Tuesday, September 20, 2011

McCrossen's Tavern: A Welcoming Beacon Signaling Dynamic Change

McCrossen’s Tavern, a homey hangout located near the corner of 20th & Spring Garden in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, resembled a Spanish taverna on a warm July evening this Summer, the interior brick arches behind the bar, cozy dining room and opened windows to the street transporting one to Sevilla, if only for the moment. It was a reflection of the ongoing transformation occurring at the property that has been around since the 1850s, a history that has seen the structure change from a bakery to an ironworker shot-and-beer haunt to a renovated tavern. Three Riojas (one white) and two special Rosés were being offered by the glass this night, along with regional tapas specialties like marinated boquerones (anchovies), tortilla espagnole cooked in individual cast-iron pans, calamari in squid ink, and blistered padron peppers with sea salt that created lingering taste memories. What was once a joint for area residents coined the “Dustbowl” (due to its patrons’ penchant for bringing in the dirt from their trade) is now a destination wine-and-dine establishment that is looking beyond its borders (both geographically and culinarily) in an attempt to change its image. 

I caught a glimpse of the cooking skills of Chef Townsend Wentz in June at the annual Taste of the Nation fundraiser held at the Loews Hotel, where he wowed me and guests with a whole roasted pig that stole my award for the event’s top dish. This wasn't just a jolt of genius that happened to be cooked up overnight. Wentz has a solid kitchen pedigree that connects him to the haute-dining spots Fountain at the Four Seasons and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel. Don't let his down-to-earth charm, casual approach and “guy's guy” personality belie his talents. He delivers a sophisticated bent in his dishes that only a year ago would have incited raised eyebrows and reactionary guffaws from those expecting fried pub-grub from the bar stool. This isn't to say a burger or the famous wings have disappeared from the menu. They have just been elevated up the gourmet scale. The 8 oz. grilled dry-aged patty from Creekstone Farms, which is a custom blend from NYC meat purveyor Pat LaFreida whose name is synonymous with ‘tradition,’ ‘quality’ and ‘flavor,’ is a relished rendition served on a toasted ciabatta roll with fries dusted with piment d'espelette, a Basque pepper. It may not have the overt fatty juiciness and grandiosity of a Village Whiskey offering, but it’s a tender and tasty sandwich offered with multiple ‘add-ons’ like a fried egg and caramelized onions. It’s simply the perfect accompaniment to a craft beer, nothing more, or less. Wentz isn’t looking to re-invent an American staple or turn the establishment into a glorified gastropub, a term too often utilized in today’s label-incensed jargon of the fooderati.

An avid sailor, Wentz understands that he cannot captain the ship alone, fully aware of the required team approach to stay on course and avoid sinking. He has brought in Lauren Harris as GM, beverage director and sommelier, a wearer of many hats who is as approachable as Wentz. She weaves in and around the bar and restaurant with ease and a smile, willing to converse about the wine program to defuse any diner’s fears or intimidation. They met while both toiled at the now-defunct Twenty21, where Wentz was the Executive Chef. Harris then spent some time in the Australian wine trade, and her enthusiasm for the grape is infectious without any airs of snootiness. She is literally changing the face of the place by making wine (and beer) a focal point, not just an after-thought, boasting a strong and varied list of sparkling, white and red wines from both the Old and New worlds. The always solid, ever-rotating craft beer options have been maintained and even bolstered with reliable local favorites like Yards ESA, seasonal draft brews like the summery Allagash White from Maine, the newly-introduced autumnal (and local) Dogfish Head Punkin Ale and Ayinger’s German-inspired Oktoberfest, in addition to large-format bottles like Troegs Perpetual IPA & Victory Helios Saison. Harris keenly introduced the Summer of Riesling on June 21st, a three-month love affair with the white varietal that is offered by-the-glass and displays its wide ranging profile from dry to sweet. She has also spearheaded special monthly country-themed dining events focusing on wines, cheeses and food with a global perspective. In conjunction with famed fromagerie DiBruno Bros., four complementary wines, cheeses and plates are served for only $32, a true bargain that showcases a bounty of seasonal and place-specific specialties. Wentz, Harris and Rocco Rainone conjure up a menu of earthly delights for these casual gatherings where interaction is encouraged. Spain and France have already been explored; Belgium is on tap next, when beer will be the beverage of choice.

