Menus can change with the seasons across the city, just as they can grind on indefinitely, seemingly set in stone. In between any major overhaul, specials and new menu items are there for the chef and his staff to get creative while showcasing what they just found at the market, what they’re suddenly excited about.
Amidst inevitable change, it’s always disappointing to see a solid dish drop off the menu through no fault of its own. You have it. It’s amazing. You look forward to eating it again at some point. If it’s not there your 3rd time back, you’re assured it will be on as a special soon.
But, what’s frustrating is when you realize you’re a bit alone in your appreciation as a favorite menu item is given the George R.R. Martin treatment. It wasn’t selling, you’re told, and you look around almost wanting to find someone to blame.
That’s how I felt about the leber spätzle at Braushaus Schmitz that featured ground liver over delicate bands of dough in a cast iron skillet. It was buttery. The liver and egg enjambment didn’t prevent the spätzle from having a voice. It was beautiful. And then it was gone.
There was the house made scrapple topped with fried egg and coated with mostarda at Popolino that I had soon after their opening. That has disappeared too.
And there are the dishes I haven’t gotten to try as they were intended to be, as preferences have shifted ingredients in lieu of striking the dish from the menu.
Tim Spinner’s mole poblano dish at Calaca Feliz, for instance, originally featured duck. While talking to Spinner for a survey on from-scratch Philly mole, he effusively told me that medium rare duck breast was the perfect accompaniment for the sauce’s sweet flavors. He knew he had a homerun—something I confirmed via a from-scratch mole you can grab at the bodega on 9th and Snyder, and a visit to Esposito’s for duck breast—and that’s what grated at him, since no one was buying it. “People just don’t want duck in a Mexican restaurant,” he told me. And sure enough, two weeks after talking to him, I saw that the duck had been swapped out for chicken when I went in to try the dish (Calaca Feliz is giving it another try with duck barbacoa tlayudas that were added more recently).
The idea to move on from empty bitching came to me when asking about the leber spätzle for about the 7th time at Brauhaus Schmitz.
“You know, if you bring in ten people and let us know in advance, we could make it for you,” one of the line cooks told me at the bar one night.
That’s when it hit me.
I don’t have that many friends.
But maybe I could get some of the food crazy people I know to come to a recurring dinner series I’d start. And we’d have it on a Monday so restaurant industry people could make it. A menu would be shaped around one dish that had fallen off a given restaurant’s menu. And pretty much, the chef’s could do whatever they wanted.
Running into Peter McAndrews at The Wishing Well provided me with the perfect place to start. After hearing of his scrapple dish at Popolino being 86’d, I told him what I was planning, which I found isn’t far off from his previous offering of Pietro Basta Cosi (Peter and that’s enough) dinners that only lasted 6 Tuesdays.
“It’s the blackboard trattoria concept where you have ten items on the menu. And there’s trust there,” he says (his regular menu is much more expansive). The idea for the dinners he previously offered was to enjoy more freedom than usual as he applied his creativity to what he found at the market, with customers trusting him in his selection and execution. “In the trattorias, the trust between customer and the restaurant is the same as the trust I have with my purveyors,” McAndrews says.
But his dream night—reflective of every chef’s desire to cook without restraints—was short-lived as he slowly had to make more and more concessions to the special menus he created.
“It took the wind out of my sails because it went from being whatever I wanted to do to pleasing the masses,” he says.
When he speaks of “failures” coming out of the kitchen it’s more in terms of marketing, rather the actual taste of the dish. He mentions how, like some tripe dishes that have gotten overlooked, he knows he wouldn’t have much luck being up front about his rigatoni con pajata, a classic Roman dish that produces a creamy, smear ready cheese upon boiling the intestines of calves still living off their mother’s milk.
But the VIP’s who have had the plate dropped on their table without explanation have yet to complain.
This Monday, May 12th at 7pm, McAndrews is getting back to putting together a lineup free of concerns of mass appeal. That’s not to say that he’s handcuffed with his regular menus at any of his places where he relies on familiar components and flavors to make less popular ingredients more palatable.
One of the available options for the upcoming dinner that exemplifies this approach is the grilled beef heart with eggplant caponata.
“The sweet and sour of the caponata is like a hook in a song that gets you through if you’re on the fence about eating beef heart,” he says.
A zuppa de linga amuse bouche will precede four courses—dessert included—with more limited options to choose from than their day-to-day offering. Of those options, there’s trippa con tacco, an authentic Ligurian dish from the Italian riveria; grilled lamb with brain-aise; swordfish falso magro, which fattens the experience of grilled fish with a sopressata and provolone stuffing as well as fried egg topping.
Ideally, as this dinner series takes off, true omikase menus will be presented, with groups of 10 and above completely putting themselves in the hands of the chef. But, starting off at Monsu on a night with limited options isn’t a bad thing–not with the level of cooking McAndrews consistently puts out. And hopefully, with it being held on a night when they’re usually closed, it provides for the type of communal atmosphere where sharing abounds and everyone gets to try all those options.
And going forward with these dinners, wherever they happen across Philly, maybe people will ask for some of these dishes in the same way McAndrews gets special requests from loyal customers, such the as Italian family who calls days in advance to request his house made pici pasta.
Yea, we all have a part to play.
Omakase Philly Dinner Series
901 Christian St.
Monday May 12th 7pm
$50 for amuse bouche plus 4 courses.
Byob; cash only. Call for reservations: (215) 440-0495
Zuppe di Lingue – Calves tongue soup with rustic bread and caciocavallo cheese
Trippa con Tacco – Braised calves stomach with parmesan popover, assorted mushrooms, and meat sauce
Scrappalino – Crispy Siciliana style scrapple, fried egg, plum mostarda
Rigatoni con Pajata – Large tubes “Roman Style” with spicy plum tomato ad intestine
Risotto – Squid ink risotto with chicken liver and squid, sweet pea emulsion, ricotta salata cheese
Canneloni – Oxtail stuffed large pasta tubes with raisins, cocoa, gorgonzola
Agnello – Grilled lamb shank with anchovy and bacon gremolata, dressed arugula, saffron brain-aise
Swordfish Falso Magro – Swordfish stuffed with sopressata, sharp provolone, topped with fried egg, aged balsamikc
Liverace – Pan seared crispy calves liver, pancetta, porcini mushroom, marsala glaze
Sicilian Cassatta cake