The Revisit: Marigold Kitchen

The last time my wife and I ate at Marigold Kitchen, the walls glowed deep yellow, cornbread buttressed stewed collards and shaved country ham, and a framed card in the bathroom featured a three-year-old’s recipe for dinosaur soup. Dinner was outstanding. The cooking was as comforting as a flannel union suit the night of the first frost, yet also ahead of the curve—Philly’s first solid example of the Southern revival that had lately begun leaking across the Mason-Dixon Line. In Erin O’Shea, the old boardinghouse at 45th and Larchwood seemed to have found a chef perfectly suited to the homey warmth of an establishment whose roots reached back into the 1930s, when Penn profs took simple repasts in what was then called the Marigold Tea Room.

Then O’Shea skedaddled for Percy Street Barbecue, Philly’s fling with New Southern cooking devolved into a race for the smokiest faux-authentic barbecue pit, and West Philly’s coziest BYOB fell into the hands of a foam-weaving, gel-setting, meat-gluing acolyte of the Spanish avant-garde.

That would be Robert Halpern, chef and owner of Marigold Kitchen since 2009. Halpern arrived with a C.V. that was all over the map—conceptually as well as geographically. Contemporary Southwestern cuisine at New Mexico’s Coyote Café, farm-to-table fare in Vermont, an internship at Alinea … no pigeonholing this wandering soul.

Those were reasons enough to see what he had in mind for his own place. And everyone seemed to have good things to say about Marigold’s new incarnation—at least, everyone who didn’t have an ideological allergy to foam. I don’t. (If you’re the kind of person who takes to food blogs to fume about bubbles, it might be time to read a little more about, say, Syrian refugees.) And yet I pushed it off. I was tired of this restaurant changing every five minutes, and maybe a little sour that the chef I’d liked best had scooted so quickly. I wanted that cornbread with collards and country ham—and the neatly trimmed sunny-side-up egg perched on top. I wanted another milk-white bowl of turnip soup with a biscuit in the middle wearing a hat of pureed apples. I wanted the highbrow-but-still-homey Southern cooking that I’d never actually eaten while growing up in the South, yet now had a chance to catch up on. Foam? Nothing against it, but hell, I could get foam anywhere.

At long last, I let bygones be gone and made my way to slurp some down in Spruce Hill.

The walls of this turn-of-the-century Victorian rowhome still glow as warmly as the restaurant’s floral namesake, but the art on them is as cold as a mind game. We sat beneath a dull bronze apple that seemed, from our angle, to have half-melded into the gray block behind it: an icon of sweet temptation rendered as lifeless as Han Solo frozen in carbonite. As an emblem of culinary postmodernism’s obsession with stripping ingredients down to some sort of Platonic essence, this art perhaps succeeds. As a representation of Halpern’s exuberant and wildly colorful cooking, it’s miles off the mark.

Back when he opened, Halpern wrestled a bit with how to write his menus in such a way that foam-phobics wouldn’t storm out in indignation—an effort that had him hunting for synonyms like froth and suds. He eventually landed on a more elegant solution: just let people order a more or less recognizable appetizer and entrée, then serve them a barrage of amuse-bouches that never have to be inked on a page.

From parsnip chips touched with Mexican chocolate straight through to an ice-cream sandwich that could almost have balanced on the head of a pin, these were the soul of the meal. There were nearly a dozen, delivered by a trim fleet of servers whose down-to-earth style could not be better suited to the quiet dignity of this lovely old house. No recitations of chefly philosophy, no unsolicited soliloquys, no suffocating air of pretentiousness—just clean-cut descriptions of what was in the shot glass or teacup or Asian soupspoon, with the true eloquence left to the contents themselves. The flavors they delivered were sometimes unexpected, often delicious, and always fun.

Inspired by a reconstructed Mandarin orange from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in London, Halpern froze a ball of foie gras mousse, dipped it into a cherry gel, and re-stuck the assemblage with a stem as the agar agar set. What a gush of flavor—and yet the best part of the dish might have been the eerily natural sensation of plucking the real stem from the fake cherry.

A shot of cucumber soda crowned by a lacy head of pickle foam drove at another non-gustatory target: the sense of humor. On the face of it, what you had here was a didactic deconstruction of a sweet-and-sour pickle. But then there was its effect on your actual face, as tapioca pearls went whizzing up a straw cut just short enough for the tip of your nose to snag a dollop of foam. Conceptual cuisine could use a little more of this sort of mischief (not to mention more pickle foam, which was strangely delicious).

But it’s not all gimcrack chemistry, slapstick humor and references to distant star chefs. There was a single corn ravioli, dusted with cumin, that unleashed a tidal wave of what I thought must have been laboriously juiced-and-reduced corn kernels, but was actually just a simple cream sauce enriched with the late-season cobs from Clark Park’s Saturday farmers market.

An oyster appetizer brought creamy Kumamotos in four guises: raw under hot-sauce foam; poached in champagne; baked with leeks, bacon and Pernod; and fried, with a sprightly carrot-and-daikon slaw. Four classic preparations, four subtle twists, and yet each one managed to highlight the oyster at its foundation.

And for all the whiz-bang textures of Halpern’s heirloom tomato salad—crisp tomato chip, soft lavender foam, jiggly squares of balsamic jelly, coconut powder—he knows when to step back and let someone else’s work shine, in this case with luscious burrata curds that were one of a small handful of things not made in-house. (They also helped make up for the extreme-end-of-season tomatoes, whose flavor had finally been drowned out by the wettest month in memory.)

The entrée course played like a slightly restrained intermezzo to this wit and whimsy. A pork tenderloin with andouille sausage and Anson Mills grits aimed for the belly, not the nose or the funny bone—and hit home, except for a pair of funky crayfish that seemed like refugees from a less-fortunate dish. A filet of sea bass came under a heap of deep-fried shallots that made for a robust counterpoint to a water-thin but flavor-packed tomato consommé.

But then another wave of amuses—lemon curd, those precious ice-cream sandwiches—bridged us over to dessert, where chocolate came variously in a make-believe egg yolk and a sculptural slab reminiscent of Richard Serra’s rolled steel. Unfortunately, the pistachio ice cream in the profiteroles was a gummed-up overdose of nut fat. But then, part of the fun of eating like this is knowing that not every recipe will end up a keeper.

The one for Dinosaur Soup is, though. Halpern loved it—and the toddler triptych of which it’s a part—when he took over, so he kept it in place. At least, that was his intention. “Eight months in, someone stole it,” he recalls. “We were really sad about it, and a lot of our customers were, too. There was no way to replace it.”

Word went out through the neighborhood, which by that point had made up its mind about Marigold Kitchen’s latest rebirth, and three months later, the recipe mysteriously reappeared on the restaurant’s doorstep.

The first few steps might daunt anyone older than four, but the last one is a fitting recommendation for this old restaurant’s latest direction.

Dinosaur Soup
Take 4 dinosaurs.
Put in bowl.
Add some water.
Put in the microwave.
Eat it for 7 days.
—Ethan (age 3 ½)