It may be a touch of irony, then, that bartender Jamie Brennan is a member of the McCrossen family (the property was originally purchased by the McCrossens in 1937) that counts among it a fledgling but promising winemaker for a son. Jamie’s brother produces single vineyard wines from New Zealand under the Decibel label, whose crisp and fruity sauvignon blanc just happens to be served here. It paired quite nicely with a recent watermelon, black olive and cucumber salad special topped with ricotta salata and tossed in a honey-thyme vinaigrette. Jamie is friendly and personable, demonstrates a solid beer knowledge, and literally “knows your name.” It’s all part of the welcoming nature and neighborhood vibe for which McCrossen’s is known.

Wentz has slowly steered this vessel since hopping on board in July 2010, choosing to gradually evolve rather than re-haul McCrossen’s concept altogether. This has allowed the faithful patronage to grasp his direction, while still enjoying the old standbys that now float in a sea of new offerings. Steamed clams and hummus swim next to veal sweetbreads and braised Berkshire pork belly served in a white-bean cassoulet. Pork meatballs stuffed with mozzarella share space with a brandade de morue, a poached cod and whipped potato spread served alongside toasted baguette slices. 

This less aggressive and timely approach with menu development doesn't mean Wentz lacks ambition. Quite the opposite. It's a foresightedness grounded in the idea that an improved food and beverage program will attract and retain new customers over time, a concept that is also being shaped for the opening of the new Barnes Foundation being built a few blocks away on the Ben Franklin Parkway. He realizes McCrossen’s is only one of a few establishments within walking proximity of a world-renowned multi-billion dollar art collection. This equates to a neighborhood Need, a place where museum-goers will want lunch or dinner before or after their visit. With expected demand comes the need for flavor-driven, sensible, and creative cuisine that is affordable and properly delivered in an atmosphere that doesn’t scream “bar” or “fussy.” One doesn't spend ten+ years of a career at the Fountain and Lacroix (three as Executive Sous Chef opening Lacroix at the Rittenhouse) lacking desire for achievement. Folding dishes into his menu as gently and smoothly as he does whipped cream into a recently-offered chicken liver mousse with Riesling gelée seems to be Wentz’s specialty. There are involved, complex steps in this preparation requiring oversight and patience, just as in his business model. 

Talking with Wentz, one gets every bit of his zeal for food science, rooted deeply in his two college degrees in Chemistry and Biology from Rutger’s University. He chose to pursue his culinary passion instead, finding the pull of the kitchen a stronger force than a laboratory. That isn’t to say his scientific background hasn’t been infused into his cooking. One evening we discussed the lengthy process of making that chicken liver mousse, touching upon the factors such as temperature and the composition of the cream that affect the creation of such an airy delicacy. Another night had us engaged in a step-by-step description of his preparation of bouillabaisse, the tradition-laden fish soup from Southern France that is steeped in history and flavor, and whose name is derived from the words “to boil” and “to simmer,” between which is a very fine line, especially on the stove-top. Undoubtedly a by-product of his days working under and with Jean-Marie Lacroix, including his two year stint as saucier while at the Fountain, the dish initially spent time on the specials board before being moved full-time as an entrée on his menu. He clearly enjoys producing such a course, which marries roasted cod, lobster, shrimp, clams, and mussels in a tomato-saffron broth, for only $22. Despite the laborious process, it’s a reasonable price for such a luxurious peasant dish. Given Wentz’s history, it’s no surprise to find this item here, along with two others I dove into on a Friday night: roasted bone-marrow with a trumpet mushroom salad, and a handmade pasta alla chitarra with roasted pork belly and maderia, which is painstakingly made from pasta sheets cut into strands by the friction of tight music wire, a dish and food instrument originating from the Italian Abruzzo region. All of this while listening to Foster the People and MGMT on the stereo system, and peeking at the Phillies game on one of the two TVs gracing the walls. It’s a nice interplay, really. But don’t expect any molecular gastronomy creations anytime soon - it’s not Wentz’s style, and it just wouldn’t fit.

