If people went to your house for a barbecue, what would you make?
This was the question Avram Hornik, partner in nightlife firm Four Corners Management, posed to David Katz, chef and owner of acclaimed (and recently shuttered) BYOB Mémé, one day at a birthday party at the Philly Kids Gym.
“Our kids go to school together,” Katz says. (Go ahead and melt, ladies.) “Avram mentioned what he was doing over here. I told him if he felt like doing something a little different with the food, that I could help him out.”
“Over here” is Morgan’s Pier, a sun-baked river deck furnished with vintage lawn chairs, turquoise and lime umbrellas, picnic tables and rustling linden trees under the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge. “Over here” is the grave of the short-lived Octo and longer-lived, but equally uncool, Rock Lobster. “Over here” is Delaware frigging Avenue, a place where no one goes.
Since Morgan’s Pier opened in May, that last one has changed. Not only do people go, but if the crowds were any indication when I checked it out, it’s the summer 2012 destination. From gurgling newborns to kulats-wearing grandmas, Elkins Park to Packer Park, Morgan’s Pier attracts a wider cross section of the city than a Phillies game. Old, young. White, black. Lawyers and nurses and students and plumbers. All sipping cans of Oskar Blues, St. Germain-laced sangria or the Watermelon Rickey, a hypnotic heat-beater of 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon beer, muddled lemon and watermelon syrup. All enjoying their city — a city that, let’s face it, is not the most enjoyable place on earth in the dead of July and August.
This is Hornik’s humidity-soaked miracle.
But Katz’s place in the kitchen is what makes it interesting to food journos like me. Four Corners establishments (Union Transfer, Ortlieb’s) have never paid food too much mind, so Katz’s involvement marks a shift in the FCM paradigm — and earns Morgan’s some elusive foodie street cred. So does the Little Baby’s ice cream cart scooping cones of Earl Grey Sriracha and Bourbon Bourbon Vanilla, and the Federal Donuts served at brunch.
Katz has recruited his chef buddies for collabo-cookouts, too. Terence Feury kicked it off with grilled prawns and shellfish bakes in July. Kevin Sbraga comes this month for a Brazilian-style barbecue, and September sees Mike Solomonov armed with quivers of Israeli kebabs.
The other 29 or 30 days of the month, Joe Lakavage, a longtime friend and colleague of Katz, handles Morgan’s kitchen. The two worked together in Squaw Valley and LBI, where Katz was his sous chef, and share a mentor in Nola chef Corbin Evans, whose Philly restaurant Lillies on 12th gave Katz his first culinary gig in 1997.
While developing Morgan’s menu, Katz considered Hornik’s directive: “If people went to your house for a barbecue, what would you make?”
To start, he’d make burgers. Veil them in good old-fashioned orange American cheese and tuck them into soft-as-earmuffs Martin’s potato buns. With the sole flourish of relish, this is the Morgan’s Pier burger, born of the opinionated Katz’s rigid burger doctrine: thin, West Coast-style 5-ounce sirloin patty, minimal ornamentation and a bun that is decidedly not made of brioche. The only concession he makes is to grill the patties, in keeping with the backyard-barbecue theme; truth be told, he’d prefer the flat top. No matter. Not to player-hate on the beefier, gussied-up specimens around town, but my juicy, pink-centered double cheeseburger at Morgan’s Pier delivered a primal, straightforward satisfaction that think-ier versions just can’t convey.
Burgers come with a slice of (under-ripe) watermelon, a cup of cole slaw and fries, slender and salty, decent considering they’re from the freezer. At Casa de Katz, they’d most certainly be fresh-cut, but volume and logistics conspire against that here. Thumbs down, volume and logistics. Feel free to pick at them, but you won’t be missing out if you save your appetite for the other items; you’ll need it, as most are fried.
That’s my chief criticism of the Morgan’s menu. It’s designed for speed and affordability, and the deep fryer is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to cook something. Of three starters I tried, three were fried: Vietnamese-style salt ’n’ pepper squid with a sweet-and-sour chili-lime dip (crispy!); ripe, red, double-breaded Jersey tomatoes dabbed with horseradish sour cream (crunchy!); and chicken wings slathered in tangy, fiery pineapple-ancho sauce (strangely rubbery!).
After the baskets of appetizers had come and gone, sauce-splattered wax paper the only remnant of their presence, I found myself wishing I’d shown some restraint and swapped out just one for the watermelon-and-feta salad. Fortunately, the vinegary Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwich that followed cleaned out my palate like a power washer, leaving just enough room to brave the crowds around the Little Baby’s cart for a cone of Balsamic Banana.
The last time there was this much hubbub around Penn’s Landing, Penn was landing. Forget bucolic urban greenways and burying I-95; the revival of the Delaware waterfront is happening now, one big backyard barbecue at a time.
221 N. Columbus Blvd., 215-279-7134, morganspier.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-2 a.m. Appetizers, $3-$9; sandwiches and tacos, $5-$9.50; desserts, $4-$5.