Pub & Kitchen
At this Rittenhouse stunner, chef Eli Collins puts an exciting, new spin on gastropub “comfort food”
by Brian Freedman

Fourteen-year-old Brian would be appalled.

Even now, nearly two and a half decades later, I still have a hard time reconciling my passionate youthful aversion to Brussels sprouts with the near-religious experience those very veggies elicited in me during a recent meal at Pub & Kitchen in the city’s Rittenhouse neighborhood.

Of course, the mini-cabbages of my youth were steamed, off-putting and mushy, even vaguely menacing, like a suburban American riff on the sort of English boarding-school food that Pink Floyd sang about in “The Wall.” They were, indeed, the only middling dish that my mother ever prepared; she was—and is—a fantastic cook, and her sprouts are excellent now.

Chef Eli Collins’s version, however, were majestic, each one fried and surrounded by a frizzle of crisp outer petals, the lot of them glazed in a gastrique of caramelized honey, fennel seed, coriander seed, garlic, black pepper, bay leaf, Aleppo pepper and sherry vinegar. The house-crafted lamb-belly bacon, offset by a scattering of freshly torn mint, provided the perfect foundation. 

At its best, this is the sort of alchemy on display at Pub & Kitchen. The restaurant manages to mine our collective subconscious yearning for comfort foods. At the same time it perks the individual preparations up with twists that render them vibrant and exciting again, and that none of us could ever really be expected to do at home.

This was certainly the case with the P&K cheeseburger, a Pisa-reminiscent tower so tall that at first seemed it would require me to figure out how to unhinge my jaw. A little pressure here, a bit of squeezing there, and I was able to compress the beauty enough to fit it in my mouth … at which point I was rendered speechless. Yes, the shreds of lettuce, the pickle, the thick hunks of slightly melted Cooper sharp cheese, the excellent slabs of Pennsylvania bacon were all well balanced and perfectly suited to this classic American sandwich, but the meat itself demanded all of my attention. An astounding blend of knuckle, chuck shoulder clod and dry-aged brisket, the meat possessed the earthy, almost funky savor of the best dry-aged steak. Each bite was a study in richness and depth.

Likewise, the Rhode Island monkfish was appropriately meaty but boasted a delicacy that the dish often lacks. This worked in its favor, because the sunchoke and coco bean stew in which it reposed was plenty hearty on its own. The addition of kale and the zip of a sauce Grenobloise lent both richness and a seam of brininess to frame the stew and the fish. On the cold, windblown night we tucked into it, the preparation seemed perfect—and perfectly suited to the weather outside.

The space itself was perfect, too: quietly sophisticated yet decidedly devoid of pretension, with a staff that’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic yet never pedantic or overbearing.

Not everything was as game changing as that burger or those Brussels sprouts, which is to be expected; in other words, even LeBron misses a free throw once in a while. The chicken wings were smoked beautifully and blessed with a two-day brine singing with three chilies, honey, coriander, allspice and more, though slightly overpowered by vinegar. (I did, however, love the neon-pink shreds of marinated red-cabbage slaw accompanying them.) The Cape Cod mussels with leeks, potato, generous homemade lardons and a lovely sherry cream broth were very tasty, if not jump-from-your-seat exciting.

Not every menu item has to blow your mind, though, when the entire menu is studded with so many items that do. The chicken soup was built on a broth both concentrated and lithe, but the rutabega ravioli bobbing throughout, their innards silky and impossibly delicious, raised the bowl to unaccustomed heights.

The cheddar and escargot beignets should not have worked as well as they did. It takes a certain cavalier sense of courage to offer a bar snack that marries cheese and snails with fried dough. The bravery was justified; Collins is a chef of serious talents. Inside each crisp pâte-a-choux beignet (made with beer as opposed to butter) was a single snail, the cheddar-folded dough surrounding it soft and light. Each bite, when combined with the French mustard-garlic sauce, seemed to demand another sip of excellent Old Fashioned or, even better, a Three Wise Men cocktail crafted from Averna, rye and Carpano Antica, which, in turn, called for another bite of beignet … and then another drink. It’s the best sort of feedback loop that I can imagine.

I was recognized, it turned out, and the kitchen sent out two desserts before we had a chance to order. But I am completely confident that our food and service were no different than anyone else’s. This is a kitchen and front-of-house staff operating on all their proverbial cylinders right now, and every table around us was filled with smiling, contented guests conversing in the light of the flickering votives. And those desserts were spot-on, the Jewish apple cake moist and generously anointed with maple-kissed crème fraîche, the poached quince-accompanied panna cotta perfumed with cardamom and vanilla.

All of this, ironically, was enjoyed with my parents, who accompanied me for the visit. And while I personally may have felt a twinge of guilt when I began to swoon over the Brussels sprouts, I quickly got over it. Food this good supersedes any issues tied to one’s childhood aversions to vegetables. Besides, I think my mom understood; she helped herself to more than her share of sprouts that night at Pub & Kitchen, as well as plenty of other dishes, too—which, I think, was her subtle way of saying that she approved.

Pub & Kitchen
1946 Lombard Street, Philadelphia | 215-545-0350

Photograph by Alison Dunlap