[ review ]
Here's something you probably didn't hear from a waiter all last year: "For four people, I'd recommend a couple appetizers, maybe a salad, and two entrées. That way you'll still have a little room for dessert."
Small plates have laid siege to Philadelphia long enough that Koo Zee Doo is liable to throw you off balance. Or outright flatten you in a food coma, if you share my inability to take a hint. Mistrusting the "family-style" credo of this Portuguese newcomer to Northern Liberties, I wheedled our server into granting permission for a third entrée. But that was just a ruse to bring the total to four. I mean, who can pass up rabbit stew with pork belly in this windshield-cracking cold?
Next time I'll try. Or maybe not; there's nothing like opening your fridge the next day and finding half a rabbit next to a quarter-pound of steak.
Both of those were as satisfying as comfort food gets, and the stew was even better the second time around — meat falling into threads almost as tender as the wispy mushroom stems; split potatoes soaking up even more bacon fat; and bright green fava beans, frozen at the height of harvest, to remind you that winter must eventually unclench its fist.
Come warmer weather, husband-and-wife team David Gilberg and Carla Goncalves plan to focus on the grill. For my money, there's no reason to wait. Koo Zee Doo makes you feel silly when you say it out loud — especially once you discover how little the faux-phonetic spelling sounds like the word it's meant to evoke, cozido, Portuguese for "cooked" — but its warm brick walls and copper kitchen feel homier than home. Ditto for Gilberg's cooking, which is simpler and more rustic than the tapas he left behind at Bar Ferdinand. It's modeled after the family meals his mother-in-law used to make, trying to inject her native Portugal into her suburban American kitchen.
"She never made each person their own dish," Goncalves says. "You had to share. And we wanted to bring my mother's dinner table to Philadelphia."
I could think of far worse things than growing up at Casa Goncalves, where, to judge from Koo Zee Doo, even chicken gizzards would have had the kids racing to their dinner chairs. I guess it makes sense that the digestive-tract equivalent of a rock tumbler would be tender, but that didn't diminish the surprise. Braised in tart vinho verde and a rich chicken stock that's sweet with caramelized onions, they were like iron-fortified escargots.
A fetching salad of bacalhau and chickpeas, crowned by a fan of hard-boiled-egg slices whose yolks glistened like yellow gemstones, anchored the other end of the appetizer spectrum. If salt cod isn't too salty, it's often too fishy, but this firm and fresh-tasting rendition was neither. Gilberg credits a Portuguese importer in New Jersey who sells whole sides of salt cod with bone and skin intact, which he's had better luck with than the boneless and skinless variety that I can now blame for my last kitchen disappointment.
The four large grilled sardines that followed as an entrée were a letdown, though — lacking the ultra-freshness that's distinguished some others I've eaten lately.
A terrific bread soup made up for it. Ounce for ounce, it probably had more mushrooms than anything else. A virtual spaghetti of shoelace-thin stems and tiny caps swam in a broth that was as rich as a mushroom stroganoff, but without the cream. It soaked through little rafts of country bread that carried poached eggs so white and plump they looked like fertility idols carved from alabaster. I'd be likelier to order that one again if it were sized as an appetizer, but any soup here is a good bet. A bowl of carrot and chestnut soup just about stole the show: rich but not too heavy, with hidden slivers of sweetness in the form of lovingly quartered red grapes. (The adverb may seem a bit much, but take it from the parent of a grape-mad toddler who only recently graduated to halves.)
That rabbit stew may have been better on the second go-round, but there was no improving on the steak. The blistered culotte, a cut from the top sirloin cap renowned more for flavor than texture, was surprisingly tender all the way through. Plus fried eggs, broccoli rabe and potato coins fried in canola oil — whose crispiness proved that duck fat isn't always the best medium. And those entrées in particular are plenty big for two, a great value at about $13 per person.
We failed to save room for dessert but ordered three anyway. None made it into a doggie bag. Goncalves makes the after-dinner treats (in addition to all the bread), and her coconut tart might be good enough to prompt a fork fight among diners who limited themselves to half an entrée. The crust was crispy, each strand of shredded coconut somehow seemed to sing its own note, and I'd have stuffed my damned pockets with the cinnamon whipped cream had my tablemates left any on the plate. Her bolo de bolacha, a Portuguese variant of tiramisu, was the equal or better of any tiramisu I can remember. She also practically embalms and mummifies figs in chocolate.
If small plates drive you crazy, or winter's got you down, or you simply want comfort food in a cozy place at a price that's more than fair, Koo Zee Doo is well worth the trip.
Koo Zee Doo | 614 N. Second St., 215-923-8080, koozeedoo.com. Breakfast/lunch Fri.-Sun., noon-3 p.m. Dinner Thu., Sun.-Mon., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; closed Tue.-Wed. Appetizers, soups, salads, $6-$11; entrées, $16-$28; desserts, $6-$8. BYOB. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible.