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I'm not a food critic, but when I'm not driving, I'm probably eating. 

Sbraga 5-31-14 : On Chefs, Top Chef, and Hot Fudge...

Minivan Dad

This one's a little long for a restaurant I won't be rushing back to, and it's kind of a triple post. Curious?

Background confession. I have been watching Top Chef since Season 2, when Ilan Hall defeated Marcel Vigneron and there was the whole shaved head assault thing. I keep saying I'm sick of it, and I keep watching. Sure there's way too much manufactured drama and not enough informational content, but it's still kind of fun to watch young chefs who think they're all that find out that they really aren't.

Don't get me wrong, all of these chefs work very hard to attain their positions, and it is a true achievement to become a sous-chef to a master, or a chef de cuisine at an iconic restaurant, or a trusted executive chef for a chef with an empire. But... being able to execute someone else's genius vision to perfection doesn't mean that your own vision is equivalently brilliant. Every couple of Top Chef seasons, true genius does show up, but, really, not all of the cheftestants should be destined to progress beyond what they are.

In the days before Top Chef, men and women (ok, mostly men, THAT I've learned) would either hope that some restaurant investor would pluck them from among the hundreds of similar people in similar roles all over their cities, or they would cobble together some money borrowed from friends and family, get a loan, and open a place. This still happens too, by the way. 

The television cooking reality shows, though, particularly those of the season-long variety like Top Chef, have become vehicles for chefs to skip this rung on the ladder. Almost everyone who doesn't flame out early in their season gains some level of notoriety, and the community of competition show contestants has become it's own food subculture. These shows have made it possible for young chefs to attain a public persona and attract financial backing without having to take that first risky step on their own, provided they can spend a few weeks creating restaurant quality "dishes" out of a box of Pop-Tarts and a geoduck. This is a self-selected group. These aren't the chefs who want to open a 12-table place in a townhome and live on the 2nd floor. They want to be on TV.  They want to open multiple restaurants and create a brand out of their own "style." 

I bring this up because Kevin Sbraga won his season of Top Chef when he was one of those guys, and he has a restaurant in Philly called Sbraga. He has a very nice social media presence. Last night, a beautiful Saturday night in Philly, we were at Sbraga for dinner. Kevin wasn't. (I hope he was at his second restaurant, The Fat Ham). I imagine that's one of the downfalls of being a "celebrity" chef. Your investors want to have the now-ubiquitous open kitchen, so everyone can see their "hero" at work. But when you're not there, everyone knows. 

So anyway. There are a couple kinds of successful Top Chef contestant/winners. There are  the true brilliants like Stephanie Izard, Richard Blais (who they basically created an entire "All-Star" season for just so he could come back and win after he lost to Izard in his own season) and Michael Voltaggio; the smart chefs and technicians like Harold Dieterle, Hung Hyunh, Bryan Voltaggio, Paul Qui, and possibly Kristen Kish as well; and the good cooks who are really likable and can make a career out of that - Fabio Viviani and Carla Hall come to mind. Occasionally there's an oddball jerk who has talent, like Spike Mendelssohn, Marcel, and Stefan Richter. Spike and Marcel, in particular, have become regulars on all-star cooking shows, The Next Iron Chef, etc. All of these people have been pretty successful.

Then there's the other side. Being a genius doesn't insure winning Top Chef. You don't accumulate points, only good will. If you're a genius, then you may try something out of the box one week, fail miserably, show the judges the wrong attitude, and be gone. Or get stuck with a lousy teammate in a team challenge (Nyesha Warrington!). Or screw up "Restaurant Wars". Now they've created "Last Chance Kitchen" to be able to rectify some of those mistakes (Hi, Kristen!). Sometimes a season just doesn't have a genius, or the one who's supposed to be the genius doesn't quite turn out to be. 

Now back to Kevin. Sometimes you win Top Chef simply because you spend the season just not being the worst offender each episode, having a few good challenges, and moving along in the middle of the pack until you're one of the last 3 or 4 standing. You get into the finale, do some research about where you're going to be, cook within yourself and knock it out of the park for two episodes. My impression of Kevin during his winning season was that this was how he won, and my impression of his restaurant is exactly the same. Fun, pretty good, but ultimately a little too well-regarded. 

