[ review ]
If you were lucky enough to be invited to a barbecue at Brian Ricci's house last summer, you probably ate a lot of burgers. "I had dozens of friends over all summer long," Ricci remembers, one of the more pleasurable phases of developing the menu for Kennett, the soigné saloon that replaced Lyons Den late last year.
One keeper born of Ricci's backyard bun-buster workshop: the lamb burger, set before me at Kennett's mahogany bar. At first sight, you might guess the glistening half-pound patty (a LaFrieda blend) is beef, but there's no mistaking the lamb in taste, accented with twinkles of cumin, coriander and smoked paprika. A swipe of local-yogurt tzatziki for the challah bun. Red cabbage slaw for the crunch. Served with braised collards in earnest lieu of fries, it coulda been a contender — but while terrific, it's hardly the best thing here.
That honor belongs to the veg-focused fare at Kennett — things like a manly salad of sturdy Tuscan kale. Raw, these crinkly-edged winter greens ain't exactly mesclun-mix material, but a swift chiffonade creates manageable mouthfuls, while a bright sherry vinaigrette relaxes the kale's backbone like a master masseuse. Using an ingenious julienne of raw, candy-striped beets, the salad's crunch is akin to biting into a cool apple, with sweet roasted butternut squash and salty feta bringing balance.
Or take the Brussels sprouts, which are sourced from megawatt farmer Tom Culton and have more flavor in one little leaf than in an entire cranium of supermarket cabbage. All Ricci has to do is blanch and caramelize them with bacon, sherry and coriander. He pairs the halved heads with Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes), which most chefs "cook till they're dead, put in a Robot Coupe and say, 'Here's a fucking sunchoke purée.'" Ricci, a vet of Django, Supper and Pub & Kitchen, don't play that. Pan-roasted in brown butter, their nuttiness is coaxed like a cobra from its charmer's basket.
The addition of bacon in the Brussels disqualifies them for vegetarian status, but Ricci is happy (well, maybe not happy ) to make them pork-free. In fact, about half of the choices at Kennett can be altered slightly to accommodate veg/vegan diets — a smart move by Johnny Della Polla, the South Philly native and "health nut" who owns Kennett with Starr veteran Ashley Bohan. His closely guarded recipe for the Second Street Mary, Kennett's Bloody riff, includes vegan Worcestershire sauce and emulsified celery, for crying out loud, something I'm pretty sure only a health nut would dream up.
The cool celery purée does make for a dynamite Bloody, though, vegetable-rich enough to transcend the realm of brunch-time booze. But with cocktails designed by bartenders-about-town Phoebe Esmon and Christian Gaal, plus wine and craft beers, choosing what to drink isn't easy. One snowy night, I got thawed out by the Stone Fence, a smooth elixir of Old Grand-Dad bourbon, apple cider and honey. Glistening with flamed orange oils, the Mute Appeal did the trick during another visit, with doses of apple brandy, Averna, Pimm's and ginger liqueur.
Esmon and Gaal culled the core of their menu from the Prohibition era, around the time Ukrainian immigrant Steven Kennett bought this building and installed a boarding house and basement bootleg op.
Kennett, the man, has since passed away, but you can see him in the grainy gray photos, donated by surviving family members, that line the walls — a décor choice indicative of Della Polla and Bohan's sustainable renovation strategy. The wainscoting came from a demo-ed North Philly building. The tables are old barn wood, built by Bohan's carpenter-father. The long banquette opposite the bar was fashioned from the old bar rail, used wood, recycled jeans and milk cartons. The result of Della Polla and Bohan's eco-aware redo: Kennett is on task to be the first liquor-serving establishment in Philly to be certified by the national Green Restaurant Association.
One exception to the nothing-new design: Ricci's Forno Bravo pizza oven. Before hooking up with Della Polla, Ricci, a onetime baker at a San Francisco co-op, was in the process of setting up a truck operation called Flatbed Pizza. Kennett has proven a solid, albeit immobile, practice site. His dough gets a local influence from Lancaster-sourced Daisy flour, its high gluten content, when combined with the oven's hickory/beech inferno, creating 12-inch pies with an optimal balance of chew and crunch. Three options currently — I loved the scent of marjoram, Ricci's favorite herb, in lieu of basil on the vibrant margherita — with more on the way if the pies prove popular. Seems like things are heading that way. "I'm looking at my pizza guy's prep list right now," says Ricci, "and it basically says, 'Do everything.'"
In fact, "do everything" could be Kennett's mantra. Serious cocktails. Know-thy-farmer food. Sustainable design. Artisanal pizza. Even the desserts (shards of salty chocolate bark jabbing vanilla ice cream, a dreamy semolina custard layered with raspberry jam) are worthy. Rarely when a restaurant does everything does it also do everything well. Kennett's an exception, even with some kitchen slipups like an overwrought risotto (already off the menu) and an overcooked Scotch egg (Ricci knew it before I said it). The latter was part of a Robert Burns dinner that also featured brown sugar-, vodka- and citrus-cured salmon draped over bannock buns, a Scottish barley/buttermilk blini dabbed with crème fraaîche.
"There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing," the Scottish poet famously said, but in the case of Kennett's staying power, the bard just might be wrong.
Kennett | 848 S. Second St., 267-687-1426, kennettrestaurant.com. Dinner Tue.-Fri., 4-11 p.m.; brunch and dinner Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; late-night menu till 1 a.m., bar till 2 a.m.; closed Mon. Appetizers, $6-$9; sandwiches and pizza, $10-$16; entrées, $15-$21; desserts, $6-$8.