"I am here" (or at least I was a few nights ago). That's the chosen name, in its Latin form "adsum," for the new Queen Village/Southwark-based bistro owned and operated by Chef Matt Levin. The moniker seems not so much a statement of hubris as it is a conveyor of personal space. Levin has moved away, at least in part, from the intensive molecular gastronomy approach that earned him accolades during his stint as top chef at Lacroix, moving more toward, as he suggested in an interview with Meal Ticket earlier this year, food he'd actually take comfort in eating himself.
Beyond the obvious shift toward simplicity relative to the Lacroix days, Levin's new approach begs a simple question: does the food at Adsum actually deliver on the promise of comfort? Let's take a look.
Foie gras poutine
This dish would seem a sure hit on the comfort scale, in spite of the PETA-pounding, haute-cuisine knock up added by the fatted liver. The idea was right, and the combination clever, but the execution could use some work. Bordering on being both overcooked and under-seasoned, the duck-fat fries were tepid when delivered to the table. The rest of the elements — foie gras, cheese curds and gravy — were right on, though there wasn't quite enough gravy to go around.
Grilled rock octopus, black pepper caramel
This sounded much more unusual on paper than it was on the plate, as the "black pepper caramel" essentially boils down to being barbecue sauce — and very tasty, I might add. The octopus was cooked perfectly, ever so lightly crisped by the grill on the exterior but tender and just a wee bit snappy, not at all tough or chewy, at its core. The char from the grilling combined with the caramelized sauce to form a granular texture that didn't really bother me but was slightly off-putting to my dining companion.
Fried chicken, collards, ham hocks, hot sauce
Along with the FG poutine, the fried chicken seems destined to be the signature dish at Adsum. Philadelphia Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols has already deemed it the best fried chicken in the city. While I can't say I've eaten my fried chicken way around town to the extent that Rick has, I can certainly see why he liked it so much; the chicken itself was drop dead delicious. The battered skin was ightly crisped and crunchy without being at all overbearing or greasy while the meat was juicy, moist and almost flaky in its delicacy.
More crumbly than flaky, the biscuit, a clear nod to the dish's southern origins (as if the chicken and collards weren't clear enough) was flavorful but too dry, needing either a dose of gravy or a more breakfast-oriented slathering of butter and jam to render it less palate parching. And the ham-hocked, hot-sauced collards? At first bite they were a revelation — surprisingly tender yet toothsome, highly caramelized yet still delivering the requisite kicks of vinegar and porky goodness. As the bites continued, however, the red pepper hot sauce driven heat built and built, eventually to the point that it was robbing the dish of its otherwise nuanced flavors.
Whole fish, shrimp salt, popped wild rice, green sauce
Popped rice – little more than a gimmicky distraction adorning the corner of the plate – aside, this was the most completely satisfying and well balanced dish of the night, helped along no doubt by the first appearance of any seasonal ingredients. Though the skin on our black bass could have benefited from just a bit more pan-crisping, the fish itself was moist, flavorful and cooked to a tee, with a welcome brightness provided by the tangy spice of the green sauce, a sort of guacamole/tomatillo salsa hybrid.
Mama's Little Yella Pils, Oskar Blues Brewery, Lyons, Colorado.
Much like at nearby Southwark (one block due east at 4th & Bainbridge) and Chick's Cafe (two blocks west at 7th & Kater), the primary focus of the beverage program at Adsum appears to be cocktails. There's a list of six or seven house concoctions that looked not only quite creative but also quite inviting, enough so that I'd happily venture back for a drink at the bar sometime. I'm not a fan of cocktails with food, though, so it was on to the wine list I went.... And then, quickly, on to the beer list, which thankfully included several things I'd actually opt to drink, regardless of circumstances. "Mama's Little Yella Pils" actually struck me more like a kolsch, round, clean and less bitter than the classic Pilsner profile. Just the refreshing kick needed for a hot night in the city, and a fine accompaniment to the broad spectrum of flavors and textures that crossed our plates.
There's some dialing-in to be done in the kitchen at Adsum. The wine list needs major improvement, or at least corkage needs to be allowed. But overall, there's plenty to recommend and, certainly, plenty of potential.
700 South 5th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147