a parmesan chip. Occasionally there’s a full seasonal shake-up, like the autumn transition that brought chestnuts, celery root and brussels sprouts into the mix.

The clock is ticking on every component, so savor the crisp, soft-centered chicken liver croquettes with sliced red grapes, toasted almonds and curried mayonnaise, arranged to look like a flower growing next to a fence, because it may soon be ousted by roasted sweetbreads and sweet potato gnocchi, lined up in parallel rows separated by a wide green swath of arugula juice. (I like both, but prefer the croquettes.) Take note of the crisp-skinned salmon perfumed with cumin and coriander, paired with a complex blood orange reduction as thick and sweet as caramel, accompanied by pureed chickpeas. And while it lasts, enjoy the superb lamb shoulder, which dallies as long as eight hours in the oven in a simmering bath of red wine, stock and whole coffee beans.

Lobby for the return of the warm pignoli cake. Admire the port-poached pear, with its secret spine of pastry cream and side scoop of lively ginger-pomegranate sorbet. But beware the explosive chocolate croquettes, fully capable of ruining your best white sweater.