Like most people, I was a picky eater when I was a kid. Food certainly wasn’t something I looked to for adventure. But when I was in junior high something happened to change that.
I stopped by to visit my friend Frank, who was cooking something for dinner. I can’t remember what he was stirring in the pan, but it certainly didn’t look or smell anything like food—at least no food I had ever seen. So, of course, when he offered it to me, I colorfully said no. Frank then said something that flipped a switch in my head, forcing me to reexamine my assumptions about food and allowing me to start thinking about food in a different way:
“Why?” he asked. “It’s not a tattoo.”
A tattoo, back then at least, was a strong symbol of commitment and was pretty close to permanent. Frank was saying that no matter how much I didn’t like the taste of his experiment, it wasn’t going to be permanent. But he was also saying something else. Like tattoos, trying unfamiliar food can be a form of expression and rebellion. And without the permanence and commitment of a tattoo, there was no good reason to refuse.
That’s when it clicked—I grabbed a plate and joined Frank for dinner. After that, rebellion started to taste pretty damn good. That rebellion has since ripened into a sense of adventure, a way to challenge my tastes and perspectives, a way to learn.
And that is part of why I find Snackbar to be such an exciting venue. Snackbar is the latest addition to Philadelphia’s small plates scene. Situated in Rittenhouse Square, its cozy digs feature comfy chairs, low tables and an elevated fireplace high enough for everyone to enjoy.
Snackbar takes a cerebral approach to the small plates format. Jonathan McDonald, Snackbar’s chef, practices a little of what some would call molecular gastronomy—a ten-dollar word that means McDonald understands the chemical and physical properties of food and exploits that knowledge by experimenting with inventive food combinations and cooking techniques. In other words, McDonald’s a bit of a culinary rebel.
As a result, Snackbar’s offerings may challenge you. Some of its dishes are ponderous and could leave you deconstructing them for days. A few may even be a little intimidating, such as the Curried Banana (yes, it’s a dessert and, strangely, it works), the Sweet Curried Popcorn (an addictive snack you’ll often find at the bar) and the infamous Adrahan Cheese (it smells like it was aged in the bowels of a wet Egyptian mummy, but it’s delicious). But if you have an open mind and take the time to unpack the flavors and think about how they work together, it could be a wonderfully rewarding experience.
One of the most approachable plates is the Chocolate Cake. Don’t let this unassuming dessert fool you, though; if you pay close attention, you’ll discover there’s a lot going on with this dish. Like many of Snackbar’s offerings, the chocolate cake is participatory and empowering in that you have the ability to construct different bites on your own from the various elements on the plate.
The cake arrives cracked open, spilling a warm pool of chocolate pudding. The cake itself is a light yet intense chocolate and is even more satisfying with a taste of the rich pudding. Hidden inside the pudding is a small treasure—a whisper of licorice. It’s subtle, delicate and once you find it you’ll be digging for more. But there’s only enough for one bite, maybe two if you’re lucky. Another surprise is that the cake is topped with a few carefully placed grains of coarse salt, taking the dish in yet another direction. Again, these bites are fleeting. Finally, you’ll scoop into the bed of light cream that cradles ground malted coffee for a more robust and hearty perspective. All told, this meticulously mapped-out morsel is one of the most compelling chocolate desserts in the city.
Other dishes that allow you to play with interesting flavor combinations are the Beef Gyoza and the Poached Foie Gras. The Beef Gyoza, for example, allows you to pair the briny cornichons or mustard seed on the dumplings with the mocha caramel sauce—both of which are stellar combinations.
The Foie Gras successfully plays with extremes—the rich, savory poached foie gras on one hand and the sweet buckwheat bun and quince paste on the other.
Coming soon to the new menu (it may already be there) is the Beef Tongue, the more intense cousin of the Beef Gyoza. Like the Gyoza, it employs mustard and cornichons, but this time they're artfully paired with coffee and high-quality, fatty beef tongue.
Snackbar also knows how to pay attention to the details. The Brussels Sprouts, for example, had just the right amount of truffle oil to enhance the earthiness of this much-maligned vegetable; too much of this potent delicacy would have overpowered the smokey, grilled flavor. Also, the sprouts are cut in half, allowing the flavors to permeate leaves—an intuitive and necessary, but time-consuming, step that is often overlooked with sprouts. The almond foam and the Marcona almonds enhanced the sprouts’ nutty flavor in this carefully constructed dish.
When you're taking risks, you expect that some of the dishes will miss the mark. But with Snackbar, ironically, some of the safer dishes were the ones I found to be the least impressive. I know the Pork Belly has received a lot of accolades. But, quite frankly, it did not live up to the hype. The technique of slow-cooking the egg with the stock is rather conventional these days. And the pork belly itself had surprisingly little taste; the egg broth seemed to drown whatever flavor it may have had. The Vanilla Financier also had some issues. The cake was a little dry, and the layer of gel that topped the cake did not add much to the dish. Also, the Barbequed Chicken, while beautifully plated and very well-prepared, was not particularly flavorful.
Some of Snackbar’s dishes are pretty cutting edge. And for that reason, not everyone will walk away with the same impression. But for those of you who are up for a little adventure, Snackbar could be a whole lot of fun. For those of you who normally play it safe, just think of it this way: It’s not a tattoo.