Cooking is a young person’s game. Knees go. Backs break. And like running backs, many cooks come with an expiration date of around 35. The media doesn’t help; we fixate on up-and-comers, rising stars and nubile prodigies like a coven of cradle-robbing Wilhelmina model scouts. Sorry for that.
When culinary old heads emerge from the netherworld like reanimated bodies on The Walking Dead — and it happens from time to time — it often leaves ignorant young’uns like me wondering, “And you are ...?” But there’s nothing ghoulish about Luli Canuso, a soft, motherly presence in the sunny dining room of Fairmount’s Blue Cat, or Guy Shapiro, her husband and the chef of this cocina Latina.
They count about 70 years of industry experience between them, logging time in the back-of-the-house at O.G.s like Cafe Nola, where they first met, and Mirabelle, where they met again — under the gaze of Canuso’s mom, who owned the place. Shapiro left Philly to cook in Colorado, Russia, Turkey and the Hamptons, opened a restaurant in Jersey and got divorced. Canuso worked at Le Bec-Fin and went to law school. In the late ’90s they reconnected, romantically this time, got married and headed south to cook in Memphis and for a Mississippi casino. They came back to Philly when Canuso’s mother fell ill and Shapiro got a job consulting for a local mini-chain of suburban spaghetti halls.
Canuso and Shapiro had been out of the game a while, leisurely perusing properties around their home in Fairmount to fit the Latin concept budding in their brains — something, Canuso says with a laugh, “to build our retirement.” They found it in new-construction digs on the corner of Fairmount and Uber, a vanilla box they warmed with rondelle-glass lights, woven rattan chairs, Ikea drapes and a wall of stacked stone with a peek-a-boo cutout looking into the open kitchen. Artist Domenic Frunzi, a childhood friend of Blue Cat’s architect, painted the dining room’s dominant design feature, a floor-to-ceiling mural of a cerulean feline slinking through a meadow of stylized calla lilies.
So that’s who they are, and it’s nice to make their acquaintance, especially when the introduction is attended by studly salt-and-peppered shrimp perched like oversized hood ornaments on charred bars of caramelized butternut squash. Roasted poblano crema pooled beneath, and lime-spritzed cress tangled atop, dealing strokes of mellow heat and snappy acid that nudged the appetizer into Spanish-speaking territory.
Though you wouldn’t call Blue Cat’s menu purely traditional, Shapiro, a Russian Jew, and Canuso, an Italian, do an impressive job replicating recipes from a melting pot of Latin cultures to which neither belongs: Puerto Rican (sour orange-and-garlic-marinated pork chops “de cerdo”), Mexican (posole, fish tacos), Cuban (Cubano sandwiches) and other shareholders of an elemental culinary DNA.
“These are recipes we’ve inherited over the years,” Shapiro says, “the type of things my staff would cook for family meal.”
Bloodlines be damned, true soul radiates from these heaping plates, bathing the gab-sesh bachelorettes, Temple professors and canoodling dates that crowd this dining room in a glow you can’t see but certainly feel. Tender turkey albondigas (meatballs) bobbed in a huge bowl of chicken broth fortified with lime, onion, cilantro and avocado. Chipotle, orange and agave gave pork pinchons — strips of shoulder threaded onto skewers and grilled — sweet, smoky heat. A crispy leg of ginger-cured duck confit sat in a nutty red lake of seasonal mole, this one made with peanuts, sesame, cocoa, pasilla and ancho chilies. “We’ve been open 10 months and already changed the mole three times,” says Shapiro.
There are details you might not expect from such a value-driven restaurant. Shapiro toasts and grinds spices and chilies daily, ripens plantains for three weeks for candy-like maduros and makes his rice and beans the old-fashioned way, starting with dried blacks and a slow-cooked Cubanelle soffrito. Raw cream is whipped to order as a side to upscale bake-sale desserts that include fudgy coconut-crusted flourless chocolate torte and the best wedge of cake I’ve ever eaten: five alternating layers of moist, featherweight banana sponge and tangy, not-too-sweet cream-cheese buttercream.
The dreamy cake almost made me forget my criticisms of Blue Cat. Almost. Those heaping plates can get sloppy, for example, and the lack of bread service is a missed opportunity for something tone-setting and fun. The chicken broth in the turkey meatball soup needed salt, and even the lengthiest marinade can get grilled pork butt only so tender. Tomato-y cauliflower under cheesy bread crumbs, one of three vegetarian choices (plus five points) was a gloopy mess (minus 10 points).
Mushy masa harina bread crumbs buried Blue Point oysters roasted in their shells, a good idea only half-baked. Cooking them longer would have better browned the corn crust — there was certainly enough Plugra butter to keep the mollusks moisturized. Four came in my order, not five, as the server advertised the $10 app. When I asked him about this, he sheepishly admitted I’d gotten the last order, and only four oysters had been left. So why wasn’t the charge $8 on my bill? Smelled like bullshit, garlic and lime.
Otherwise, service was pleasant, and so was the bill, dropped with demure gratitude. At these prices, Canuso and Shapiro may find themselves saving longer than expected for retirement. But, I’m glad to say, I don’t think they’re in much of a rush.
BLUE CAT | 1921 Fairmount Ave., 267-519-2911, bluecatrestaurant.com. Dinner, Tue.-Fri., 4-9 p.m., Sat., 4-10 p.m., Sun., 4-8 p.m.; lunch, Thu.-Fri., noon-4 p.m.; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Appetizers, $5-$11; entrees, $15-$22; desserts, $5-$8.