The pleasurable aroma wafting through the room at Society Hill Society immediately put me in good spirits. The restaurant recently replaced The Artful Dodger, which had been in business at this classic Headhouse Square location for many years.
The sparse but welcoming colonial-style atmosphere might have brought a smile to Ben Franklin’s face. There are simple wood tables and chairs, booths, a copper-topped bar and perfect lighting. I decided a comfortable bar chair would afford me a fine vantage point to discover what was simmering in a large pot near the bar.
“We’re making bitters,” one of the bartenders said as he continued his gentle stirring of the homemade magical potion that finds its way into any number of drinks. The aroma of fresh herbs made me crave something new to drink.
The bartender made me a Rittenhouse rye old-fashion ($11). It included bitters, a hint of sugar and an anise-flavored liqueur topped with a lemon peel. I figured if I am to dine on American fare, with a strong nod to Pennsylvania ingredients, bourbon or rye was the way to go. Edward enjoyed a martini ($13) served in a champagne coupe.
I immediately took to the menu because it contained 24 items from bar bites to desserts. Less is more. We enjoyed root vegetable chips with a homemade onion dip ($4) with drinks. The slightly salty, crispy offering married well with the creamy homemade dip that never saw the inside of a Lipton’s envelope. The bartender said a bit of veal stock was added to the delicious mix. He brought us homemade soft pretzel rolls with mustard. The texture was on point — somewhere between bagel dough and a classic soft pretzel.
House cured sardines ($9) were set atop toasted sourdough and mingled with a tapenade-like concoction of olives, pine nuts, strands of roasted red peppers, minced parsley and olive oil. The dish had a nice combination of flavors and textures.
Potato pancakes with smoked salmon is a classic starter. This version ($12) consisted of finely-shredded potatoes formed into a large, flat cake and fried to a golden brown. It was topped with tiny cubes of house smoked salmon, dots of horseradish cream and bits of sweet apple. I see a dish in the making here. The pancake was cold and difficult to cut. Finally, I cut it into wedges and picked it up with my hands. It would have fared better moist and hot.
For our entrées, we decided on breast of duck ($23) and pork belly ($19). I received a large, thick slice of duck that sat upon a pool of coffee sauce and carrot puree. A scoop of homemade sauerkraut with caraway seeds was included. My entire dinner was cold. Coffee is a strong ingredient and should be used wisely, but I found it overpowered the tender duck.
Pork and apples is a perfect culinary match. If pork belly isn’t braised long enough, it can be tough and chewy. This one melted in my mouth. It was braised in ham consommé, which was included in the entrée. Little dumplings, spaetzle’s first cousin, were floating in the tasty broth, along with some pea shoots and radish and apple salad. Like the duck, this entrée could have been hotter.
A bit of crunch was needed with our dinner, so we ordered asparagus with herbs in roasted garlic custard ($7). The custard was placed in a small baking dish and topped with green asparagus that were cut into half-inch pieces. They were placed on the custard, topped with chopped herbs and some grated cheese. Perhaps because the vegetables were crammed into a small dish, nothing heated evenly and the custard separated into small pieces rather than a silky creamy blanket.
One beer is on tap, so we shared a pint size mug of Pilsner Urquel ($6) which imparted a fresh, clean flavor.
Neither Edward nor I cared for the black mission fig shoofly pie ($8) that was burst on top. I did like the flavor and texture of the figs and the homemade vanilla ice cream that came with the dessert. When we received the bill, the bartender removed the pie from it.
I think the dishes would’ve been successful had they been served hot. Actually, I would like to make a return visit and try the snapper soup, duck scrapple and chicken pot pie croquettes, all foods with roots in Pennsylvania.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Society Hill Society.
Society Hill Society
402 S. Second St.