Friday, April 23, 2010

Marigold Kitchen

The name Marigold Kitchen is just right for this 74-year-old restaurant on 45th Street. The restaurant is essentially a house—and chef/owner Rob Halpern even lives there, on the third floor—and the warm yellow walls suggest comfort and simplicity.

Chef Halpern invited us back into the kitchen, first demonstrating how he plates his "Beets in Many Forms and Textures" ($9). Just this one plate, which Chef Halpern admitted he personally does not do on a normal dinner hour, consisted of beet powder, a roasted and deep-fried beet, dehydrated grapefruit, beet greens wrapped in pickled rhubarb, beet sorbet, rhubarb gel, rhubarb shaved ice, a beet jelly, a walnut jelly, a dehydrated beet chip, goat cheese and yogurt dressing, sweet soy dressing, and beet-horseradish bubbles.

"A lot of our food is fleeting," Chef Halpern explained as he sat us in the empty dining room to sample the dish (they weren't open yet). Before the bubbles could deflate, we had tried a smidgeon of each component, paying special attention to the sorbet with goat cheese and yogurt. The tinge of sweetness in the savory sorbet, rounded out by the creamy, tangy dressing proved a sublime pairing—one that we could only enhance with a subsequent nibble on the crunchy beet chip.

Chef Halpern didn't always cook like this, and neither did his family; he grew up as a "latchkey kid," venturing to Wawa or cooking pasta most nights with his sister. This lack of culinary tradition, he said, explains why his food tends to be avant garde. Though he flinches at the term "molecular gastronomy" to describe his cuisine, he wants to create dishes that are whimsical and special. "I really like tring to make foods that aren't accessible to the home cook," he said.

Chef Halpern counts Nuno Mendes of The Loft, Grant Achatz of Alinea, Kevin Binkley of Binkley's, and Rob Evans of Hugo's as his biggest influences; he interned with the latter three before returning to his native Philadelphia and buying Marigold Kitchen in 2009. This is the latest permutation of the same location: the restaurant was Marigold Tea Room, Marigold Dining Room, and at one point, an Ethiopian restaurant.

Since reopening in September, the restaurant has kept up with the location's tradition. Their April menu offers a "Medley of Spring Baby Lettuces" ($8) garnished with a marigold. I much preferred the flower's visual/thematic addition over its flavor, but my tastebuds were impressed with how Chef Halpern drew out the red clover's lemony tones with his citrus vinaigrette.

Marigold's dining style is in tune with the small plates trend, and Chef Halpern prefers to serve his 11-course tasting menu ($85) over anything else. In fact, he is trying to bring down the price point in order to make the menu more accessible to more customers; plans are in the works for different menus with four ($45), five ($55), and six ($65) courses. But he won't abandon the original 11-course idea; he still wants to "feed people a ridiculously large amount of plates," even if they're not listed on the menu. He envisions all kinds of mini-courses between the larger ones to give customers the complete Marigold experience.

Our last "course" was lamb in a yellow curry with a samosa and tamarind bubbles. The curry was more subtle than spicy, delicate enough to follow the flavors of the beets and salad. Framed on two corners by cooked carrots, zucchini, and small onions, the dish's colors stood out as much as its tastes. Chef Halpern followed this last course with small goblets of homemade orange soda and mini gingersnap ice cream sandwiches.

Marigold is worth the short walk a few blocks west of campus for both the blending of flavors and the feeling of coming home. In a few short months, Chef Halpern has recreated this space so it fits right in with West Philadelphia and still showcases his flair for innovative cuisine.

photos by Michael Chien



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