There's a deceptively casual atmosphere at Snackbar, the glowing little cove of an eatery that opened more than a month ago at 20th and Rittenhouse. The 40-seat fireplace-lit room where Salt and Out of the Blue once lived has been chicly updated from BYO to lounge with tomato red walls, small round tables and sinkably soft white chairs. The soundtrack shuffles through a hipster playlist, including everything from Pavement to Postal Service to Black Sabbath. In the morning, coffee and pastries are served, before the kitchen transitions into the "snack" menu, an oblong two-pager of lunch and dinner dishes described only by a haiku-cryptic list of ingredients. At night, servers in sweaters and jeans float by, offering interesting wines and beers like Spanish Verdejo and Japanese Hitachino Nest, and glass bowls of popcorn seasoned with cinnamon and curry.
If a snack is something you eat mindlessly while chatting or tipping back pints of beer, the popcorn is the most snack-like thing you'll encounter here. The kitchen's creations, with its minimal descriptions and deconstructed plating, are something else altogether. If it's dinner you're after, the experience can range from intriguing and challenging to dissatisfying. For a food nerd on the prowl for the latest developments in molecular gastronomy, it's a hell of an evening.
: Michael T. Regan
Chef Jonathan McDonald did a stint in Spain at Mugaritz, a restaurant known for extremely innovative, sci-fi-style cuisine. Snackbar's shape-shifting ingredients and witty sensibility make that training apparent. You see it in the liberal use of olive oil not in its usual green-tinted liquid form, but in a dehydrated white powder that's sprinkled across cool slices of amberjack fish with pink Campari reduction and pomegranate seeds, or on the wedge of Toledo, a Portuguese mixed-milk cheese presented with the world's thinnest slice of crostini. There's an artfulness to the presentation, which looks not like the ingredients were arranged but as if they actually danced across the kitchen and skidded to a halt on the white geometric plates.
This is food that requires mental work, the willingness to puzzle out your plate rather than allow its flavors to wash over you. As is often the case with avant-garde cuisine, some dishes are more interesting than delicious, like the little mounds of spaghetti squash twirled up like beehive hairdos. The strands of squash, drizzled with tart yuzu vinaigrette, sit attractively on a painted line of acrid red pepper paste. But with no unifying flavor to hold it all together, the dish falls flat. Then there are the escargots, strung up on a skewer and paired with chopped walnuts and a smear of sweet butternut squash. It's fascinating to see the meaty snails freed from their usual garlic butter, but the dish feels naked and tastes incomplete.
I could appreciate but not necessarily savor the Irish Ardrahan cheese, whose overpowering stinkiness is only slightly mollified by a tiny wedge of soda bread, smoked pear and a dab of clover honey.
At times the novelty works better on paper than it does on the palate, as with the toothpick-impaled apple wedges rolled in miso caramel and wasabi pea crust, or with the discs of persimmon served with smoked salt and powdered sheep's milk. Crafty, indeed, but these are not combinations you come away craving. The banana in cilantro crust was ideally mated with a thick salty caramel, but a peppery paper tenting the plate was one quirky ingredient too many.
The "pastry" category offers more accessible pleasures, kooky as they may be even a liquefied cookie will still taste sweet. The vanilla financier, presented with a trail of Hansel and Gretel-style crumbs, is a harmonious delight of rich almond cake, sweet foam, white chocolate drizzle and rose-flavored gelée petals. Then there's the molten chocolate cake, a cliche of dessert menus made new by brilliant details, namely a licorice nib placed in the center that melts into the chocolate and leaves a lingering kiss of anise, and a malted coffee powder that will tempt you (were you not in Rittenhouse Square) to pick up the plate and lick it.
My favorite dishes happened to be the most traditional combinations. (They were also among the most awkward for sharing and perhaps that's a lucky thing.) Polenta, cooked to a velvety cream and served in a pedestal bowl, glistens with melted Taleggio cheese and sports a feathery radicchio garnish. This dish, which is best enjoyed via spoon, has the soulful, comforting appeal I found lacking in the kitchen's more cerebral creations. I also love the rainbow trout with its fluff of whipped and smoked eggs and neon-green scallion puree. The coffee plum sauce and unctuous beef filling of gyoza are extremely appealing, though unfortunately their wrapping had desiccated around the edges on a recent visit.
Another gem is the slices of striped pork belly presented with a nest of crispy black seaweed and a slow-cooked egg. A small pitcher of smoky dashi (Japanese kelp broth) is poured over top, and when you break into the egg, the whole soup is clouded with rich yellow yolk. It's the sort of fatty, messy dish you want to slurp over the counter of a noodle bar. Something you can dig into no contemplation necessary.
253 S. 20th St.215-545-5655www.phillysnackbar.com
Mon.-Sat., 7:30 a.m.- 1 a.m.; Sun., 8:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Wheelchair accessible. No reservations. Credit cards accepted.