The restaurant space is very nice. Open kitchen, high ceiling, modern but not severe decor. (Suburbanite parking in the attached garage next door was convenient and only $10.) Very friendly and comfortable bar, where it seemed that everyone was directed before being seated (clearly he learned well from his time with Stephen Starr). Drinks were pricey and the beer list included a $55 double bottle from Nebraska. I meant to check the wine list to see what extravagances were there, but I apologize that I forgot. Clearly they are expecting high rollers at Sbraga. Having said that, my old fashioned was good and strong and served with a slice of orange peel and a skewered Amarena cherry. It may have been pricey at $11 or $12, but it wasn't small, so I'm okay with that. But still, $55 beer!?

The meal is set up as a small course tasting menu, which shows Kevin's Jose Garces influence. Pretty sure it changes seasonally, and likely more often than that. Four courses including dessert, which we chose from among four options in each course. First were salads and beef tartar, second was pastas and grains, third were meats and fishes. Fourth was dessert. Prix-fixe at $55 per person, with an optional beverage match for $40, which we didn't do. By the time we were done with drinks and tip, it was about $100 per person, and I'm guessing that's pretty much the range (probably the low end of the range) where most tables would end up.

Pet peeve #1 of the night - if you have a prix fixe menu, additional charges should be nominal for optional complex changes or be for special ingredients like lobster or white truffle. Here, a bronzino special for two was an extra $20 ($10 per head, as our server pointed out!). For bronzino? Really? A pork chop for two was an extra $40. (I think our server figured we could do the math on that one after his first lesson.) I almost asked if the pork was a Heritage breed like Berkshire (or Kurobata, but that probably would have been $100 extra, or $50 per person). I resisted, because I didn't want to seem like I had done any pregame Food Channel research. All I'm saying is that if I'm going to pay an extra $40 for a pork chop, it had better have a Name!

Service was pleasant and knowledgeable - free math! - though I thought it was funny that our server kept referring to a game hen as chicken. It was also fast. (Slow service was, after all, Kevin's pet peeve all those years ago!) We were specifically asked about any food allergies, which I thought was a very nice touch, although it always makes me feel like there's secret stuff in the food that isn't on the menu.

Two planned first arrivals were welcome. A gruyere popover was smushy inside and airy and crusty and slightly cheesy. Popovers are just awesome. A foie-gras soup followed as an almost amuse-bouche, which, thanks to John Leguizamo in Chef substituting a d for the b, I can never say again without snickering. My friend called the flavor somewhere between sugar and chopped liver, but we're all Jews in our 40s, so that's a good thing. it was backed up by a little spicy kick of what I imagine was cayenne. Passenger Seat Mom, who ordinarily won't eat foie gras anything, downed the entire amuse-bowl

I think I ordered very well here. I had a gem lettuce Caesar salad with crispy tempura pickled fennel in place of a crouton. I would have preferred a slightly thinner consistency to the dressing, but the gem lettuce base was pretty nifty, like a baby romaine wedge that cut with a knife and fork and maintained its crunch. My friends told me that's a signature salad at Michael Voltaggio's place in LA. (They've eaten there, and at Izard's Girl and the Goat in Chicago. I'm way behind.) My second course was my favorite, a barley risotto with charred onions and crispy rabbit. Perfect risotto texture for the barley with what seemed to be a little lemony finish; wide, flat rounds of soft onion with slight char only at the edges, and seared pieces of rabbit that were tender on the inside and crispy as advertised on the edges. Really nicely done, and a really nice spring dish. My "main" was a slow-roasted spring lamb, a little heavier, with fingerling potato and something else that wasn't memorable, so I can't remember what it was. It also had what I think were two pieces of crispy fried kale or some other sturdy leaf. These were inexplicable salt bombs on their own, but when I shattered them and mixed them in with everything else, they made a little more sense. 

Passenger Seat Mom had a decent non-descript salad to start, and one of our friends had the beef tartar, which I didn't try because I just can't do the raw beef thing anymore. (Hey, I'm not a paid food critic, ok, so I don't have to risk E. coli in the name of professionalism!!) A highly recommended bucatini with tomato sauce and blue crab was fine but nothing special - thick round noodles with small crab pieces is a suboptimal combo - and was oversalted. A black bass course was a very small but well cooked piece of fish, with excellent eggplant accompaniments that PSM devoured. The fish itself may have had a little cumin in the seasoning, which was pronounced, and it was also a little salty. The fried "chicken" was nicely done, and our friend downed his trout dish. Overall, I think our friends really enjoyed what they ordered, possibly a little more than we did.

