You will make fun of the pretzel on Pub & Kitchen’s new menu when it lands on your table.
Its knotted shape looks more like a sad pug face than a classic twist, with a giant bulbous pouf on one side and no crystals of salt glistening on top. The pan of condiment that comes below doesn’t much help; it’s hard to tell what the yellow stuff with some browning on top even is — polenta? Cheese sauce? Crab dip? (Crab dip.)
Then you will taste the pretzel and crab dip. And you will love it.
The look of the dish is not actually representative of what chef Steve Eckerd has done with the menu at this Rittenhouse-area standby — most of his food is visually appealing — but the substance is. When Eckerd was appointed to replace Eli Collins, who departed for a.kitchen after four years at P&K, he was given a mandate to take the restaurant “back to its classic gastropub roots.”
“We’re just trying to do simple pub food,” Eckerd said recently, hinting that his high-end talents — honed in NYC haute cuisine temple Daniel — might eventually be put to use at Pub & Kitchen’s sister spots, Fitler Dining Room and Avalon’s Diving Horse.
But is a pretzel made with local grain and fennel with a dip that elevates sweet peekytoe crab with saffron and espelette pepper actually simple? Maybe, in the way that you could just chow it down without thinking about it — but if you want to dig for interesting details, they’re there. That holds with a lot of Eckerd’s other food, too.
Here are some standouts to order when you stop by to try the new slate of offerings.
The shatteringly light batter stays crunchy even after it’s drizzled with a garlic-red chile oil, but the best part about this twist on the standard bar snack is the pairing with chickpeas and hummus. Add some bright leaves of Blue Moon Farms lettuce as intrinsic palate cleansers and voila ($14).
Smoked Spring Carrots
Another dish that’s not entirely pleasing on the eyes, but is all wow on the palate. The carrots take a star turn with a flavor that’s like earth-wind-sky (smoky, nutty, grassy), and you’ll be surprised how good bulgur wheat tastes when it’s mixed with mint pesto and streaked with stracciatella cheese ($11).
These seem like just your run-of-the-mill deviled eggs — until you bite into them and your tongue hits the piece of pickled mackerel sticking out the top. It’s a fascinating texture combo that will have you considering whether or not you enjoy it as you scarf the other ones down ($7).
Grilled Pork Belly
After pork belly became trendy, it was very easy to find versions where the fatty part — it’s supposed to be at least half fat — was left gelatinous and globby. In Eckerd’s take here, it’s cooked just enough to spread easily on the tongue, infiltrating the soft, salty meat after picking up heat and sweetness from a garnish of smoked jalapeno marmalade ($9).
Fried Chesapeake Oysters
The common crime in fried-oyster land is that the batter shell slides right off, but Eckerd’s cornmeal crust clings to its briny treasure, so that when you bite in, it almost pops in your mouth like giant caviar. A kaffir lime aioli adds brightness and zing ($9).
The Double Windsor
One of the first things P&K became known for when it opened with chef Jonathan “Johnny Mac” Adams at the helm was the Windsor burger. It was one of Philly’s first high-end gastro-burger bombs, with meat from LaFrieda, and articles were actually written when it was taken off the menu.
Well, it’s back, kind of. The custom beef blend is now from Debragga, and the patties are thinner, but doubled up. The party continues with Cooper sharp cheese melted over pickled red onion and lots of special sauce, plus iceberg lettuce. This is what a Big Mac wishes it could be ($16).
NB: For vegans, the sweet potato-falafel burger is also on point, with a crunchy shell and intensely spicy interior that doesn’t fall apart ($16).