[ review ]
Ten in the morning in Rittenhouse Square. A slate-gray standard poodle preens on the sidewalk in front of a.kitchen, the new all-day eatery carved from the lobby of Korman Communities' AKA hotel. Its owner, wearing expensive running gear and a more expensive nose, sips coffee, thumbs a BlackBerry and snubs the passing dude who stops to canoodle her poodle as if he were a homeless man asking for change.
The farce unfolds in view of my neat round table, where it feels like I have nothing else to do today but relax, watch the world and consume my recommended daily intake of carbohydrates, one butter-drenched pancake at a time. All around me in the restaurant, well-rested diners appear to be after the same noble pursuit. And a.kitchen makes that pursuit easy. The unhurried pace. The parade of shiny pastries along the white-marble bar. The second cappuccino I order because, what the hell, I'm on vacation.
Except I'm not. I live in this city. And I have to be at work in 15.
Apparently so does the guy petting the aloof pooch out front. He bounds into a.kitchen and is on the line a moment later, organizing his station in the 150-square-foot, counter-wrapped open kitchen. Off to the side, a.kitchen chef Bryan Sikora, of Django and Talula's Table acclaim, is talking housemade English muffins with his breakfast chef, a soldier who works 6 a.m. to noon before heading off to his second job, as garde manger at Le Bec-Fin.
This morning, Sikora doesn't seem completely pleased with the muffins, but mine is as soft as a cloud with a crust that comes from being cooked on the flattop griddle. The heavenly breads are quickly becoming a calling card of a.kitchen, just as a.kitchen will become a calling card of all AKA properties. Or at least that's the plan according to David Fields, the onetime restaurateur (Salt) and restaurant critic (Philly Mag) who's overseen the concept's development from the beginning.
So who's overseeing the spicing of the muffin's zesty sausage patties? Tucked between the nooks and crannies, it reads more macaroni dinner than breakfast sandwich, something a little brown sugar or maple syrup would counteract. There's a fried egg in there, too, but the yolk is as firm as a new mattress, and like any serious sandwich, this one needs cheese.
So did the mushroom-and-Taleggio crêpes I had at dinner at a.kitchen a week earlier. Dusted in pecorino and browned beneath a salamander, the envelopes were crunchy as Cheez-Its and held precious little Taleggio, a fromage whose funky personality is rarely this shy.
There were also boorish beef kebabs at this meal, glazed in citrus-y barbecue sauce and served, incongruously, with garlicky broccoli rabe befitting Villa di Roma, as well as a massive Marcona almond "macaroon" as heavy as a paperweight. (It's actually a French macaron, despite the menu's spelling, which indicates the chewy coconut cookies sold by the pound at fudge "shoppes" on the Ocean City boardwalk.) I wasn't sure whether to eat it or hurl it at my flighty server when I was ready for the check.
Fortunately, I found plenty to like from Sikora's catalog of interesting but approachable small plates. Divided into vegetables, seafood and meat, there may be too many of them, resulting in long delays between courses, but they're mostly worth the wait.
Take the housemade burrata, which seeped ivory cream into summer-incarnate fruit salad of gem-cut cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew. Sikora tops the dish with crispy shavings of country ham from Matt Ridgway, the charcutier who sells his cured and smoked PorcSalt wares around the corner at the Rittenhouse farmers market. Sweet, salty and creamy, the starter is part prosciutto e melone, part Caprese and wholly delicious.
Watermelon appeared again, both the juicy, steak-like meat (cubed and seared) and the pickled rind alongside smoky curls of grilled Spanish rock octopus, another triumph. Sweet corn broth set the tone for the suave risotto mined with tender shreds of Lancaster chicken leg, and tart lemon curd with a stack of buttery shortbread cookies (battered and griddled like French toast!) redeemed the macaroon disappointment.
My favorite dinner dish by far was gnocchi, which rendezvoused with diced summer squash, béchamel and luscious house-smoked haddock in a buttered gratin dish. It was unexpected and novel, two adjectives rarely used to describe food at hotel restaurants.
Then again, a.kitchen is much more than just a hotel restaurant. It also makes sense in the city's dining fabric, with a chef whose name you know instead of some corporate yahoo who doesn't know us. It's a less circus-y Parc, a more relevant Rouge, and the Rittenhouse beau monde has taken notice. In seersucker blazers and Stone Harbor tans, they spilled out the restaurant's open front when I arrived for my dinner reservation. And more still were trying to get inside, where white marble surfaces, charcoal tiling and a low ceiling of white-oak planks lends a.kitchen the look of a luxe Swedish sauna.
The only massages here are verbal ones, often directed at the willowy hostesses by smarmy sweet-talkers looking for a table without a reservation. I've got to give it to these girls; a.kitchen attracts some pushy people, but the gatekeepers stayed gracious as the grumbling shutouts sulked off to Devon and La Fontana.
The rejected should try returning in the morning. Back at breakfast, the pancakes are ethereal, with crisp, butter-tanned edges and fluffy middles, and the bowl of austere Greek yogurt attractively furnished fresh berries and Malvern-based Laura's granola (Sikora used to stock it at Talula's Table). As the minutes tick by, tourists polish off their chorizo frittatas and Bloody Marys and depart, patting themselves on their savvy backs for choosing such a fashionable base camp. It's warm and breezy, and they have nothing to do but digest.
You'd think I'd be jealous of them, but they should be jealous of me. I'm the one that gets to eat at a.kitchen whenever I want.
a.kitchen | AKA Rittenhouse Square, 135 S. 18th St., 215-825-7030, akitchenphilly.com. Breakfast Mon.-Fri., 7-10:30 a.m.; lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Vegetables, $8-$14; seafood, $12-$16; meat, $14-$39; dessert, $8.