If you keep up with the Philly food scene, you know that there's always some debate when Philly Mag's Top 50 Best Restaurant list comes out. For 2012, Stateside was a new addition and #1 to boot. While there was some debate as to Stateside being at the top of the list, there was no surprise when Stateside's creative chef, George Sabatino, was named best new chef.
Shortly thereafter though, Chef Sabatino decided to jump ship and head over to Morgan's Pier of all places. Not especially known for pushing out the most creative dishes from its "kitchen," Morgan's Pier (pre-Sabatino) was certainly well known for the throngs of people looking for a cheap drink by the river. I couldn't help but be intrigued at the potential new menu and Chef Sabatino's leap from cooking for approximately 30 diners to several hundred a night. So I decided to check out the new "picnic" menu with the GF and some friends.
There are a few bars littered throughout the venue, along with a bevy of picnic tables which look out over the Delaware River and the Ben Franklin Bridge. A new "formal" dining area was constructed in the middle of Morgan's Pier, where a separate menu offers dinner plates as well.
But for a midweek dinner with some friends, we were simply looking for a taste of the picnic menu.
Absolut Citron, lemon, smoked pickled green beans, salted chili rim
I decided to start the night off with a Bloody Mary, knowing that I would appreciate a drink with some spice to offset the impending pork belly and fries that I was looking to order. This wasn't my favorite iteration of the ubiquitous cocktail, but it definitely had the abundantly spicy kick that I was looking for. The smoked pickled green bean was an interesting twist, though was more appropriate to suck on than nibble. It did offer some countervailing astringency to the drink. Still, I think going with beer here would be par for the course though.
All Kinds of Melons ($8)
Fresh goat cheese, hazelnuts
The GF started off with the melon salad, a gorgeous medley of fruit that was compressed and pickled with ginger beer. Each bite was a quenching burst of flavor, highlighted by the vinaigrette. The fresh goat cheese offered creamy tang, with the candied hazelnuts offering sweetness and texture to offset the peppery arugula.
Cheese Croquettes ($5)
Sauteed kale, Romesco
I started off with the cheese croquettes, a quartet of crispy morsels filled with a creamy mixture of sauteed kale and cheese, atop a sweet Romesco sauce. Nice, but I couldn't help but want more (quantity, not quality!).
BBQ Pulled Mushroom Sandwich ($8)
Romaine hearts, Gigi's cucumber salad
For her main, the GF went with the pulled mushroom sandwich. Unfortunately, the texture was not to her liking. The mushrooms were slimy. I did appreciate the flavor that was imparted in them - sweet and smoky.
There was some texture from the romaine and the cucumber, but I felt like this sandwich needed something more. The bun was airy, yet a a bit too limp, especially considering the texture of the "pulled" mushrooms. A side of pickled carrots and onions was provided as well.
Apricot mustard, slaw
I knew that "crisp thick cut bacon" meant pork belly, which is obviously a must-order for me. Unfortunately, I was immediately turned off by the thick, rustic bun. I get that the pork belly is innately heavy so perhaps the bun was meant to offset that heft. Unfortunately, it was way too dry, especially considering there was not enough of the apricot mustard to cut through the fattiness of the belly. The pork belly was certainly the highlight of the sandwich - perfectly unctuous. In fact in retrospect, I would have been happy eating the innards of the sandwich with just a fork and knife. The slaw provided a nice textural crunch with a slight vinegary tang. The standard side of the day accompanied this sandwich as well.
Really Good Fries ($3 small / $7 large)
Spicy salt, aioli
And last, but certainly not least, I ordered a large order of the aptly named fries for the table. If you're thinking about the fries, go big or go home. For a large order, you get a huge tray of these delicious thin-cut fries. Salty, crispy, and creamy - they were definitely aggressively seasoned and served with an aioli with some subtly smoky spice to it. Perfect to pair with a drink or three.
Overall, if you're looking for decent bites in a relaxed setting by the river, Morgan's Pier is a good bet - at least on a Tuesday night! If you read any of the reviews on Yelp, I'd stay away on weekend nights unless you're looking to kick it at the Jersey shore - which is fine if that's what you're looking for. But for me, it's about the food. So grab a beer and get some friends together to try some of Chef Sabatino's dishes. While some missed the mark, the flavors were generally there. And certainly with the appetizers, you can see some of the technique that has been infused into the kitchen thanks to the Chef. Next time around, I'll be sure to try the futuristic burger - cooked sous-vide, flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen, and deep-fried to order. The burger was even named Best "Backyard" Burger in Philly this year. I suppose that's something you'd expect from someone crowned best new chef in Philly.