by Sam Gugino
Kris Serviss and Joe Callahan grew up together in the Winchester Park section of that mysterious and very large place called The Great Northeast. In September 2014, they opened a restaurant in what used to be a dance studio in a strip mall across from their old grade school (St. Jerome) with a menu that has macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and French fries.
So, what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that the mac and cheese (whimsically titled “quack & cheese”) has shreds of duck, smoked Gouda, dried cherries, and roasted portabella mushrooms; the meat in the meatloaf is wild boar; and the fries are tossed in duck fat and topped with duck confit and smoked gouda cheese sauce and scallions.
Welcome to The Blue Duck, where comfort food never tasted so good. And food that isn’t quite as comforting is just as good or better.
Which is not to say that TBD is perfect. It’s dark (like, what, 85 percent of Philly restaurants?) and it’s loud. So don’t come here for a tete a tete, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Serviss, who honchos the cooking, put tete de veau on the menu, maybe in the mac and cheese. (There is also a brisket mac and cheese with caramelized onions and jalapeno.)
Brisket, incidentally, finds its way into the restaurant’s superb signature burger grind along with beef rib fat and chuck. Don’t muck this up with pickles and such, though it was pretty terrific with melted blue cheese and an eggy brioche bun.
The gentle but discernable whiff of livery game (this is a good thing, people) gave the wild boar meatloaf loads of character. Cold it could make a fine country pate.
Want some Italian comfort food? How about a woodsy wild mushroom risotto, whose only fault was an unneeded embellishment of crabmeat. Another fine Italian effort was pleasantly chewy pumpkin gnocchi with peas and sage cream. This lily was also gilded (though deliciously so) but with shrimp.
While I loved the rib-sticking menu, what really impressed me was a decidedly unsticky dish, a special proffered the evening I visited: scallop crudo, raw slices floating in a cool bath of tomato water with burnt cucumber oil and shaved jalapeno. It was as delicate and sophisticated a dish as you’d find in any high-toned restaurant with equally high-toned prices. Kudos on the crudo, Kris.
If you like your scallops cooked, they’ll come wonderfully crusty on the outside and tender inside. Just ask Kris to go easy on the salt. Salt was not a problem for the deep-fried cauliflower, so splendidly cooked it hardly needed the creamy, but tame, garlic aioli.
Desserts are odd here. Some weeks they are house made, like chocolate cake or baked Alaska. But this night it was just two mini cakes from the Brooklyn Baking Barons, a whiskey cake with just the right amount of booze, and a rum infused sand cake, which had a lovely crystalline cinnamon sugar crust. Whatever the desserts, have their coffee, even if it’s decaf. But try not to steal the snazzy mugs.
If you want to fit in with the staff, wear your best grunge. Converse high tops and headgear are encouraged. However, while helpful and friendly, they fell prey to two major peeves: not giving prices of specials, heretofore called Price of Specials Malfunction (PSM) and “Who Gets The…?” (WGT), or not knowing who at the table ordered what. Don’t they teach that at St. Jerome?
The Blue Duck, 2859 Holme Ave., Philadelphia, 267-686-4687, blueduckphilly.com. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Tuesday- Saturday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sunday Brunch 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Dinner entrees $16 to $21.
I figured with an American bistro menu why not the quintessentially American wine, Zinfandel? I chose one from Sonoma (Decoy 2013; Code: 42271) and one from Napa (Girard Old Vine, 2013; Code: 42804), both $19.99. Decoy, the second label of Duckhorn, was a bit more muscular. The Girard had plenty of heft but while aged longer in oak, it tasted smoother, richer and more integrated. Also try: Seghesio Sonoma County 2013 (Code: 42731, $19.99) and Buehler Vineyards Napa Valley 2012 (Code: 42255, $18.99).
You could also bring the other Zinfandel, yes the white one—no sniggers, please—like Beringer (Code: 5235, $7.99)—if for no other reason than, at 10%, it’s two thirds the alcohol of the Girard, a good choice for the designated driver.