Over the last year, the menu, in Wentz’s and Harris’ manner, has taught without intimidation, and continues to do so, as if slowly hypnotizing the customer base month after month, until suddenly a Sixpoint Sweet Action has replaced a bottle of Miller Lite, an obscure Riesling has been demanded over a Yellow Tail Merlot, and a beautifully prepared tripe stew with toasted bread crumbs is ordered in place of a Caesar salad. As in everything, education leads to knowledge, and it works both ways. Wentz and Harris have learned not to gorge a whole new concept down a neighborhood's throat the way a French duck's soon-to-be-foie-gras liver is fattened (Wentz recently offered seared foie as a special appetizer by the way!). Rather, a leisurely introduction to rustic, comfort food, wine and beer has proven to be successful. Once the servers here become as adept at explaining and selling the dishes as well as Wentz produces them, McCrossen’s will no longer be thought of as that corner spot to grab a shot and beer. It’s currently much more than that, thanks to a well conceived plan. There has already been some renovation to the front of the building, with new windows that open to the street and let in fresh air and light. A side alleyway has been lined with tables that add additional seating for ten, and an awning has been ordered to add exterior protection and appeal. It’s all in the nature of the place - to “welcome” anyone in, just as the original McCrossen family provided a respite for those during the difficult and turbulent times of the Great Depression.

Change and transition have come to this Art Museum neighborhood, and McCrossen’s is adapting. In addition to the standard weeknight happy hour from 5 to 7PM when a $3 beer, $4 snack, $5 wine and $6 martini are offered, Harris has initiated a “Late-Night” Wine Happy Hour on occasional nights from 10PM to 2AM, which is also specially designed for those who work in the restaurant business itself. Recently, French importer Stephanie Bourgeois poured two vintages from her family’s portfolio: a lively white Côtes de Gascogne and a lush red Côtes du Ventoux for only $5 apiece, paired with a few regional plates from France prepared by Wentz. A mainstay that has not been tampered with is the Saturday and Sunday brunch special, where diners can indulge in one food item and unlimited bloody marys and mimosas for only $20 from 10:30AM to 2:30PM. While some reforms are required, one just doesn’t mess with a sure thing.

In an ocean as vast as the Philly dining scene, the makeover of McCrossen’s is to be applauded. Rather than float idly in shallow water, Chef Wentz, Harris and the Brennan family have decided to test the deep-end, albeit with life-jackets. It’s a smart, rational business approach, where the diner is the ultimate winner (if one chooses to be adventurous, open-minded and trustworthy of the kitchen). I appreciate an industry veteran like Wentz who has maintained his approachability (and likability!) while delivering memorable, delicious and creative food that is on par with kitchens triple the size and a lot shinier (and more expensive). I love that I can walk into McCrossen’s, be greeted by name with a cheery “hello,” all while having the opportunity to dive into a special of Blue Point oysters with mignonette and a Hudson Valley duck breast topped with a blueberry-balsamic glaze paired with sauteed snow peas and a potato galette. It’s a collision of two worlds for some, but one fusion for which Wentz can surely provide a scientific explanation that will, in the end, result in an easily understood satisfaction.

Note: This Tuesday, September 20th, starting at 6:30PM, McCrossen’s will be welcoming Matt Pushinksy from Belukus (US importer of specialty UK and Belgian brews) and Rocco Rainone from DiBruno Bros. to demonstrate the power of the beer/cheese pairing. The beer selection will include a special Belgian keg making its debut on draft in PA and a brew crafted in the same style as Champagne. Chef Wentz will serve up 4 unique, seasonal dishes alongside 4 cheeses specially selected by Rocco. Pricing is $16 for beer and $16 for cheese/food. Reserve by calling 215-854-0923 or online at Open Table. 

McCrossens can be found on Twitter @mccrossenstav

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