WHOLE ROASTER: Eli Collins’ black-garlic roasted chicken is for sharing, with oven-blistered cherry tomatoes and complicated pommes dauphine “gnocchi.”
Without having access to its tax returns, I can’t say for sure that Pub & Kitchen is one of the city’s most successful restaurants. But walk by on any night, and it’s not hard to draw that conclusion while navigating the human swell that metastasizes around 7 p.m.: Rittenhouse lotharios hitting on the willowy waitresses, interoffice romances one white wine shy of ignition, brainy empty-nesters with the foresight to buy here in ’94, fantasy-football bros asking bar manager George Costa what Cynar is (it’s a brooding amaro made from artichokes and other botanicals that adds nuance to Costa’s “Sicilian” cocktail, anointed with housemade saffron-sumac bitters), then ordering a beer anyway. At times, Pub seems so busy that the room will start expelling customers out its charming cottage windows like raspberry jelly from an over-fattened donut.
Since it opened five years ago, Pub & Kitchen has had one chef: Jonathan Adams, better known as Jonny Mac, now known as Pub & Kitchen’s former chef and current full-time roaster-with-the-moster at Rival Brothers coffee (whose joe, in a classy move, Pub still brews). When you have a successful formula, a disruption of the status quo can be rough. Fortunately for owners Dan Clark and Ed Hackett, they’ve found an able replacement in Eli Collins.
The move is somewhat of a homecoming for Collins, a Scranton native who worked with Hackett at Gayle and was on Adams’ opening team at Pub & Kitchen before moving to New York to cook at the Plaza Hotel. He went on to join Daniel Boulud’s family of restaurants and had what he calls “the best time of my cooking career” as the chef of DBGB. “Until now.”
That happiness shows in his cooking. “While I saw my time at DBGB as a great growth experience, there was always a bit of a manufactured element,” Collins says. “I’ve come up through smaller restaurants with much more personal identities, and saw myself always wanting to execute a personal style of food.”
At Pub & Kitchen that often means grains, the current darlings of Collins’ pantry. Cooked, dehydrated and flash-fried, quinoa and barley were the snap, crackle, pop atop a beautifully arranged plate of beets pickled with star anise and clove and stuck to whipped Stilton for a refreshing take on a familiar salad. Simmered like risotto, farro, bulgur, rye berries and black-and-white barley had more texture than a Braille phone book; the five-grain stew, a pearly bed for grilled Jersey scallops, was lighter than you’d expect with additions of lemon and herbs, tomatoes and corn.
“I wanted to get away from the English pub mold,” Collins says of his initial alterations to P&K’s menu, a change echoed by renovations that freshened the furniture and whitened the dining room. There are still tureens of mussels and a noteworthy burger (double patties, American cheese) with fries that are still called chips, but looking beyond, for instance, to the bread service, you’ll find slices of semolina with cloud-like interiors and crusts that crackle like M&Ms shells. Collins scents the loaves with fennel, working honey into the dough for a subtle sweetness, a thread connected by the bee pollen dusted on the softened butter. Ingredients often link up this way on Collins’ menu. Flowering lemon thyme and candied lemon peel reinforced the lemonade-like citrus notes in gingered chicken-liver mousse studded with pickled blueberries. The summer vegetable plate, a congress of broccoli, zucchini, carrots, cauliflower, celery, beets, corn, turnips and kolhrabi in raw, cooked and pickled forms, isn’t the most exciting I’ve had, but I appreciated how its accessories of Marcona almonds and anchovies appeared both on the plate and in the warm almond-milk bagna cauda dressing.
Honey again reunited with pollen in the lamb-ribs entree, glazed with a sweet-and-sour apricot gastrique involving the former and a dusted in an Aleppo-fennel spice blend involving the latter. Before either is applied, Collins rubs the racks with cumin, garlic and anchovy, confits them in their own fat, marks them on the grill and finishes them in the oven, where the apricot lacquer adheres to the lamb like glue. I didn’t love the distracting accompaniments of oil-poached fennel (too crunchy) and yogurt whipped with roasted eggplant (abrasively tangy), but, oh, the ribs … Collins made a variation on them at DBGB, and after having to make 300 pounds for a fancy event in the Hamptons, he says, “I swore to myself I would never do them again.” Be glad he changed his mind.
The other big-ticket entree is the black-garlic roasted chicken, available by the whole or half. Talking to Collins, it sounds like he’s able to better infuse the flavor of the fermented allium when working with the full bird, and to be honest, my half order lacked the token ingredient’s depth charge of umami. But with crispy skin shielding perfectly cooked, moist meat like gold leaf, it was still everything you want in a roasted chicken and then some, namely oven-blistered cherry tomatoes and complicated pommes dauphine “gnocchi.”
Desserts are chef desserts, meaning basic, barely sweet and better for it. Collins celebrates blackberries (“I can’t remember a better year for blackberries”) with brown-butter-buttermilk shortcakes and basil; apricots in a saffron-tinted jam were spooned over wobbly cardamom panna cotta.
“It is the greatest thing to finish a meal,” he says. “I would order one, eat it, then order another one right after.”
A practice worth adopting for most anything at the new Pub & Kitchen.
PUB & KITCHEN | 1946 Lombard St., 215-545-0350, thepubandkitchen.com. Dinner Mon.-Sun. 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; bar till 2 a.m. nightly. Appetizers, $4-$16; entrees, $13-$24; desserts $8.
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