City Paper, consider this my two weeks’ notice. I’m quitting to wait tables at Marigold Kitchen.
I can’t lie; I’m in it for the money. From my perch inside the enclosed porch of this handsome restored Victorian (once a haven for the West Philly literati and, later, a pre-Zahav CookNSolo crew),
I had a clear view through a window to the dining room and the single server flitting between tables like a hummingbird between, well, marigolds.
Hummingbirds like marigolds, right? I should have asked the preppy drink of Vitaminwater in the black glasses or the professorial couple a table over. They would have known. They also would have been better able to calculate 20 percent of the number of seats (30 on the handsome first floor) times the amount per average tasting menu ($75). But I had plenty of time to do the math as I waited 15 minutes for someone to greet me on the porch and another 15 to be seated.
I don’t begrudge the solo server her tips. Effervescent and knowledgable — the latter no easy feat when chemical brother Robert Halpern is your chef — she earned every cent. But she needed a partner. She has one, usually, Halpern tells me two weeks later on the phone. Plus, the GM was on vacation that night. And so was Halpern himself.
As the restaurant biz goes, mid-January is a pretty safe time to take a trip. What Halpern could not have predicted was Philadelphia magazine naming his 46-seat BYOB, the city’s only one dedicated to so-called molecular gastronomy, the second-best restaurant in the city. Who could? Under his ownership, Marigold has operated in relative obscurity for three years and change.
But publicity can be a bitch, its warm glow turning into a harsh glare, illuminating a microgreen too many, for example, or a messy bathroom. Or the awkward, staccato pacing of the amuse bouches, which were borne on the hands of Keith Krajewski, chef de cuisine-turned-impromptu food runner.
Before I could relish the novelty of liquid-nitrogen fog billowing from my mouth like dragon breath (a side effect of the flash-frozen popcorn), a spoon stained with veal gravy appeared, bearing cheese curds and a fried orb whose liquefied potato contents sloshed about like water in a snow globe and shattered in the mouth. Poutine!
Later, another fried sphere broke open to reveal molten cheddar. Lush chestnut cream hid in a raviolo whose edges flopped over the rim of its spoon like a basset hound’s ears, raining chocolate salt on the table. Cinnamon-tea bubbles, set with soy lecithin, heralded a flow of smooth, spiced butternut-squash soup in a tiny glass mug. I liked them all, but hurled at me like baseballs from a pitching machine gone haywire, their purpose felt more to distract from a backed-up kitchen buying time.
Forty-five minutes passed before the arrival of our first courses, chosen from the menu’s selection of cold appetizers, and those first bites really made me forget the unusual delay: roasted and sous-vide root vegetables (beets, winter squash, sweet potatoes) meandering down a crystalline stripe of coconut gel; beef tartare encircled by traditional accompaniments (blue cheese, sherry vinegar, potato) in manipulated forms (ice cream, gelee, foam). Half a soft-cooked quail egg perched atop the meat like a fedora, its barely set yolk quivering in a firm white cup.
The kitchen’s pace began to even out, too. It’s hard to understate the importance of timing here, especially since Halpern just scrapped his a la carte menu. “It’s always been our intention to go to all tastings,” he says. “We just didn’t have that option for a very long time.” With the plethora of amuses, a palate cleanser (right now, bracing currant sorbet, red as sin) and four to six courses, the degustations are the better deal anyway.
But you’ll need to choose wisely. Some dishes are extraordinary (fried chicken and biscuits, whose hominess could not be deterred by all the meat glue in China), others merely good. Sometimes Halpern’s ideas get the best of him, like a half-baked interpretation of carbonara featuring zucchini noodles. Other times, they electrify: “Corn,” a hot appetizer course, paired cotija ice cream with a textbook tamale enriched with foie. It’s inspired by the famed Coyote Cafe in Sante Fe, one of Halpern’s first jobs.
Halpern would later go on to cook at resume-builders around the country, collecting respect for locally grown ingredients in Vermont — juicy pears and snappy turnips perfectly anchored a plate of beef filet, foie and caramelized-onion pudding — and a deft touch with seafood in Maine. Alinea is mentioned a lot, but he only staged there for two weeks; still enough time to learn a few tricks from the Grant Achatz canon, like flexible chocolate ganache. But at Marigold, the edges of the curving cocoa bar were ratty and the composition of complementary chocolate elements overcrowded, something to sort through rather than admire. It tasted good, but didn’t look good; usually the criticism of this kind of cooking is just the opposite.
“Gone Bananas,” another busy presentation, proved a fitting title; its banana fritters, cooked to black mush, made me crazy. The accompanying banana hot chocolate was so rich, I couldn’t do more than a spoonful, and the bacon-brown-butter ice cream was overly savory.
I can give Marigold a break since Halpern was off-duty this night, but the staff he has in place should be able to execute his vision. Or maybe this is his vision, exactly, and that’s what needs some editing. A lot of his food has an infectious joy about it, and I’ll be sure to mention that when I’m waiting on Marigold’s customers. I’ll just smuggle in a pair of tweezers and remove a few items from each plate before serving.
MARIGOLD KITCHEN | 501 S. 45th St., 215-222-3699, marigoldkitchenbyob.com. Dinner Tue.-Sun., 6-9:30 p.m. Tasting menus, $65-$85.