by Len Lear
The last time we ate dinner (in 2014) at a.kitchen, 135 S. 18th St., just off tony Rittenhouse Square, the executive chef was Eli Kulp, who had been named one of Food & Wine magazine‘s “12 Best New Chefs of 2014” along with numerous other honors. The food was crazy good. However, on May 12, 2015, an Amtrak Northeast Regional a train from Washington, D.C. bound for New York City derailed and crashed in Philly’s Port Richmond’s neighborhood.
Of 238 passengers and five crew on board, eight were killed and over 200 injured, 11 in critical condition. The train was traveling at 102 mph in a 50 mph zone of curved tracks when it derailed. One of the 11 critically injured passengers was Eli Kulp, who has been rehabilitating in a wheelchair ever since but has received ongoing support from the local restaurant community.
We recently returned for dinner at a.kitchen and can report that the current chef, Eli Collins, is a worthy successor to his first-name namesake. In fact, we enjoyed the dinner even more than another one a week earlier at Vernick Food & Drink, which was recently designated the best restaurant in the Philadelphia area by Inquirer critic Craig LaBan and the second best restaurant in the region by Philadelphia magazine. (Laurel was named number one.)
a.kitchen opened in July, 2011, on the ground floor of AKA Rittenhouse Square, a luxury extended-stay hotel in a trend-setting dining neighborhood. Its sibling, a.bar, is next door. They are both part of the empire overseen by Ellen Yin, who also owns Fork, High Street on Market and High Street on Hudson in Manhattan.
We met Ellen 20 years ago when she opened Fork and after hearing about her personal history (her parents, immigrants from China, were less than thrilled at her decision to swim in the shark-infested restaurant waters), were absolutely convinced that the Wharton School MBA grad was going to the top of the culinary escalator, as she has. Time has not laid a glove on her.
“Philly has become a great restaurant city,” said Yin, who has always been one to color outside the lines, “and the consumer has so many excellent choices that it has become harder and harder than ever to get the repeat customer, but we have put a strong team in place here, and I think we are on the right track.”
Designed by a New York architect, the modernistic interior at a.kitchen would be right at home in midtown Manhattan with its white oak, white marble, blackened steel and contemporary decorative accents. An 11-seat marble countertop faces the open kitchen, where you can watch the chefs swirl sharp knives at breakneck speed.
A separate sidewalk-accessible entrance is offset by bold black awnings and a retractable wall of windows that allow the restaurant to open up to the outside, providing al fresco seating that is ideal for people-watching (and dog-watching). You see a phalanx of pedestrians, from designer-clad women who would be at home on the Academy Awards red carpet to corporate executives to homeless people. There are about 60 seats overall.
This New York-ish eatery is in the mold of restaurants that are casual in style but sophisticated in food indulgence (and wines with its massive collection, including many from small producers). For example, the grilled swordfish was a badge of chef’s honor, suffused with juicy flavor, a testament to the fact that pristine ingredients will trump (excuse the word) high-concept tricks any day ($28).
And one of the things that make Eli Collins, who has the incisive focus of a laser, a star in the making is his attention to vegetables that are not just a decorative throw-in. In virtually every dish the veggies are as delicately, exquisitely satisfying as the hero. In the case of the swordfish, the accompanying apple and cucumber vierge grain salad was absolutely addictive. (Vierge is a French sauce usually made from olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomato and chopped basil.)
The only disappointment for us was the rock shrimp appetizer. Michael Schulson, who now has his own successful restaurants in center city’s Midtown district, introduced this dish with crispy coating when he was the first chef at Pod about 20 years ago, and others have copied it at restaurants like Azie on Main in Villanova and the Bonefish Grill chain (they call it “Bang Bang shrimp”), and we have loved it in each place. At a.kitchen, however, the tiny shellfish were bland, although the accompanying tomatillo, apple and radish mix, as one would expect with a Collins dish, was sublime ($12).
Other dishes that blew us away were the Tuscan kale salad ($12) and the spectacularly juicy heirloom tomato salad ($14), which unfortunately is no longer available because the summer is history. I only have a cup of decaf coffee about once every few months, partly because I almost always find coffee too metallic and sour, but the coffee at a.kitchen was the best I have tasted in years.
Like planets orbiting a celestial body, staffers at a.kitchen revolve around a gravitational performance by chef Collins. We could not have been more impressed by servers Lucia and Abriona, whose personalities are carbonated, not flat. Lucia, who looks like she could be a college undergrad, has already been to South Africa, India and Thailand, and when we were at a.kitchen, she was about to leave to go to Texas to do hurricane relief work.
For more information, call 215-825-7030 or visit www.akitchenandbar.com.