Last week, I turned 29.
There I said it.
For the past few years when my birthday was on the horizon, I would joke that I was turning 26 again, that it was my third 26th birthday, etc. You see, I had a pretty amazing year when I was 26 (got engaged, bought a house, finished graduate school, etc.) and I decided that I was going to stay that age forever. Recently though, I was starting to realize that I was confused about my own age. I caught myself in a lie more than once when someone asked my age, and I replied 26, without even thinking.
So, it’s time to embrace the fact that 26 has gone for good.
I’m in my late 20s.
I’m almost 30.
What a sad fact. Ugh.
I had to work on my actual birthday (very long road trip to D.C. and back), so I planned a fun weekend with my family, instead. Friday night, Chester and I kicked it off with dinner at a.kitchen, located in the new AKA boutique hotel in Rittenhouse Square. It had been on our radar screen to try for awhile, but a recent glowing three-bell review from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig LaBan quickly pushed it up to the top of our list.
I’ve seen my fair share of hotel restaurants in recent years, and this does not fit the typical mold. The head chef is Bryan Sikora, who was previously the chef and co-owner of Django and Talula’s Table (before he and Amy Olexy got divorced. Oh, the drama.). I would agree with the critics, who have found it pretty hard to classify what a.kitchen is all about. The menu blends various types of cuisines—Italian, French, Spanish—and seems to have the same relaxed, modern vibe and focus on seasonal ingredients that are staples of Philadelphia’s array of farm to table restaurants.
Clearly, though, the buzz about a.kitchen has spread around the city. Every table was full when we arrived at 8 p.m. and potential customers who stuck their heads in to inquire about the wait time were told that it stretched toward 10 p.m. Although small inside (we were seriously invading the personal space of the bar patrons while we waited for our table), the interior of the restaurant is warm and inviting, with classic oak, steel, and marble furnishings throughout. We ended up being seated at the ten-seat counter around the open kitchen, where we could take in all of the action. The line of chefs behind the counter, expertly manned the pasta, grill, salad, and dessert stations throughout the night, without bumping into each other once.
The menu was divided into three sections—vegetable, fish, and meat. If you are indecisive, you can choose from one of two pre-set tasting menus that feature one dish from each section of the menu, plus dessert. Since I couldn’t even make up my mind about what to choose from the vegetable section, I opted for one of these menus.
My first course was a scallop dish. Although they were seared to perfection (none of that rubbery texture that comes from being overcooked) and seasoned well, they weren’t extremely memorable. I wondered what Craig LaBan had seen in his visits that I was missing.
Once I sampled the next two dishes, it was clear that the scallops were just meant to be a warm-up.
First up was Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. How could a dish with just five simple ingredients be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten? The homemade pasta was the perfectly al dente and the ratio of butter, salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese was just right. This would be one of those dishes I would love to make at home, but would never be able to do justice.
Next, came the Lamb Loin, with Treviso and Black Olives. The squares of lamb were cooked to a lovely shade of pink in the center, and they were plump enough to absorb all of the juice they were cooked in. The slightly sweet sauce played well with the treviso, which is a slightly bitter herb, and the salty olives. All in all, it was a perfect combination of flavors that appealed to every tastebud.
Finally, dessert was three almond macaroons served atop a date puree. I would have rather had the chocolate panna cotta that came with the other pre-set menu, but I did enjoy the chewy, nutty cookies. I tried the dates and decided that I still don’t care for them.
Meanwhile, since Chester is better at making up his mind than I am, he chose his own dishes. Which of course, I sampled.
First up were the spiced potatoes, which were paired with a very citrusy mayo. These would make a nice happy hour snack, but were really nothing remarkable. Next up was the frisee salad with pork belly and poached egg. I know that Chester would have preferred the pork belly to come as a big, thick slab rather than diced up throughout the salad, but I liked that the poached egg made the greens warm (like my old favorite, the warm chicken salad, that used to be on the menu at Pod).
Like my scallops, these two courses were just place holders for the rest of the meal.
Next up was the tender, flavorful grilled octopus. Like scallops, octopus can become rubbery if it’s left to cook for too long. Not the case at a.kitchen, where it was tender and flavorful. It was served with chickpea fries. I first sampled these at the now defunct Noble where they were tough and flavorless. a.kitchen’s were melt-in-your-mouth perfection. I would take a side of them with a burger (over French fries) any day.
The final dish was venison. Chester loved it, and the little bite I had was pretty amazing. It was lean and tender and didn’t have the gamey taste that I expected.
The one negative I would mention is that the service was a bit lacking at some points. There were a lot of staff members milling around the dining room, but it didn’t seem like some of them were doing anything. Our primary waiter disappeared for long stretches of time (and put the wrong salad order in for Chester the first time around. Luckily, the kitchen staff hustled to get it out) and it was often awhile before another server came over to refill glasses and clear plates.
Given some of the so-so dishes and uneven service, I still don’t completely know where LaBan is coming from with the three-bell review. Nevertheless, a.kitchen is absolutely worth a visit (even if it’s not your birthday) and is my favorite of the new places I’ve tried recently. If you don’t already have it on your list of restaurants to try, add it. If it’s already there, bump it up. The beauty of this restaurant is that it just offers simple dishes that are well prepared and beautifully presented. Really, a.kitchen doesn’t have a gimmick, and I guess that’s what makes it so refreshing.