Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Choose Your Own Adventure at Serpico

Though New York food scene acquisition Peter Serpico may have many moods, the chef's kaleidoscopic dishes shine at his new home on South Street.

You make your way to Peter Serpico’s new home on South Street, among the head shops and tattoo parlors and neon entreaties for the purchase of gold, in a state of mounting wonder about what sort of restaurant Stephen Starr lured the Beard-honored Momofuku lieutenant to this particular corner to run.

Down from the anarchist bookstore and past Atomic Comics, you slip through a tinted glass door into a darkly radiant box. A stainless steel kitchen glimmers within the glossy skirt of a deeply stained wood bar. Black slate walls cast a sexy mood beneath a band of blond bricks glowing with straw-colored light. And your question resists a straightforward answer.

The evening can begin in any number of ways. An elegantly attired hostess might seat you at the kitchen counter, beneath Serpico’s placid gaze and neatly parted hair, next to a pair of buttoned-down boomers sipping a bottle of Kistler. Or you could find yourself drinking mezcal-and-Averna cocktails with a pair of hip-hop fashionistas in New Era ball caps, attended to by a hipster-whiskered server rocking tight shorts cut from cream-colored corduroy.

The variability blossoms from there.

Navigating a menu of uncategorized dishes, you may end up eating like a yoga instructor. Start with a bowl of wilted shiso leaves, charred pea tendrils, and sugar snap peas whose pods, bearing icy cucumber pebbles, float like little green canoes on a clear dashi broth as cool as the other side of the pillow. Have some crudo: lean slices of fluke that seethe with jalapeño and pop with tonburi “mountain caviar.” Skip the slurry of oysters and razor clams with fennel, seaweed and olive oil, and proceed instead to a crispy-skinned trout fillet, its caper-brined flesh soft and sweet upon a micro-dice of smoked potatoes drizzled with chive oil. Wrap up dinner by dipping paper-thin chamomile wafers into a bowl of yuzu curd dolloped with lemon foam—the most inventively refreshing dessert of the summer—and you could do 20 sun salutations straight-away without so much as a stomach murmur.

Or, on another night, you could feast like a weightlifter mulling a run at the next Wing Bowl. Serpico tucks deep-fried bricks of duck leg into potato rolls slicked with hoisin sauce. He concocts a jiggly egg custard mounded with fried potato shards, cauliflower mushrooms, sturgeon caviar and nutty brown butter. Ignore the handkerchief pasta with snails, sausage and chicken skin. It lacks spark. Rather, go straight to the double-portioned lamb ribs, which are to that austere dashi soup what a sledgehammer is to a toothpick. The ribs are stuffed with shoulder meat, coated with a gingery paste of burnt onions spiced heavily with cinnamon, clove, star anise and lemongrass, cooked 24 hours sous-vide, then charred to order. Sent out with yogurt and mashed eggplant and spring onion bulbs cupping a Szechuan hot sauce that strikes your tongue like a scorpion sting, it’s a blockbuster dish—the fever dream of some mad Indonesian barbecue master exiled in Turkey.

Of course, dinner can fall anywhere between these extremes, though not every server was adept at guiding eaters toward coherent meals a month in.

“I’m still trying to find my voice when it comes to food,” Serpico said in July. Meanwhile, he was speaking in tongues. French-style comfort, monastic Japanese, multicultural pasta: Serpico’s range makes it hard to pin a label on his restaurant. And in that way, it’s the perfect Starr restaurant for people who profess not to like Starr restaurants.

A bigger challenge may be figuring out what occasion it suits. Serpico hopes his “un-designed” menu will lend itself equally to an anniversary dinner or neighborhood folks popping in for one dish and a drink. Since both routes are pricey, it’s hard to know how that’ll work out.

But there’s much to like about his tightly controlled cooking. Like the way produce gets equal footing with protein—and not just because his daily vegetable plate is a doozy. (For example: the summer’s best squash, bitter fronds of amaranth, oyster mushrooms and sweated onions scattered with chewy sorghum berries and lily bulbs fried to gold crisps, on a lemon sauce as rich as hollandaise.)

I liked that duck breast came with blood-red carrots that were just as meaty and flavorful, and knockout radish slices pickled in yuzu juice. And anyone who doesn’t fall hard for the corn ravioli needs his tongue examined. Sweet corn puree gushes from pasta envelopes stained with chorizo, mingling with charred corn kernels, roasted and pickled onions and sour cream. Sliced hearts of palm soaked in lime juice give the sweet-and-savory dish an addictively uplifting tang. As long as it’s on the menu—which it should be year-round, as the corn is a local dehydrated delicacy—the best pasta in town will no longer be Italian but Mexican, by way of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

It’s also a fitting emblem for Serpico, with its Babel of culinary influences and South Street-style subversion of manner and dress. What else is an American restaurant, anyway, but America in miniature, a kaleidoscopic jumble from which everyone has to make his own sense?