Last fall, word began to circulate that Stephen Starr was working on a new project with Peter Serpico, James Beard award-winner and second-in-command chef of New York’s Momofuku empire. The two spent the last year refining the menu and concept in the kitchens of some of Starr’s other Philly venues and Serpico (604 South Street) opened for dinner at the end of June. Originally, the restaurant had not intended to take reservations, but Chester came across it on OpenTable during a random search and we snagged a table for dinner before the long Fourth of July weekend.
Upon stepping into the restaurant, the general “blah” feeling that I’ve come to associate with South Street quickly faded away. The decor is sleek, with lots of clean lines and black and white tile. The centerpieces of the restaurant are its open kitchen at the back and bar along the windows at the front. A few of the walls have been turned into chalkboards to showcase the food and extensive bar menu. Modern light fixtures at each table help to show off the food and keep the space from feeling too dreary. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful space used to be a Foot Locker!
Serpico drew inspiration from all around the globe in developing his menu, with dishes incorporating Asian, Latin, Italian and Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients. Our server noted that although there would be some staple items on the menu, most of the dishes will change with the seasons. The first half of the menu consists of plates that would be the appropriate for appetizers (salads, ceviche, pasta) and the second part of the menu leans toward the heavier, entrée options. Most of the plates on the menu can be shared and our server suggested choosing three to four.
First up was the deep fried duck leg.
The duck was coated in a smoky-sweet hoisin sauce and perfectly cooked—tender and moist on the inside, with a crunchy exterior—and was served slider style on a potato roll. A side of spicy sriracha ketchup and cool pickled vegetables made excellent accompaniments, as you could add as much or as little as you wanted based on your flavor preferences. If Serpico offered these as full size sandwiches at lunch, I predict that there would be a line out the door every day.
Next, we chose the ravioli, which was probably my favorite dish of the night.
The pasta was incredibly light and filled with a velvety, sweet white corn filling. With its delicate sour cream sauce, lime and bits of chorizo and cojita cheese, the dish was reminiscent of Mexican grilled corn, one of my favorite dishes to enjoy in the summer.
The lamb ribs came out next. This is the only dish on the menu that is specifically noted as “for two,” and the portion of six ribs definitely made for a substantial entrée.
The ribs had been marinated and rubbed with cumin and were cooked until they were so tender that only a fork was needed to break them apart. A yogurt sauce is a traditional accompaniment for lamb and Serpico’s version had just the right balance of mint and garlic. The addition of Japanese eggplant to the sauce provided a hint of sweetness.
We opted to each make a selection from the dessert menu to finish our meal. I chose the Rocky Road, which featured bittersweet, frozen chocolate pudding, was topped with a dollop of marshmallow crème, shards of marshmallow meringue and walnuts. Chester chose one of the menu’s semi-sweet dessert offerings, the foie gras (which is a nod to one of the most talked about dishes at Momofuku). The foie gras had been transformed into a powder and frozen. Chester described the texture and melt-in-your mouth quality of the dish as being similar to Dippin Dots ice cream. Grapes and candied peanuts provided a sweet balance to the savory dish.
Overall, the desserts were the only dishes that I was not all that impressed with. I appreciate that they were trying to offer a unique twist on traditional dishes by incorporating elements of molecular gastronomy, but I thought that the presentations were messy and lacked the same attention to detail that the main dishes had (for example, the walnuts on the Rocky Road were toasted to the point of being bitter).
Much of the criticism that I’ve seen about Serpico so far seems to relate to the price point. When you consider what is currently in the area (greasy pizza shops and dirty looking bars, mostly), I have to agree. The current menu features dishes that range from $9 to $55 (with an average price of $20). The bar pricing is also steep. Wines by the glass ranged from $12 to $21 (and pours were not all that generous) and cocktails were in the $12 to $13 range. Mark-ups on bottles are ridiculous, with selections that run $15 at a liquor store priced at more than $70. Depending on what you order, dinner for two can be pricey!
This is why I wonder if, even though, the food is delicious, creative and well executed, Serpico will be sustainable after the initial buzz wears off. I am sure that people will see it as a fun, one-time experience for a special occasion, but I wonder if it will develop a following among area residents who are looking for a new go-to place for dinner. I hope that I’m wrong and that Serpico will be a success, which will in turn encourage other restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to bring their creative concepts and ideas to a neighborhood that desperately needs some revitalization.