There’s a certain population of Philadelphia restaurant lovers that put far more emphasis on the food being served than on the atmosphere in which it’s being consumed. They’re tough to pick out of a crowd, but once you engage them in conversation, a few things become apparent: They are adventurous eaters, they understand the basics of food and wine pairing, and they frequent a handful of restaurants that, though perhaps less glamorous than some of the big-name destinations in the city, provide a dining experience that is, in many ways, far superior.
One of the spots they tend to frequent is Southwark, the dimly lit throwback of a restaurant on the corner of Fourth and Bainbridge streets. It’s been around for a few years now, and while the city’s trendsters may have moved on to other, newer spots, the restauranti know that Southwark is as good as ever.
A recent meal there began with a deceptively simple octopus salad, versions of which I’ve had countless times, and that has, as often as not, arrived at the table chewy, tough, and vaguely frightening. Here, however, the octopus was cooked to perfection-tender, slightly meaty, and altogether delicious.
But it was with the entrees that Southwark really strutted its culinary stuff. Home made fettuccine, tossed in a taleggio cream sauce with wild mushrooms, slightly bitter greens and tarragon, was rich in the best sense of the word. The flavors ran so deep, and remained so balanced, that I actually had to pause after my first bite to consider what I was tasting. The concept behind the dish was fairly straightforward, but the way in which the greens and the tarragon lifted the heavier notes of the fettucine was exceptional.
Southwark also does more rustic items well, too. Offal-those so-called nastier bits of the animal-plays an important role in the menu, which is always a good sign. It often tells you that the chef is serious about his craft, and has enough confidence in his or her cooking to serve dishes that some might ordinarily shy away from. As for me, I ordered the sautÃ©ed calves liver, a hearty, stick-to-the-ribs preparation that was brought to life with the sweet addition of caramelized apples, onions, and raisins. All of it was anchored by a wonderful caraway spaetzle, which is something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the city, but wish that I would.
There was something appropriate about eating this kind of food in the Southwark dining room: The night we visited, one of this season’s snow storms had just begun, and seated across from the window, tucked into our table in the narrow, cozy space, I couldn’t help but feel cosseted and well cared for, both in terms of the food and the setting itself. I’m not much for romance, but Southwark managed to get to me.
Of course, with that liver on my breath, Ms. M. assured me that there would be no romance forthcoming.
C’est la vie. At least I had a fantastic warm fig tart with cinnamon ice cream and a Nocello anglaise as consolation. In fact, I wish more restaurants would follow Southwark’s lead in the dessert department. The selection there was right in line with the appetizers and entrees, as opposed to the more customary assortment of random sweets tacked onto the end of a menu.
Dessert brought the meal around full circle: Octopus, pasta with taleggio, liver, and fig tart may not all sound of a single sort, but the common thread running through it all was a deep sense of comfort, of rustic elegance, that tied everything together. And for $95.13, I’ll take that over trendy every day of the week.
Tues. – Sat., 5:30pm – 2am; Sun., 11am – 2am, Southwark, 701 S. 4th St., Philadelphia, 215.238.1888.
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