[ review ]
Everyone has an opinion about what's missing from Philadelphia's restaurant scene. Some say ramen. Others say a deep wine culture. Some even say we need more Italian.
I say we need more snow.
The frigid temperature that winter precipitation brings would set a soulful stage to enjoy the Hot Buttered Rye at Stateside, George Sabatino's New American whiskey-and-small-plates pub on East Passyunk's growing restaurant row.
Jennifer Conley — Stateside's mixologist and Sabatino's girlfriend — blends Wild Turkey with butter, brown sugar, hot water and spices like cinnamon, cloves, anise and fennel, topping it with thick, cold whipped cream and shaved nutmeg. If you've been lucky enough sip this concoction at the concrete corner bar, looking through the windows at the Singing Fountain while the flakes fall, you know it's equivalent to liquid Christmas.
But if you fancy the drink's source material, hot buttered rum, forget about asking for your Jamaican faves. You'll have to settle for American-made — Blackheart from Kentucky, or Sailor Jerry, distilled in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
From drinks to grub, the theme at Stateside is domestic. Backed by William Bonforte and Stephen Slaughter of Green Eggs Café, the restaurant is the first solo venture for Sabatino (Barbuzzo, Bindi), and the way he sees it, his homage to all things American is not a limitation, but a vehicle to showcase conscious, responsible cooking. "I love the idea of simple, contemporary American, but very thought out, very proper," Sabatino told me recently. "It's the right product treated the right way."
Sabatino has a strong sense of balance. The vibrant bite of cumin and ginger was a perfect foil for local pickled carrots. Pear preserves amped up with cinnamon add the right sweetness to cut through rich rabbit rillettes. Although I wish it had not been spread so thinly on crostini, blending butternut squash with foie gras mousse added a subtle supporting depth that was seamless with the accompanying blood-orange purée.
What I like most about Sabatino's cooking, though, is his playful ideas. Creamy kohlrabi adds a bass note to seared Maine day-boat scallops, but it's the unexpected acid from red seedless grapes that elevates the dish. Cranberry mustard lends a spark to housemade duck sausage that's crisped to order. I enjoyed finding hidden elements of heat — the paprika- and cayenne-spiked fried chickpeas in the kale salad; the red chili flakes current in the pan-roasted Brussels sprouts.
Sabatino's somehow found a way to make bacon more addictive: He renders smoked pork in a light caramel, finishes it with butter and cream and serves the result with raw-milk blue cheese from Vermont's Jasper Hill.
The crispy maple-glazed pork belly, my favorite, is one of the best breakfast dishes you'll eat for dinner. Bellies from Green Meadow Farm are cured and braised with apple cider and chicken stock before being pressed, deep-fried and finished with ?maple glaze. Aged Vermont cheddar adds tang to the wonderful texture of Nora Mills grit cake, with Pink Lady apple rounds tossing in a tart pop.
Not every idea of Sabatino's soars. I don't know whether it was the duck fat it sat on or the pat of bone-marrow butter on top, but the chewy cap steak, one of three large plates, had an off-putting taste. But originality is not where Stateside needs improvement — fundamental execution is. A heavy hand with truffle oil eclipsed the natural Meyer beef flavor I was hoping to find in the steak tartare. I wished the roasted-garlic-and-potato and the butternut-squash soups were thicker, but what both bowls needed most was more salt. Despite housemade sofrito in a white-bean ragout and a foie-gras vinaigrette (which I could not detect), the bourbon-brined chicken, another entrée-size option, had little flavor.
Consistency is something else to consider. I loved the beer-braised Pineland Farm beef cheeks so much I ordered them four times over multiple visits. Twice, the dish came out cold. What makes the deep-fried goat cheese so memorable is the lemon zest that buzzes up the panko breading. Unfortunately, that sour bite was absent the second time I ordered it, leaving the cheese muted.
With the exception of the chef's apple-stuffed doughnut with candied bacon, Stateside's desserts are made by Robert Toland, who takes a forward approach to pastry. My favorite was the smoked chocolate-tart with marshmallow. Gelatin and agar-agar give the dense ganache its boxy shape, but the advertised applewood-smoke flavor was difficult to detect the first time I had this treat.
The drink program continues to rise to the purely domestic challenge. The beer list is home to American craft brews, like the conveniently named Stateside Saison from Baltimore's Stillwater. Scotch lovers won't find the peat they crave, but whiskey comfort can be found in Bulleit and Buffalo Trace bourbons. The wine list is predictably Cali-heavy, but it's refreshing to see Riesling from New York's Finger Lakes. GM Anthony Gualtieri tells me Penns Woods Merlot from nearby Chadds Ford will soon make an appearance.
The Hot Buttered Rye isn't the only cocktail draw, either. When Conley's at the helm, mixers like the Movie Star and The Avenue strike harmonious chords. Not so when she's away.
Now if only the winter could bring us some snow so I can fully enjoy my Hot Buttered Rye again. I'm sure if Sabatino looked hard enough, he could find an American supplier.
Stateside | 1536 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-2500, statesidephilly.com. Open daily, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; kitchen open till 10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 9 p.m. Sun.; bar menu till 1 a.m. nightly. Small plates, $6-$13; large plates, $16-$21; desserts, $6-$7.