"You reviewed me while my arm was broken!?!!?!" came the text from Scott Schroeder, off-color comedian, motorcycle rider and chef of John Longacre's South Philadelphia Tap Room and, since November, American Sardine Bar. "I haven't been able to cook for the past three weeks!"
At least two of my visits to Point Breeze's cigarette-slim Sardine Bar came before the motorcycle spill that shattered Schroeder's arm in six places, rendering him temporarily unable to chop even an onion. But my latest meal saw sous chef Amanda Smith in able command, overstuffing planks of crunchy, buttered and toasted ciabatta with pork belly, snappy watercress and chunky apple mostarda — an instant classic.
For Schroeder, newly saddled with the reality of running a second restaurant, the ill-timed injury has proven serendipitous. "Because I haven't had my arm, I can't be as hands-on," says the chef, more of a perfectionist than his bawdy Twitter persona (@foodsyoucaneat) suggests. "I'm teaching more."
Schroeder as Yoda? You bet. Who better to pass on the virtues of razor-sharp execution, confident seasoning and meticulous sourcing without coming across like a pedantic tool? Those hallmarks of the chef's style are on display at the Sardine, where the blackboard menu advertises sandwiches (falafel, stout-braised short rib, a brunch-time cheesesteak crowned with runny eggs), soups and snacks cooked with the precision you'd expect from the guy who, in my opinion, makes the city's most interesting bar food.
"For Sardine Bar, I didn't want do 30 things OK," Schroeder says. "I wanted to do 10 things really well." One is Smith's pork belly sandwich. Two is the creamy, comforting split-pea soup, "the way my dad makes it," only here it's with Lancaster bacon instead of leftover ham. Three is the tomato-y butternut-squash stew (currently off the menu), a Smith joint that sticks to your ribs fiercer than any vegan recipe in existence. Want me to go to ten? I could.
The only complaint about the food is, as with the Tap Room's, it can take long. Fortunately, 16 fountains of liquid distraction, which the staff navigates with a brewmaster's know-how, alleviate impatience. And when the food does arrive, it's worth the delay: The onion rings could encircle Saturn, and the crew here gets them perfectly crisp (albeit greasy on one occasion). Brussels sprouts fried with oyster sauce, on hiatus till summer, were little green fireballs laced with pickled Thai chilies. Velvety, bacon-y tomato sauce enrobed wavy noodles in My Mom's Tomato Macaroni, something Mrs. Schroeder would make for young Scott on Saturdays.
Smith does it so well, you'd think she was there for those family get-togethers. Schroeder's arm might be broken, but the kitchen at American Sardine Bar is anything but.
American Sardine Bar | 1801 Federal St., 215-334-2337, americansardinebar.com, @americansardine. Kitchen open daily, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; bar till 2 a.m. nightly. Brunch served Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sandwiches, $7-$12; soups, $5-$6; sides, $5-$7.