Philadelphia Restaurant Review: No-brow Americana at Square Peg

Chef Matt Levin likens himself to a square peg that doesn't fit into a round hole. But since when does nonconformity taste like Kool-Aid?

Frito bag tacos at Square Peg in Philadelphia

Matt Levin wants to provoke you. He wants to ruffle your expectations, challenge received wisdom about what belongs in high-concept dining, needle you into ingesting things on Saturday that you spent Friday trying to ban from your kid’s school cafeteria.

At Moonlight in New Hope, he speckled lobster tails with Pop Rocks. At Adsum, he used Tastykakes as slider buns. Not long after the hospitalization (and in one case, near-death) of nine college students at Central Washington University who’d made the mistake of guzzling Four Loko, Levin presented a three-course meal featuring the ultra-caffeinated­ alcoholic “energy drink”
in every dish and drink pairing. It got national media coverage.

He also helmed the kitchen at Lacroix­ between 2006 and 2008, where his cooking was lauded as some of the best (perhaps the best) in the city. But Levin thrives on a headier sort of attention, and Square Peg (which slipped into the generically handsome brick skin of the old Marathon Grill at 10th and Walnut streets in March) is the Twitter-happy chef’s latest bid for it.

“We’re a diner-inspired restaurant,” a server chirped about a month after it opened. “You’ll see a lot of classic dishes, but with twists and unusual ingredients.”

Just how unusual depends on how frequently you eat out of vending machines and powdered-drink packets. Levin pickles watermelon chunks in Kool-Aid®, cuts his bacon marmalade with Heinz 57®, and dumps carnitas into a two-ounce FRITOS® bag. The registered trademark icons are the menu’s, not mine, but their unnecessary inclusion typifies the deliberate cognitive dissonance that defines this place.

Standing before a photo-mural of Dust Bowl-era laborers, one server spoke reverently about “Chef” while detailing mass-branded ingredients that called the capital-C honorific into serious question. Another vouchsafed that the cheesesteak potpie was “actually a metaphor of a potpie,” but didn’t actually recommend it.

So how does it all go down?

“Chef’s signature dish,” my most spirited of four servers assured me, is fried chicken. And you won’t find better. Levin brines premium birds in pickle juice, airs them out properly, and cooks them in a pressurized deep fryer whose accelerated speed renders the flesh so juicy you can hardly believe the skin, which is as crunchy as cracklings. It comes with a honeyed hot sauce whose electrifying cayenne kick and high-amplitude sweetness are everything you want with fried fowl, even if it rides roughshod over the side of braised collards. Framing the plate is that Kool-Aid-doctored­ watermelon, which caters to people who like Jolly Ranchers at the expense of those who actually like watermelon.

That theme recurred in Levin’s turkey sliders, which buried skimpy folds of good Lancaster turkey breast beneath sickly-sweet candied yams, cranberry relish, desiccated nuggets of sage stuffing, and marshmallows out of a bag. Levin’s Heinz-bacon marmalade was alarmingly sweet, but the tender meatloaf beneath it was a savory slice of full-throated flavor.

It seemed that for every decent dish, there was a mediocre one—and another that failed outright. As a perfectly scaled set: Deep-fried polenta pegs were bewitchingly creamy, the burger felt perfunctory, and a creamed-corn crème caramel was an eggy, revolting mess.

Square Peg’s alcohol-spiked milkshakes are best-in-class, but what to make of the synthetically flavored “blackberry” whiskey cocktails? One came to me by mistake (the server offered to “hit it with grapefruit juice,” but not to bring the drink I’d actually ordered), one came on purpose, and both tasted like something mixed by Sigma Nu’s hazing director when the roofies ran out.

The carnitas in Levin’s Frito-­bag tacos contain aji amarillo, one of my favorite and most rarely encountered chili peppers, but a bloodhound could scarcely track it through the obliterating flavor of the chips. It may be possible for a smart chef to elevate junk food, but here, the junk drags everything else down. And ultimately, these are somebody else’s flavors—the kind concocted in those synthetic factories lining the New Jersey Turnpike. Levin’s habit of enriching his cooking with products that have impoverished our food culture could perhaps be deemed post-modern irony. But irony is a lousy basis for cuisine.

So is gluttony, as embodied by his “foie gras double down,” which sandwiches the delicacy between fried chicken-cutlet patties. (I don’t regret its unavailability when I dined.)

And so is carelessness. As in roasted cauliflower riddled with warm and cool spots, like something poorly reheated. And limp lettuce. And dry stuffing. And missing parmesan crisps on the grilled romaine. AND drinks delivered 10 minutes apart to a twosome, so that a thirsty man has to watch a sheepish man sip. Later, when we asked to split a shake, Miss Hit It With Grapefruit answered, “Sure. Do you just want two straws? Or do you want it no-homo?”

Well, I guess she had just witnessed me drink that sorority-sister punch. And at least her Tourettic comment was authentic. Too much of the food and drink here felt contrived.

Levin has talent. I’ve tasted its fruits, elsewhere and (too rarely) here. But what ultimately ruins Square Peg is that it puts that talent—and its customers—at the mercy of something altogether more suspect: Levin’s judgment.