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06/07 8


253 S 20th St
(at Rittenhouse)



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wasabi apples
miso glazed apples with wasabi peas

OK, let's cut to the chase: I love snackbar. It's exactly the kind of creative, exciting, interesting food that I've been hoping for here on Philadelphia for some time. Is it for everyone? Probably not, judging from some reactions I've seen in print and on the web. But two things should be kept in mind: the avant-garde weirdness factor has always been exaggerated, and the menu has gradually morphed to include more conventional preparations, although there are usually a few innovative twists even to the most mainstream of offerings. Despite any edgy techniques and unusual combinations, everything I've eaten here has been quite delicious, not merely experimental. One can expect to find unexpected combinations and surprising textures, upended configurations and sly references, mysterious flavors and textures, but in the end it's still food, not performance art. And as food, I find it exciting, interesting, and yes, tasty.

In the interest of full-disclosure: I can make no claim of dining anonymously as I normally try to. Both chef and front of house know me, and have been kind enough to send out the occasional free dish to sample. Additionally, the place is so small that it's impossible to take photos in a clandestine way, so I'll readily admit that I've been given some special attention. That said, it's easy enough to tell from looking around the room that others are getting the same food I am, and from reading reports of others' visits, it's obvious that my food has not been any different from what anyone would be served. Additionally, the snackbar crew have never attempted to influence what I've written on-line, nor have they ever asked me to say, or not say anything. I've always paid for what I ordered, and the free samples sent my way were often something the kitchen was testing, not merely free stuff.

The menu has been through many changes and tweaks, and I anticipate that this will continue to be the case. Dishes will be added or dropped based on seasonality, availability of ingredients, and I suspect, sometimes the chef's whim! So the specific things pictured, or described, may not be available on any given day, or the specific plating very likely will have changed.

What's unlikely to change is the chef's experimental nature, drawing inspiration from the unusual techniques of innovators such as Ferran Adria, Wilie Dufresne and Paul Liebrandt. The parsley that accompanies the grilled octopus might take the form of a gelatinous cube, rather than a sprig of fresh herb. Olive oil might appear as a pile of powder, rather than a drizzle of liquid. The chocolate cake might be amped-up with the flavors of licorice and salt, rather than raspberries and cream.

grilled octopus, lemon-apple purée, parsley gelée, truffle salt

But these culinary surprises aren't ends in and of themselves, gee-whiz moves that simply shock or amuse. At Dufresne's WD-50 in New York, I felt that some of the dishes were merely amusing or amazing, but not all that tasty, and would have little charm for a diner who couldn't see, or didn't recognize the puns and feints and references. But thankfully the food here is not quite as self-conscious as that. snackbar serves no sunny-side-up eggs made of coconut and carrot, no magic yogurt noodles, just solid cooking taken to some unexpected places with the help of some of those new techniques.

I've always enjoyed the octopus, through its various incarnations, it's usually been spiked with smoky paprika and accompanied by a bracing lemony purée of apple. The boneless chicken wings are simple and straightforward, and way tastier than the typical bar staple, tender from gentle sous-vide cooking, tangy with an intense barbecue sauce. The kitchen has a way with brussels sprouts: the original mating with truffle and almonds was inspired, but try most any concoction they offer. I'm hoping the roasted corn with polenta and tallegio will reappear, it had me craving that sweet, funky, creamy, soothing combination for months. A simple steak can take on an intriguing twist with a concentrated wine gelée, or however it's served today.

Apple dipped in caramel is something one could find at any country fair in America, but spike that caramel with miso, then roll the apple wedges in crushed wasabi peas, and Toto, we're not in Kansas any more. Most importantly, it's terrific-tasting, the crunch and spice of the peas contrasting perfectly with the tart fruitiness of the apple and sweet-saltiness of the glaze.

At opening, the Pork Belly with Slow-cooked Egg and Smoked Onion Dashi created some controversy. It's always been a favorite of mine, even when it was a little un-ergonomic to retrieve the pork from the delicious broth. The richness of the fatty pork and soft-poached egg were offset by the clean flavors of the onion dashi. It could be a little bit tricky to eat, being somewhere between a solid dish and a liquid one, but I was willing to go through a few acrobatics to experience these great flavors. In later iterations, the meat was cut a bit smaller, making the delivery a bit smoother... The pork belly has changed presentations many times, at one point served with vacuum-cured vegetables, at another point as part of a BLT sandwich.

snackbar: pork belly
Creative cocktails have joined the careful selection of wines and beers, and the specific concoctions change with some regularity. It's worth checking out the mixology, it displays some of that same creativity seen in the cooking, with unusual, but pleasing combinations of flavors.

Salmon, Basil Foam, Strawberry-Fennel Slaw

snackbar started out as all small-plates a somewhat high-concept menu of snacks, to be assembled by the diner. For better or worse, the menu has become somewhat more conventionally-structured, with larger, fully-composed entrées joining the original small plates. One can still structure a meal from an array of smaller dishes, or do an appetizer-entrée-dessert progression. Despite the more familiar appearance of some of the menu items, there's still an extra spark to all of them, courtesy of innovative cooking techniques, or accents from foam, soils and gels. But one need not concentrate on the process, just eat the food, and the novelty of the craft will vanish into the harmony of flavors and textures that craft achieves.

They have updated the tables and chairs that early-on seemed at odds with serious dining, and added sidewalk tables in good weather. There are only a few seats at the small bar, but that's a great spot to grab a drink and a bite if in a small group or alone.

We loved the brunch that lasted only a few sundays, and secretly hope for its resurrection. I suppose we can't begrudge the kitchen a few hours of sleep after a hard saturday night, but their bloody mary derivations alone quickly inspired a devoted following...just not a big enough one I guess...

While some of the techniques employed at snackbar have become widespread, others with still surprise and amuse, at least until they are adopted more fully into the wider culinary repertoire. Most importantly, all of the experimentation is in the service of flavor, not just to be new or amusing. Check it out: snackbar will not only sate your hunger, but might just change the way you think about food.

blackboard menu: November 2007



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