January 13, 2014

The Fat Ham

To follow up on our commentary on current Top Chef contestant Nick Elmi's Laurel, I'll recap our recent meal at Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga's new restaurant, The Fat Ham.  The space is small and cozy, and we got lucky with a quieter Saturday night (our parents ate here separately on a Friday and complained about lots of noise). Compared with his more formal Sbraga, the menu is more loosely defined (and less expensive!), so as a group of four we got to taste lots of dishes.  The concept is much more casual as well, focused on Southern comfort food without any fancy twists.

The fried green tomatoes are a Southern staple, so they were a must ($6).  Two large discs of firm, unripe tomato were nicely battered and fried to a crisp- plenty of crunch here to offset all the tomato juice. Horseradish-tinted sour cream makes for a potent version of an aioli.  My only complaint is that there were only two pieces.. we needed another order.

We also split the Fat Ham charcuterie plate ($14).. and by plate I mean slice of tree trunk.  Instead of serving plates, almost all of the dishes were served on carved wood, which we were told are stuck in the dishwasher along with everything else.  Kinda cool but kinda weird.  Highlights of the charcuterie included a chicken liver mousse and silky soft bacon- so unlike the usual crispy stuff we're used to.  This was a great plate to split between four people, and well worth the price.

 There aren't a lot of larger plates to choose from, so I went with the ham & eggs ($10) as a sort of main dish.  A thick piece of ham sourced from Virginia is seared and topped with a thin red eye gravy (involves coffee!) and a perfect over-easy egg.  Spicy green tomato relish gives the whole thing a good kick, with toasted pieces of bread to sop up the inevitable juice.  Our waitress heard us dissecting the dish (just for a good food discussion) and was convinced we hated it. Regardless of the fact that I cleaned my plate and repeatedly told her that I enjoyed it, she removed it from our bill.  Ham and eggs is hard to take to the next level, but with the thoughtful addition of sauces and careful execution, Sbraga did a great job here.

The oyster sliders ($5/each). Oh man, I don't even know if I can do these babies justice. A fat oyster perfectly fried (maybe twice? that breading is CRISP) atop a super fluffy yeasty housemade mini-bun (complete with shiny egg washed top and crunchy seeds), finely shredded and slightly sweet coleslaw, and a runny gribiche... pure food genius.  It was that perfect combination of flavor and texture profiles.

A bowl of Carolina Gold rice ($7) was another highlight.  The dish is completed with slow cooked oxtail and it defines the word savory.  A dab of housemade hot sauce brought this over the top, and Sbraga does it again with that textural combination of al dente rice and falling-apart-in-your-mouth meat.  So simple and yet so delicious.

The pulled pork ($11) was less exciting, served atop a piece of white bread that acted as a sponge, becoming soggy and lost- I'd prefer bread on the side to make a fresher sandwich. Pickled cukes, carrots, and purple onions adds crunch and color, but the pulled pork itself isn't anything mind-blowing.

Instead of the pulled pork, go for the hot chicken ($13).  The bread, pickles, and a thin ranch dressing here are quiet afterthoughts to the super crunchy, steamy meat that is eye-openingly spicy.  It's so hot in both contexts of the word that just hovering your face over the chicken as it arrives gives you a good sinus clearing.  Recent conversation about this being the "best fried chicken" in Philly has some serious truth.

Our last savory dish was the mac n' cheese ($8), made with pasta shells and a (meager) BBQ chip topping. My dad recently introduced me to the best mac n' cheese recipe EVER, but this was a decent rendition.  If you like soupier mac, this one's for you.  If you make a good one at home, stick with something else (like another oyster slider).

The meal was pretty speedy (especially with K. Sbrags himself expediting at the counter right next to our table), so we decided to finish out the meal with a chocolate chip cookie skillet hot out of the oven ($6).  A scoop of vanilla ice cream countered the high temps and made for a super classic, if not particularly exciting, end to the evening.

Overall, the price was right, we loved the service and the atmosphere, and almost all of the dishes were worth ordering again.  Highlights were definitely the rice, the oyster sliders, and the hot chicken. It's a striking contrast to Sbraga, so don't go expecting something similar. Go with an empty stomach and the need for some good down-home Southern classics (with a bit of Sbraga influence).

The Fat Ham
3131 Walnut Street