[ review ]
With its careening hills, lush greenery and brain-boiling parking sitch, Fairmount is a poor man's micro-San Francisco. And by poor man, I still mean a pretty wealthy man. If our nation is in a housing slump, nobody told the twiggy trinities and stately manors for sale around this tree-lined family favorite. Which makes the $10 tag on a swiftly stirred Kensington at Lemon Hill all the more refreshing.
Created by Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.'s Al Sotack, this marmalade-tinged riff on the Manhattan has serious pedigree, and it's worth more than the crew is charging. They don't skimp on the good stuff, namely Buffalo Trace bourbon and Carpano Antica vermouth, and they understand the minutia of cocktail-making, like activating the oils of an orange peel via lighter before wiping it across the rim of a retro coupe.
"This isn't some self-congratulatory parade," says Sotack, whose Franklin bosses co-own Lemon Hill. "It's a neighborhood bar. From the beginning, we wanted to be a place that provided a service to the community, with as little pretension as possible."
Judging by the walking-distance customers lining the brick space like nattily attired dominoes, the community is grateful. I would be too if I lived here. Where else could I get the Double Cross, a smoky, sour blend of citrus, fruit-forward Smith and Cross rum and cognac produced from grapes grown in the esteemed "Golden Triangle" district of Champagne? Such drinks, and the bartenders who make them, turn liquid strangers into willing conspirators.
"We spent a lot of time [sourcing] what you wouldn't necessarily see in a corner bar," Sotack says. "We might not have Jäger, for example, but we do have a really nice little amaro selection." Affordable and accessible are his operative words for this "local curatory" of fine hooch, a philosophy that extends to Lemon Hill's edible side, developed and run by chef-partner Mitch Prensky.
"This is my idea of what a great neighborhood pub should be," says Prensky, and anyone familiar with his well-fatted yet surgically wrought food at Supper will recognize the menu at Lemon Hill, a larder of Anson Mills grains, re-imagined diner deckers (patty melt, anyone?) and pastrami spices. I'd know his cooking by the chicken wings alone; brined, smoked, slow-cooked, floured and fried crisp, no one else's flappers are this buttery. In lieu of the birch-beer barbecue applied at Supper, Lemon's wings arrive dry, their crispy, salt-baked-like shells freckled with coriander, black pepper and garlic, Thousand Island dressing and sweet bread-and-butter pickles on the side.
Prensky was an easy sell for the project. He lives nearby and has been in cahoots with the Franklin crew since meeting managing partner Mike Welsh at Supper's release party for SNAP. For the past year, Supper has been doing the food for the Franklin, while the bar has been designing Supper's cocktails. This symbiosis will cross state lines next month, when Prensky and Welsh open St. Charles Exchange in Louisville, Ky., but for now their back-scratching is fully realized at the corner of 25th and Aspen, where Lemon Hill glows like a warm cabin in the woods.
Brassy sconces and chandeliers cast molasses shadows across the pressed-tin ceilings, crystallizing the trapped-in-amber aura of this old building. Mortar-crusted pillars frame an open kitchen barely big enough for one man (chef de cuisine Joel Mazigian, a Garces vet) plus the gas-powered brick oven in which 70 percent of Lemon Hill's menu is cooked. The station juts into the bar area like a movie-theater window, only instead of the latest matinee, Mazigian is pulling tickets for flatbreads, crispy roasted chicken brightened with pickled mushrooms and sweet, head-on Florida prawns paired with pickled okra, killer collards and decadent grits enriched with sour cream.
The oven turns out food so hot it's still moving. A sunny-side-up egg (somewhat gratuitous) quivered on a flatbread featuring housemade chorizo crumbles (not spicy enough) and dabs of salsa verde. The beer cheese, a gurgling fondue of Gruyère, cheddar and something on tap, bubbled so violently the ingredients separated like a Cement Mixer shot. You can use the accompanying soft-pretzel sticks to stir the mix back into an emulsified state; doughy and under-salted, that's really all they're good for, anyway.
But I don't want to take too much away from Justin Relkin, the pastry chef for Supper and Prensky's catering arm, Global Dish. He bakes all the bread for Lemon Hill, from the wonderful rye baguette that's toasted and served with sprightly mixed pickles to the ethereal popovers filled with blue cheese and floated in a comforting bowl of smoked tomato soup. The pie-centric dessert menu is his, as well. There's only one variety available now, a cran-apple that toed the line between sweet and tart, along with the best chocolate-chip pound cake I've had. They're served a la mode if you wish, and why wouldn't you with flavors like elegant buttermilk and smooth, sticky peanut butter?
Drinking your dessert is also an option. See: the Fairmount Project, a chic elixir of Bluecoat, Bonal, maraschino and lemon. ("'The Fairmount Project' is what we referred to Lemon Hill as before it had a name," explains Sotack.) Swirled with ripe blackberry syrup and anointed with mole bitters whose chocolate-y spice persists on the tongue, it's just sweet enough.
Lemon Hill, too, is just sweet enough. The concept could easily come across as grandiloquent or foofy, but the crew here — from Prensky and Sotack down to my warm, brainy server (best I've met in a while) — keeps it anchored in the innate promise of serving its neighborhood. You ready, Fairmount? First round's on you.
Lemon Hill | 745 N. 25th St., 215-232-2270, lemonhillphilly.com, @lemonhillphilly. Dinner served daily, 5-10 p.m. (late-night menu 10 p.m.-1 a.m., bar till 2 a.m.); brunch served Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$13; sandwiches, $12-$13; entrées, $15-$22; dessert, $4-$8.