Bitter Is Best in Philly

by Caroline Hatchett
Shannon Sturgis
February 2013

There’s nothing more satisfying in this time of year than a warm, rich dish to stave off the winter chill. But big plates of meat and comfort flavors often lack the balance needed to plow right through them. In frigid weather, the task is extra daunting for chefs with farmers markets in Northern regions largely barren of fruit and vegetable varieties. Enterprising chefs in Philadelphia have found a solution, bypassing more obvious herbal and acidic ingredients in favor of bitterness.

Cruciferous Saviors

Chef Mike Santoro practices all cast-iron cooking at The Mildred, and to keep palate fatigue at bay, he serves generous helpings of cruciferous vegetables—think Brussels sprouts and Romanesco—with his braised short ribs and succulent, slow-roasted pheasant. Rising Star Chef Andrew Wood takes a similar approach, pairing Brussels sprouts with a gamey dish of slow-roasted goose, foie gras, and chestnuts. And sandwich maestro Peter McAndrews proves the genius of a Philly classic, making a chef-driven version of slow-roasted pork with sharp provolone and a big pile of broccoli rabe.

Reliable storage crops, such as turnips and daikons, also belong to the cruciferous clan. Chef Hiroki Fujiyama of Morimoto serves buttery burrfish enveloped in a sweet foie gras sauce, all brought back down to earth with braised daikon. Talula’s Garden Chef Sean McPaul pairs roasted duck and hearty blue lentils with turnips and spicy mustard greens. And Rising Star Chef Jonathan Cichon transforms turnips—his favorite underused vegetable—into a foam to bathe braised veal cheek.

Braised Short Rib, Penne, and Romanesco from Michael Santoro of The Mildred

Braised Short Rib, Penne, and Romanesco from Chef Michael Santoro of The Mildred

Cocoa, Coffee, and Ash

In Philly, there’s more to be bitter about than broccoli and its ilk (and an unsuccessful Eagles season). Chefs are using the natural bitterness of cocoa, coffee, and ash to keep dishes in check. Chef Jason Cichonksi blends cocoa nibs into black olive purée for an unexpected kick in a dish featuring Tasmanian sea trout, black olive purée, passion fruit, salsify, and faro. Rising Star Chef Nick Elmi smokes squab with the wood of overgrown verbena bushes and then garnishes the plate with the resulting verbena ash. Matyson Chef Ben Puchowitz attacks his dishes from several bitter angles. For his signature foie gras and banana bread dish, he infuses maple syrup with coffee to balance the dish’s intense richness and sweetness—and rescue it from excess.

Building Bitterness

“If you have enough fat or sugar in a dish, you can come at it with big counteractive flavors like bitterness and acid,” says Puchowitz, who recently added a pasta to his menu, the base of which includes the bitter double threat of blood orange rind ash.

One of the most successful, and delightfully bitter, dishes in Philly is Puchowitz’s braised Lancaster County beef rib. He plates a tender, gelatinous hunk of beef atop a hash of smoked beef tongue and sweet, lightly bitter harukai turnips—that latter of which braised in bacon fat. Add to the mix Puchowitz’s escarole, made even more complex and stringent by a quick char on the grill. And like an artist’s final brush stroke, he paints a swipe of burnt leek ash purée on the bowl.

Inspired by the flavor of burnt onion on a toasted everything bagel, Puchowitz went through a burnt leek phase. “I was experimenting with burnt flavors, especially onions, and wanted to see what it was about,” he says. “The beef dish came out better than I expected.” Contrasting ash, char, bitter greens, and turnips with fattier proteins, Puchowitz demonstrates the the power of opposing flavors in bringing balance to a dish—harmony by way of bitterness.