Homey and cozy in a smoldering cast-iron skillet, chicken and biscuits was not what I expected from Michael Santoro.
The sleeper hit of the Mildred’s bar menu looks more like something mom might make than the D.C. export who wowed Philly with foie parfaits, vadouvan rabbits and spherical gnudi as smooth as marbles at Talula’s Garden. During his brief, brilliant tenure there, Santoro crystallized his local rep as a chef who could cook like a beast and plate like a ballerina, a chef so committed to his style he bounced out the Garden after just four months when he was (allegedly) asked to dumb things down.
And now, a year and change later at the Mildred, his hotly anticipated independent debut, he is cooking ... chicken and biscuits?
Poultry-scented steam ascended from the black Staub pan, revealing fingerprints on my can of cider and releasing notes of woodsy winter herbs as it reached for my nose and the rafters of the lodge-like ceiling beyond. Santoro considers himself a “biscuit aficionado,” a claim these golden puffs supported as they rose from the rich, tawny gravy. The meaty sauce clung to the big shreds of buttery dark meat. Precisely diced onions, carrots and celery root glimmered like half-buried gems. One hearty forkful made this clear: I thought I knew Santoro, but I really didn’t know him at all.
“What we’re doing here is more personal, straight-up good cookin’ with less reliance on garnish for garnish’s sake,” says the chef. “The food looks a lot different [from Talula’s], but there’s a thread running through everything I’ve been doing for the past several years: low-temp cooking, marinading, brining, braising, the application of food science, how it affects vegetables, eggs, milk.” In Philly, we don’t have the luxury of having known Santoro for the past several years. We don’t know the Santoro of the Blue Duck in D.C. or the Santoro of the Fat Duck in London or the Santoro of Gilt in New York. All we know is the Santoro of Talula’s Garden, which is why the rustic persona of the Mildred’s menu feels like such a curveball. But what’s happening in the kitchen, behind the scenes, Santoro insists, has always been the same.
The chicken and biscuits made that clear. A clinic of meticulous, “thinking along every step” technique — the veggies are cooked separately in schmaltz before being added to the gravy, for example — and pristine Pennsylvania ingredients, it might not be the most thrilling thing I’ve ever eaten, but on a crisp fall Wednesday night sitting by the fireplace in the Mildred’s lounge, it’s hard imagine a more perfect plate of food.
And did I mention it’s $7?
The Mildred’s Bella Vista neighbors played an important role in dictating the menu’s price point, as well as its style. After taking over the old James space last March, Santoro and Michael Dorris, his business partner and culinary-school pal, walked around the ’hood introducing themselves and listening to what the neighbors said about their building’s former tenant: “It was a destination spot when they wanted a neighborhood spot.”
With warm fir tabletops in the dining room, mauve velvet stools at the bar and all the room’s whitewashed brick stripped (by Santoro) to its original russet and red, the tavernish Mildred no longer resembles chichi James. But Santoro’s pastas, in the best way, remind me so much of Jim Burke’s, from the harvest-spiced squash-and-sweet-potato tortellini arrayed in caramelized fall crops (I particularly loved the crisp, fruity quince) and carrot broth in the striking 12-inch-long penne coiled like cobras around a tremendous braised beef rib. Santoro gratinées the latter in old-school Mornay sauce, a mac ’n’ cheese that doesn’t draw its sophistication from lobster or truffles.
Marinated in an aggressively spiced, housemade A.1. sauce, that beef sang, especially when paired with a glass of cool, peppery Aglianico del Vulture, a DOCG vino from southern Italy’s Basilicata region. The Mildred’s wine list is replete with esoteric values and lovable oddballs like this, and nothing seems to make the warm, upbeat staff (under the direction of front-of-the-house maestro Dorris) happier than pouring you a complimentary taste. Something white and bright like verdicchio cuts the richness of another of my favorite Mildred efforts: pig trotters seared in caramel, braised with apples and horseradish, shredded and tucked into hollowed potato cups.
Not every dish was so successful. Wrapped in bacon and savoy cabbage, the slab of guinea-hen terrine was well made but poorly seasoned; mincing the pickled plums as finely as grains of kosher salt minimized their impact when scattered on top. One-note celery-root-and-Smokehouse-apple soup would have worked as a quick shot, but poured tableside from a cherry-red teakettle, a whole bowl quickly grew tiresome. Cooked too hard, dark caramel glazed an otherwise lovely tart tatin for two in a veil of abrasive bitterness.
A better ending arrived in pastry chef Emily Riddell’s light lemon tart festooned with citrus marshmallows and fresh huckleberries. Or you could always just ask for another bowl of sweetly spiced, housemade apple butter; the thick puree tasted as good straight off the spoon as it did on baker Katie Lynch’s warm loaves of oat bread.
Santoro and Dorris have really surrounded themselves with a talented cast, including a third Michael (Rafidi), Santoro’s sous chef and sidekick for the past five years. So many Mikes, all with some magic, but it’ll take more than that to elevate this restaurant to its full potential. Fortunately, this crew is committed to the Mildred. “We signed a long lease,” Santoro says. Plenty of time to get to know him better.
824 S. Eighth St., 267-687-1600, the-mildred.com. Dinner Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 5:30-11 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Appetizers, $7-$13; entrees, $17-$44; brunch, $6-$15.