Pub & Kitchen Review: Back to Basics

Philly's most avant-garde chef serves up burgers at Pub & Kitchen

As chef at Snackbar, that lounge-y, red-hued boîte off Rittenhouse Square, Jonathan McDonald brought molecular gastronomy to Philadelphia in the form of apples coated in miso caramel and crusted with wasabi peas, and Brussels sprouts topped with clouds of almond-milk foam. The menu was a culinary tour de force, adored by fellow chefs and lauded by critics, but the audience for these experiments was small, and McDonald capitulated to customer demand for more approachable dishes. Soon, Snackbar was serving steak frites, and a short while later, McDonald was gone.

For five months, Philly’s foodies wondered about Johnny Mac’s next act. Would he open an even edgier eatery, like Chicago’s Alinea? Would he return to New York, where diners are more receptive to his avant-garde style? Certainly, no one guessed that he’d be flipping burgers and frying buffalo wings in a corner bar. But that’s exactly what he’s up to at Pub & Kitchen, where his short menu of bar bites and sandwiches has customers lined up out the door.

[sidebar]When Pub & Kitchen opened in September in old Graduate Hospital haunt Chaucer’s, neighbors found a whitewashed building scrubbed up to a new-restaurant shine. The forgiving low lighting, cream-colored walls and dark woods of the room provide a warm, neutral backdrop where ties are loosened, glasses are raised, and table manners are put aside. It won’t be long before everybody knows your name.

McDonald acknowledges that his food here is different than at Snackbar, but he doesn’t see the new menu as a complete about-face. His cooking remains guided by high-quality ingredients, attention to detail and creativity. And he still dabbles in molecular gastronomy, albeit behind the scenes. You’d never guess that the secret ingredient in his light-and-crisp calamari is a modified high-amylose cornstarch, an industrial-grade powder unlikely to turn up at any other gastropub. The newfangled foodstuff, added to the mix of Wondra flour and chickpea flour that coats the calamari, inhibits oil absorption, but you don’t need to know that to savor the crunch it adds to the exterior.

A Bucks County native, McDonald never went to culinary school. Instead, he worked in top kitchens here, in Spain, and in New York City before coming home to open Snackbar. Along the way he acquired mentors like Marc Vetri and private caterer Shola Olunloyo, and he picked up a set of skills and techniques based on French culinary traditions, just like any top culinary-school graduate. These, rather than chemicals, provide the foundation for his straightforward bar menu, and elevate his burgers and fries above typical pub fare. It’s a dramatic departure from the precious and challenging dishes Johnny Mac executed at Snackbar, but the bold flavors of even his most pedestrian dishes reflect his zeal for simple food done right.

Neighborhood types nibble wings at the bar, while foodies drawn by McDonald’s reputation slurp down Little ­Shemogue oysters with a citrus-beer-fennel mignonette at the tightly packed dining room tables. Diners drink pints of good craft beer, like the malty Sawtooth ale from Left Hand. The atmosphere is so casual, so thoroughly corner-bar-like, it would be easy to underestimate the kitchen’s mojo, especially with dishes you’d be more likely to order at a restaurant than a bar.

But these well-executed entrées may be Pub & Kitchen’s strongest menu category. In his cassoulet, McDonald uses chicken legs instead of the classic duck, but he adheres to the traditional method of poaching the meat for hours in a mixture of rendered chicken, duck and bacon fat, until the chicken is succulent and falling from the bone. The chicken-leg confit is then plated with a pile of slow-simmered Great Northern beans and hunks of garlic sausage. Other entrée standouts include the Coho salmon topped with a creamy ­succotash of sweet corn, earthy shiitake mushrooms, mild chilies and butter, and a roasted chicken breast served in a pan sauce with a scone-like Irish biscuit.

McDonald’s fish and chips consists of moist, mild fingers of pollock in a shatteringly crisp shell, with hand-cut fries and a mound of starchy, buttery, mint-kissed peas. The gussied-up Windsor burger, made from naturally raised beef, is topped with English cheddar and house-made bacon. McDonald’s BLT adds sweet, moist chunks of lobster and truffle-infused homemade mayonnaise to the classic sandwich. Beer-battered onion rings are mild and tender inside a crisp exterior that doesn’t crumble with one bite.

At Snackbar, McDonald’s creativity was spurred by newfangled ingredients and high-tech equipment, but here, the challenge of keeping prices down without compromising quality inspires dishes, especially on the $3 bar-snacks menu. The roll mops, slices of toast topped with pickled fish, sour cream and seasonal accents, like apple, were devised to deal with fish trimmings McDonald couldn’t bear to discard. Greek meatballs, intended to use up extra ground beef, are enriched with thick yogurt and feta cheese and sport a flavorful seared exterior around a pink, juicy core. These dishes would never have turned up on McDonald’s Snackbar menu, but they’re no less inspired. And you don’t have to be a food geek to get it.