by Len Lear
Although Mackenzie Hilton is not nearly as famous as Paris Hilton, no one (even Paris, I’m sure) would deny that Mackenzie is infinitely more talented. She does not just enter a room; she takes possession of it. The executive chef at The Tavern, which just opened in late June at 243 S. Camac St. in Philly’s center city “Gayborhood,” has a photogenic smile that could get her in a toothpaste commercial, but she actually has been a television personality for a different reason.
When Mackenzie and chef Eric Paraskevas faced off on the Food Network show “Chopped” in 2010, Paraskevas was the chef at Terra (which by a remarkable coincidence was located in the same building where The Tavern is now), and Hilton was the chef de cuisine at Mercato, 1216 Spruce St., just a couple of long NFL passes from where she is cooking now. (She also has a reputation as a very good karaoke singer, just in case the cooking thing doesn’t work out.)
On the show, the chefs had to create an appetizer, entree and dessert from a cornucopia of seemingly disconnected ingredients, similar to the concept of the current network TV show, “Master Chef.” Paraskevas was eliminated in the entree round when he had to create a dish including tapioca pearls, carrots, “fruit leather” (puréed fruit, spread out and dried, then rolled up to store) and rabbit. Hilton made it to the final round by whipping yucca, figs, hoisin sauce and red jalapeno peppers into an awesome dessert, and in the end she was named the winner of the competition over Massachusetts chef Chris Coombs.
After her Food Network victory, Hilton, who has a stranglehold on the contemporary culinary zeitgeist, was hired by a winery in the San Francisco Bay area to run their restaurant. After a year and a half there, The Tavern owner Steve Carlino and director of operations Randal Mrazik made Hilton an offer she could not refuse. (Some people would suggest therapy for anyone leaving a San Francisco area winery to move to downtown Philly.)
“Believe it or not, I really love the winters here,” insisted Mackenzie, who also had to engineer a radical shift in her internal biological clock. “Last year,” she explained, “I was doing corporate dining and working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. almost every day. Now I usually leave here about 3 a.m. or later because we serve food until that time. That was a tough switch to get used to.”
The Tavern’s subterranean dining room on cobblestone-lined Camac Street, underneath Tavern on Camac, one of the city’s oldest gay bars, is now open Wednesday-Monday from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. (closed Tuesdays). Originally a speakeasy, the space was turned into a piano bar 76 years ago, making it one of the area’s oldest music venues.
The renovated below-ground dining room seats about 32 and another 12 at the bar. There is some comfortable banquette seating, tile floors, exposed brick and pine paneling. The workers could not be more friendly and welcoming, and our server, Meg Trelease, was as knowledgeable as she was charming.
The menu at The Tavern does not contain any of the indulgent tropes one finds at center city’s most expensive Downton Abbey-like dining rooms with cathedral ceilings, but it does contain lots of bar food brio and interesting combinations of ingredients you just won’t find anywhere else. No shrimp scampi or mussels marinara.
I have never before seen a restaurant dish with nine different pickles, but that is one appetizer at The Tavern ($9). They are from Lancaster County. Some people might consider it overkill, but since I have always been a pickle nut (so to speak), I would never find myself in a pickle while savoring this unusual dish. Another interesting snack-like appetizer is the light-as-a-feather kale chips with parmesan anchovy aioli ($9).
A grilled asparagus dish is also unique to Mackenzie with its lamb chopper cheese, a Gouda-style, Dutch-made sweet cheese made from sheep’s milk. How Gouda was it? Very Gouda! It comes with a poached egg and grilled bread and is a circus of flavors and textures ($6).
I bow my head out of respect for the fried monkfish New Orleans-style “po boy” ($6 for small portion; $11 for large portion), a combustible cocktail of lightly kissed fish with a spicy pickle, remoulade sauce, slaw and Sarcone’s bread. Chef Hilton’s alchemy is revealed again in her singing tuna tartar “burger” with a backbeat of capers, anchovy paste, red onion, chives and Dijon on grilled sourdough bread ($5 for small portion; $16 for large portion).
Two desserts we tried — homemade popcorn with salted caramel on vanilla ice cream ($4); and homemade mojito popsicles ($3.50)— gave us both a mouthgasm. We could easily have eaten s’more and s’more. They prove that Mackenzie definitely has soul in her bowl.
The Tavern offers a selection of classic cocktails, wines by the glass and bottle and a variety of draft and bottled beers. Although they have to stop alcohol service at 2 a.m. by state law, the full food menu is served at least until 3 a.m., which attracts other restaurant workers, theater performers and other night owls and vampires.
If you Google The Tavern, you will find lots of them all over the country. In fact, there was a restaurant called The Tavern that opened 80 years ago in Bala Cynwyd, just about the time Prohibition was being overturned. They used to have a framed menu from the 1930s on their wall which showed that a steak entree at the time was $1. From 1997 to 2002 it was called something else, but then it was renamed The New Tavern.
For more information, visit www.thetavernphilly.com or call 215-545-1102.