Kensington Quarters
Order up a stunning meal, as well as a stellar education, at this Fishtown restaurant, bar and butcher shop
by Brian Freedman

Much to my wife’s eternal bemusement, my favorite part of the pig is the head. Nasty as it may sound, pork noggin is a treasure trove of meat, every little nook, cranny and cave hiding a slightly differently flavored or textured nub of porky goodness. I still think back lovingly on a night several years ago when two friends shared with me an entire pig’s head at Osteria, and from cheeks to eyes to brains and everything in between—literally!—it was a stunning meal and a stellar education.

I bring this up because pig head has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance—in our neck of the woods, though, it probably was never big enough to qualify as having had a rebirth—and restaurants all over the city have begun incorporating tête de cochon into their menus.

Kensington Quarters recently included it on their menu in a way that I’m surprised I haven’t tucked into before: as a silky filling for impossibly tender ravioli. The head had been brined with garlic and rosemary for four days, cooked slowly, ground up and then whipped into a pillow, and encased by housemade pasta, all of it reposing in a butter sauce flecked with fennel seeds, orange zest and toasted almonds. Even my wife, who had been ambivalent about pig head till that point, was rendered speechless.

The ravioli, in fact, embodied so much of what makes this Fishtown restaurant, bar and butcher shop such an important addition to the city. They take the concept of utilizing the whole animal to its logical conclusion, yet they do so with a distinct lack of pretense and preciousness. And, in the process of serving up so many meaty wonders, the team here shows a deep level of respect for the animals that gave their lives for the food being butchered and cooked up for the table.

The veal terrine highlighted the soulful nature of the meat, and was smartly served with beer mustard, herb salad and spicy pickles to cut through the richness. Rare beef, a brilliant, subtle showcase for the honest meat served at Kensington—non-GMO, organically raised and humanely butchered—was punched up with the pepperiness of arugula in a salad dressed with a vivid horseradish vinaigrette.

Not everything is meaty here, and the fact that vegetables are as transporting as they are is a testament to the talent of the team, including owners Jeniphur and Michael Pasquarello, co-owner and butcher Bryan Mayer and chef Damon Menapace. Of course, it makes sense—it’s impossible to have healthy cattle without healthy land on which to graze. (Feedlot cattle may provide deeply marbled meat, but the healthiness of it is questionable, what with the well-documented use of antibiotics, growth hormones and the rest. Some resources suggest it’s terrible for the environment, too.)

The assumption that a meat-centric restaurant shouldn’t also excel at vegetables has never made a whole lot of sense to me. And, indeed, as Menapace proves here, that the divide between meat and vegetable is wholly unnecessary. A salad of baby greens, including beautifully pickled radishes and electrically fresh leaves, was stunning on its own and a dynamite counterpoint to the meats. The goat ragu cannelloni was anchored not just by wonderful shreds of neck and shank but also by their braising liquid of red wine, rosemary, onion and tomato.   

Even the cocktails—it’s a brave, smart program—are often brightened up with unexpected herbal touches. The Impressionist, for example, takes excellent Four Roses Small Batch bourbon and pairs it with chamomile grappa and a hit of lemon for a perfect springtime tipple. The Pollo Rosso floats a frothy egg-white head atop a gathering of Cocchi Americano Rosa and Koval bourbons. Six wines on tap join the party, as do a wide-ranging assortment of bottles (and beers) well chosen to accompany the food.

The food is suited to pairing with whatever it is you’re drinking, because it’s all the sort of food that so many of us want to eat in quantity. Beef neck, which was tender and moist from its slow roast with garlic, hay and thyme, arrived shimmering and accompanied by pickled red onions, roasted sunchokes and nettle puree. Pork shoulder made excellent use of that hearty cut of the pig with its transporting pork and molasses au jus, crumbled pieces of pork skin and excellent potato torta.

It’s all enjoyed in a space both industrial and somehow warm, all of it shot through with an honest sense of conviviality. At the end of a recent dinner here, with an almond-, coriander- and lemon-zipped olive oil cake in front of me, and with my friends doing a high dive into an ambrosial peanut-butter semifreddo, I found myself both deeply satisfied and remarkably invigorated. It was exactly the feeling I always look for at the end of a memorable meal. I think my wife felt it, too—even if the dinner had begun with pig’s head. Or, perhaps, because of it.

Kensington Quarters
1310 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia
267-314-5086 |

Photograph by Alison Dunlap