Adam Erace Adam Erace battles adult on-set diabetes and cankles as the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia City Paper. He also writes about food and travel for publications like Details, Fodor's and Southern Living. He lives in South Philly with his wife, Charlotte, and two rescue mutts, Lupo and Marco.
SO CHEEKY: Braised beef cheeks rest on smashed celery root at Boot & Saddle.
It’s not the Holograms, who’ve come all the way from Sweden to play here. It’s not the reunited Lefty’s Deceiver, who’ve come all the way from … up the street. It’s not Xiu Xiu or Davenport Cabinet or Banned Books or the Autumn Defense or any of the other bands whose names sound like Franklin Mortgage cocktails. It’s not even Aunt Dracula, whose music is described, fantastically, as “reminiscent of a haunted greenhouse” and a “trippy, post-apocalyptic rendition of The Muppet Show.” They make it rain style points on the vocab tip, but they’re not the reason to come to the reborn Boot & Saddle.
Many will disagree, and to these bands’ fans, I apologize. I hear the new D&B Audiotechnik sound system in the Boot’s rear concert hall is a real ear-romancer — a monster improvement on the hardware the local acts had back when this place was the city’s one-and-only country-western bar. Back then, South Philly was a different world, one without goat burritos and pour-over coffee.
The Boot closed in 1995, proudly decaying until earlier this year, when Four Corners Management’s Avram Hornik and Mark Fichera, in partnership with Sean Agnew’s R5 Productions and New York’s The Bowery Presents, began the process of reopening the landmark dive. More than a decade of smoke and splotch and gunk and grime were scrubbed away, revealing prizes of pressed tin and hardwood like scratch-off ticket treasure. Outside, traced in neon, the bar’s iconic boot-shaped sign glows again on Broad Street.
The taste-making space-makers at Four Corners really have their finger on Philly’s pulse, with the summertime smash of Morgan’s Pier still rosy and the pop-up Lodge, the cozy hearth of the Winterfest shipping-container village. Boot & Saddle, which premiered between the two projects in September, follows the mission of delivering a spunky, well-curated, deeply experiential experience. A big part of that formula is food, and the food — more so than the calendar of celestial indie-pop acts and occult rockers — is the reason to check out the Boot.
It’s no surprise. Wunderkind chef George Sabatino is a mountain stocked with gold, and Four Corners’ execs are good with a miner’s pick. The relationship has proved mutually beneficial. As Morgan’s Pier wound down, the Boot came online. Here, the menu is more of a collaborative effort, with chef Christopher Davis doing the day-to-day. Davis was Sabatino’s sous chef, and eventual successor, at Barbuzzo, and the pair reunited at the Pier after Davis spent a year as head chef at Popolino. Together, the chef-bros have created a menu that in execution, ambition and ingenuity per penny, can hang with restaurants way above its station.
They do way more than they have to (a Sabatino signature that’s borderline masochistic in its intensity) for a place of Boot’s ilk: baking bread, curing charcuterie, making cheese, rolling out fresh pasta, like the tender chestnut-flour gnocchi I couldn’t get enough of one night. My table was already overcrowded with plates and pints, so I speared the dumplings standing, no room for the aromatic bowl. I may have even turned my back to my dinner pals, guarding the Vetri-esque gnocchi, in a ragu of tomatoes and mushrooms, like a feral Roman orphan.
I proceeded to get my street urchin on with focaccia bathed in “pork butter” (rendered lardo), kale-and-pumpkin soup and braised beef cheeks seated on smashed celery root. Plates came quick, and the teeny table didn’t grow. Of the menu’s 13 savory dishes, I got nine, and they all arrived more or less at once, making the sweet server look like an airhead, the kitchen look lazy, or both.
Scrambling to make room, I ate so fast I could barely give each dish its due. Fortunately, Davis’ flavors don’t develop slowly. They rocket: the aggressive char on seared broccoli, uplifted by luminous lemon zest and salty pecorino; the intense nuttiness of sesame seeds encrusting jagged sour-cream crackers sunk into airy whipped goat cheese. They stuck in my teeth and my memory.
Things I hate, I loved. Turkey burgers — blech, and worse, on that villainous patty perpetrator, the brioche bun. Davis made me eat my words after eating the magnificent burger, its well-seasoned, cast- iron-seared patty blending white and dark meat from whole turkeys and chickens. Whole eggs and lots of butter, meanwhile, made the house-baked bun extra dense; its crumb hugged the meat like Martin’s instead of disintegrating the way most prissy brioche buns do, and its unabashed sweetness was as much a seasoning agent as the garnishes of pickled long-hots and roasted garlic-and-apple aioli.
The brioche appeared twice more, breading date-relish-dabbed cauliflower croquettes with silken centers and as a pain perdu dessert caramelized in apple butter. I loved the former, and the latter was the least offensive of the underwhelming desserts that included a hippie-dippy ancient-grains granola bar and dry chestnut-almond-chocolate crepes begat by a multi-stage process that involves the freezer, two applications of Wondra flour and a deep-fryer. Seems sometimes Sabatino and Davis are capable of doing too much. Fortunately, the team’s A-plus efforts pay off everywhere else.
BOOT & SADDLE | 1131 S. Broad St., 267-639-4528, bootandsaddlephilly.com. Kitchen hours Sun.-Thu., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-midnight. Appetizers, $5-$8; entrees, $7-$14; desserts, $5-$7.
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