Dessert and coffee brought more pet peeves for me. The first is just technical. I like individual carafes of French-press coffee as much as the next guy, but for $100 per person I shouldn't have to pick coffee grounds out of my teeth. 

The desserts looked good on paper. We didn't order the blackberry clafoutis or the artisan cheese plate. Coffee cake with white coffee ice cream and salted caramel sauce was good, but not great. You say coffee cake, I think big chunks of cinnamon goodness on top. Not so much here. The white coffee ice cream was outstanding, and PSM thought it was the best thing she ate. I'm still trying to figure out how they could make coffee ice cream white but couldn't keep me from pouring coffee grounds into my cup.

And now for my real disappointment. Desserts are my thing. I like to end my meal with an unhealthy crescendo. Two of us, me included, got the hot fudge sundae with strawberry rhubarb. If a chef's going to call something a hot fudge sundae with strawberry rhubarb, he/she had better deliver on the goods. Buckle up because this is a bit of a long ride. 

What constitutes strawberry rhubarb? Strawberries and tart rhubarb, cooked together until soft so it's a little sweet and a little sour. Maybe slightly undercook the rhubarb for little tart, crunchy bites here and there. Now, what constitutes a hot fudge sundae? Vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce, whipped cream, maybe nuts, a cherry. You can vary the ice cream, you can add a second caramel or fruit sauce. We're okay so far. There were no nuts or cherries, but the basic ingredients were there. 

But things just went awry. It all started with the sauce. Messing with the sauce is Inexcusable! Hot fudge should be warm, richly chocolaty, and should have some thickness to it even if it is smooth. It should slightly melt the ice cream, partly adhere and slightly harden, and pool to the sides. This was not hot fudge. This was a chocolate sauce. It was poured at serving, and ran freely from the container at room temperature. Nothing got chewy. It stayed perfectly liquid. Even the whipped cream was barely affected by it.

Hot Fudge is a freakin' American Mother Sauce for Escoffier's sake (was that too much? I dunno, it just makes me so crazy!) Wanna salt it a little, fine. Peppermint? Fine. The long-gone Old Stove Pub in Sagaponack, NY used to serve a cold-fudge sundae. The hot fudge was refrigerated and served as a scoop with the ice cream, so it melted as you ate it but nothing else in the cup did. That was awesome. But even if you're hot stuff because you won Top Chef with your dessert spin on a Singapore Sling, you cannot call something hot fudge and put a twist on the consistency. You just can't. 

The next mistake was the lack of integration of the strawberries and the rhubarb. Nearly raw, diced rhubarb was sprinkled over the top of the sundae, which I didn't mind. I don't like nuts on my sundaes, and this was kind of a tangy nut substitute that gave a little crunch. But the strawberries, softened and stewed perfectly, were layered on the bottom of the glass, under the ice cream. There didn't seem to be any rhubarb component to the strawberries, and there were no strawberries with the rhubarb.

All of this would still probably have been ok, except for an architectural error of presentation which is, again, inexcusable. A hot fudge sundae is served in a wide mouth sundae goblet. So you can spoon from the top, or from the sides, and make whatever combination of components you want. The fudge can even be on the bottom, Seinfeld-style. Sbraga's sundae, though, was served in a narrow mouthed glass. It looked cool, but I was kind of forced to eat from the top down. Which meant that my first few bites were nothing but whipped cream, thin chocolate sauce, and bits of rhubarb. Then I started to dig deeper, and got some ice cream with my spoonfuls, but with a little less chocolate, which was at the outer part of the wide bottom and required too much of a spoon angle. Finally when all the ice cream, whipped cream, and rhubarb were gone, I was eating the lovely strawberries covered in the chocolate sauce by themselves from the bottom of the glass. It just didn't work.

Overall, Sbraga was pretty good, not great. I'm not rushing back. It was a pleasant evening in a nice space with efficient, if quick, service. It's a bit expensive but I wouldn't call it overpriced, although the additional charges to the prix-fixe menu were, I thought, inappropriate. The food was good but not great, a little oversalted, with a few impressive moments including the barley risotto with the crispy rabbit and the foie gras soup. Desserts were underwhelming, with the high marks for the white coffee ice cream undone by the misguided execution of the hot fudge sundae. Like Kevin during his Top Chef season, I'm not sure Sbraga warrants the accolades it receives. The hot fudge sundae is a perfect microcosm. I'd prefer a little more Chef, and a little less Top Chef.