Duck at CO/OP

On the third week of May, the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of 2017 graduates, and Craig Russell gets married. “It’s literally going to be the busiest week of my life,” said the groom-to-be and executive chef of CO/OP, the polished 156-seat restaurant at the new Study University City hotel.

That’s good news, because based on my visits, quiet CO/OP needs bodies. The restaurant was so slow on a Saturday in March and a Sunday in April, back-to-back little league teams could have rolled into the airy dining room without reservations. The pro servers, seemingly as grateful for guests to wait on as Mrs. Potts and Lumiere, absolutely spoiled me.

Empty restaurants — even ones as good-looking as CO/OP, with its honestly comfortable chairs, roll-up garage-style glass walls and butterscotch leather — are gloomy, and Philadelphians haven’t quite gotten around to infusing this space with life yet. Unless you work at or go to Penn or Drexel, it’s out of the way, and despite improvements during the universities’ Schuylkill-ho Manifest Destiny campaign, the area is not exactly pulsing with organic commercial vitality.

“Our main guests are clients of the hotel,” Russell admits. Which can be creatively inhibiting. “I can’t say no to anybody. If someone wants to create their own dish, it’s not ideal, but we do it.” So, good news if you want a ho-hum Caesar salad or Paleo-vegan chicken fingers. But that would be silly, because Russell is cooking the most creative food at a Philly hotel restaurant not named Lacroix.

The dining room could be more full Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

At my first dinner, he served a knockout duck dish, and the sauce, a boring-sounding, extraordinary-tasting parsley puree, has been subletting a corner of my brain for the last two months. The color was liquefied emerald, completely resistant to the burgundy tributaries of brooding duck jus meandering through, and the flavor was both grassy — as you’d expect from the herb — and curiously rich. Russell fortifies the sauce with brown butter, I later learned, providing not only a delightful misdirection but also a bumper of fat that played incredibly well against the plate’s other main flavor agent, Cape gooseberries. The berries popped like water balloons, releasing their unusual floral fragrance with a gush of sugar and acid. A slice of the duck, speared with a gooseberry, dabbed in the parsley sauce, was the most electric bite of food I’ve had so far this year.

The duck wasn’t alone. Across two meals, Russell showed an artistic knack for unexpected flavors. Warming vadouvan perfumed a plank of butter-toasted sourdough, the base for Peekytoe crab salad with gribiche. Strawberries and rhubarb are old friends, but what happens when a bubblegum-pink agrodolce glaze of the two meets slow-cooked spare ribs rubbed with earthy za’atar? Naked rib bones, that’s what. Egyptian dukkah — Russell’s version contains sesame, cumin, coriander, black peppers and pistachios — popped on collage of roasted cauliflower, pickled fennel, parsnip chips, cippolini onions, pistachio puree and cider-glazed kale. The entrée is vegan, but where other chefs might have just tossed something together, Russell seems to have poured the most thought and prep work into this vegetable manifesto.

Dukkah with cauliflower, a vegan tour de force Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

CO/OP being inside a hotel, there are concessions, but often they’re well-executed, tasty ones. Gold-leaf skin, moist white meat and schmaltzy vegetables came together in a homey rotisserie chicken. Fettuccine tossed with braised rabbit and asparagus was a simple invitation to spring — three weeks ahead of actual asparagus season, but still.

Russell’s pastry chef, Gina Esposito, knows her way around a potato bread recipe, whether formed into little loaves for an appetizer with loaded bacon-chive sour cream dip (I preferred an earlier spinach-and-ricotta version) or as a fluffy bun for the grass-fed burger. About that burger, the well-seasoned patty slayed, but the Grafton cheddar and onion confit was a bit of an umami tsunami without tomato and lettuce to balance. Fortunately at this meal, I was splitting everything with three other people, and my server instructed the kitchen to quarter the burger, each piece held together with a fancy toothpick.

Vadouvan-soaked toast with peekytoe crab Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Esposito’s desserts trend county fair: chocolate cake, pies, tarts. When you walk through the tiled vestibule from CO/OP’s Chestnut Street entrance, you can see the confections resting on cake stands on the sill of a peekaboo window into the gleaming white kitchen. I usually hate pecan pie for its cloying sweetness, but hers managed some welcome salt and bitterness, while the brown-sugar apple pie drew savory notes from an almond-fennel crumble. Both crusts were a shade underdone, with translucent bits of butter trapped in the bottom dough; more time in the oven or a higher temperature would transform them into steam and shortly thereafter, flaky layers. No problem with the crust on a pleasant mixed berry tart another night; I just wish it had been served room temperature instead of cold, a peculiar choice worsened by a chilled plate. All desserts get topped with Esposito’s fragrant, silky vanilla ice cream

Of everything I tried at CO/OP, there was only one outright whiff, a fluke crudo that insulted Russell’s Cape May upbringing. The flounder was fishy, and the coconut and cilantro gels were sweet and sticky as saltwater taffy left out in the sun. Other faults were less tragic. A football-sized rotisserie sweet potato dressed with spiced vanilla yogurt, sherry gastrique, pickled golden raisins and candied walnuts made for a novel couple bites, but nothing I wanted to spend too much time on. The mild house kraut beneath the strawberry-rhubarb ribs lacked guts.

My bigger concern is whether Paul McGowan, who owns Study University City and its sister property at Yale, will continue to support Russell’s creativity. McGowan has built his chef a glittering Scandinavian tundra of an open kitchen — “most of the restaurants I’ve worked in could fit inside it,” Russell said, among them Blackfish, Will and Townsend—and it would be a shame if drab-ass banquet food started emerging from it.

Short rib for the mac ‘n’ cheese Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

I saw some positive changes at CO/OP between my visits, namely within the cocktail list, which has jettisoned some of its St. Germain-heavy, flavored-vodka creations and added a lovely pisco sour foamed up with chickpea juice instead of egg white (vegans) and more brown liquor-based drinks. But there have been some disconcerting changes, as well. Rabbit is gone from the fettuccine, replaced by (less scary) crab and a short rib mac-and-cheese has appeared on the menu.

“People don’t necessarily want to be wowed by elaborate dishes; they just want to be comfortable,” Russell said, which mostly makes me think of Chris Christie’s silent screams at Mar-a-Lago. Chefs who do comfort food are commonplace. Chefs who do duck, parsley, brown butter and gooseberries? I only know one.

Chef Craig Russell in the kitchen at CO/OP Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

3 Quakers – Excellent*
20 South 33rd Street, 215.387.1400
Dinner Hours: 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. daily
Lunch Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday
Breakfast Hours: 7 a.m.-11 a.m. Monday-Friday
Brunch Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Lounge open daily morning through latenight
Price: $$$*

Executive Chef: Craig Russell
Owner: Paul McGowan
Food & Beverage Director: Sebastien Gressier
General Manager: Jeremy Gelman
Pastry Chef: Gina Esposito
Sous Chef: Zach Letendre
Junior Sous Chef: Paul Silva
Assistant General Manager: Laura Brennan

Adam Erace

Adam is a South Philly native who’s been a restaurant reviewer for a decade, dropping wisdom and advice about where to dine for area publications like Philadelphia Weekly, the Courier-Post...