with Stephanie Scordia
38th & Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA
Obnoxious Buffalo Wings... $8
The Devil Burger... $10
The Mouth Watering Jerked Chicken Nuggets... $7
Chesapeake Bay Fries... $9
Ned Taddei knows his Philadelphia history. For this month's Venu Menu, I got a chance to sit down with the owner of The Blockley Pourhouse and discovered more about the establishment's mottled past than I could've imagined.
Before the land west of the Schuylkill was incorporated into the city, most of what is currently known as University City was the private Blockley estate. Later, when that land became part of the city, the name Blockley stuck, and, on the grounds surrounding the current site of The Blockley Pourhouse, at 38th and Chestnut, stood the Blockley Almshouse. Built in 1832, the Almshouse (or "poor house") also served as the city hospital, an orphanage, and an insane asylum. Healthcare and public welfare in the 19th century wasn't pretty, and the entire area became synonymous with misery and suffering.
I'd been listening so intently to the history lesson, I'd yet to sample the pint of Bells' Two Hearted Ale that Holly, the bartender, had poured - one craft brew of a number, which change periodically. The stage at the Blockley is set against the back wall, with a grainy, black and white photo of the Almshouse as a backdrop, plenty of space for concertgoers in front (they hosted the Psychadelic Furs a few months back), a couple dozen booths and tables for sit-down dining, and the long u-shaped bar lined with TVs above and a chalkboard that proudly declares the venue to be "Philly's Newest Home for Live Original Music."
When Taddei was a college student, the site was called the Chestnut Cabaret. "The whole scene was so different then," he says. "This place was punk rock central for Philadelphia." With bands ranging from The Ramones and Blondie to Cyndi Lauper and Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Chestnut Cabaret deserves its place in Philadelphia music history. Taddei's hope is to remind people of that former glory and re-establish the venue as an integral part of the Philly music scene.
The Blockley's well thought-out menu was designed by Chef Ross Essner, of Django fame, and I got to chat with Chef Alex Oppenheimer-Fink, who executed Essner's menu to perfection. I sampled four menu items on my visit: Obnoxious Buffalo Wings ($8); the Devil Burger ($10); the mouth watering Jerked Chicken Nuggets ($7); and the legendary Chesapeake Bay Fries ($9). The wings and burger were good-very good, even. The Devil Burger is topped with pepperjack cheese, sliced jalapenos, pickles, onions, and a secret sauce. I didn't specify a level of cooking, but the chef seemed to understand medium rare is the way to go. The burger's bun was neither soft nor hard and kept all ingredients from slipping out as I took a bite.
The wings, while called obnoxious, weren't too hot to handle, even for a wings-wimp such as myself. They're lean and deep fried to a level of chippy-crispness and each bite lets out a slight crunch. The sauce was hot, sure, but had a surprising tang, similar to a barbecue chili mayo without the consistency.
But, it was the Jerked Chicken Nuggets and the Chesapeake Bay Fries that were the highlight for me. The Jerked Chicken Nuggets consists of tender, inch-thick juicy chunks of grilled chicken served with delicious charred pineapple chutney, and the spicy, sweat-inducing jerk recipe is homemade from a man in NJ. In fact, everything on the menu is prepared fresh-nothing's pre-made or frozen, Oppenheimer-Fink assures me. That includes the blue crab meat on the Chesapeake Bay Fries. That's right-crab meat. We're not talking a dash of Old Bay seasoning here, folks, but actual Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab meat on these fresh-cut, thick, crispy fries. Underneath the crab but above and soaked into the fries was a Vermont cheddar melted into a sauce. The cheese was underbearing and complimented the crab meat well that way. And for $9, I found the whole thing very well priced. Next time, I plan to try the Poutine-gravy fries topped with cheese-and one of the four types of Mac and Cheese because, well, I love cheese.