It's a rare occurrence that every single aspect of a restaurant and every element of our experience resonates deeply with me. I'm here to tell you that Abe Fisher, in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philly, presented one of those occurrences.
Somehow this restaurant, which serves food "inspired by the cuisine of the Jewish diaspora," didn't come up during our pre-Philly-trip planning. Had it not been for a morning walk to Dunkin' Donuts (the missus likes the iced tea there, what can I tell you), we would have totally missed out on Abe Fisher. She noticed the restaurant during that walk, and from the street saw kitchen staff hard at work, early in the morning. After some quick research, we knew we had to give this place a shot.
The extent of my experience with Jewish food pretty much starts and ends at pastrami on rye. I haven't enjoyed much else. Lox on bagels? Not my thing. Smoky fish? Nope. Why? I have no idea. But I've never warmed up to the cuisine. And, I'm not a big fan of dill.
Everything I wrote in the above paragraph, I'm happy to report, can now be retired, and shoved into the ignorant pit of despair that is my past. I feel reborn, thanks to Abe Fisher.
We arrived about 45 minutes early for our reservation, hoping there would be some room at the bar (at which there are about 10 stools). No luck. After mentioning to the hostess that we were hoping for a bar spot, but would come back at our scheduled reservation time, she cheerfully suggested that she could text me when the bartender drops the next check. Right through OpenTable, apparently. Off we went for a quick drink down the block. After a quick 15 minutes we got the text that the bar had opened up a bit, at which point we broke into somewhat of a jog back to the restaurant. I was intent on not losing this bar spot.
With two bar stools secured (and secured, to the floor, which I like), we got to it. The bartender was super friendly, offered the menu (which contains everything), said she'd answer any questions, asked if we wanted still or sparkling water (house-made) and presented a carafe of our choice, and asked what we wanted to drink. We were immediately feeling comfortable and well-taken care of. This is how all transactions should start.
Let's talk about cocktails. First, they're all 12 bucks. Nice and easy. Second, the list had only a single vodka-based cocktail. So, right away, I was pleased. The rest of the concoctions relied on interesting spirits. You know, like rum and tequila and rye and bourbon and Scotch. Scotch. You don't see many Scotch cocktails, and I like Scotch about as much as I thought I liked Jewish food. Well, at least that's what I thought.
The cocktail was wonderful. Smoky flavors everywhere, with balanced sweetness. The familiar flavor of tequila carried it all along. A beast of a cocktail. I was warming up to Scotch.
With a rinse under my belt, and feeling quite bold and curious, I then ordered the "Blood and Smoke." Laphroaig, cherry heering, sour cherry. This was no doubt a balls-to-the-wall Scotch cocktail, and I was ready to see the light. I was giddy with excitement, as I sipped this thing, enjoying the hell out of it. A new door opened before me, right there.
The "Abe Fisher" seems to be their twist on a Gibson. Beefeater 24, Dolin dry, Dolin blanc, dill pickle juice, and a big ol' house-made pickled onion. A boozy affair as designed, and well done indeed. Dill and sour flavors in the cocktail, ya know.
Frankly I could have just sat there and worked my way through the rest of the cocktail list (which I didn't...as far as you know), but we were there to eat, too.
The menu is broken down into three sections, delimited by price ($10, $12, $14), which basically corresponded to the amount of protein in the dishes. A stupid-cheap prix fixe is offered for $39, which includes one dish from each section, plus dessert. This would be an absurdly good value if the food were even mediocre, much less the level that they're producing here.
We started off with salmon gravlax. I'm just not a fan of that stuff, right? Wrong. Salty, smoky salmon tartare? What's not to like? What on earth has my problem been? Served with crunchy potato pancake on a bed of scallion cream cheese and pickled radishes. This dish would foreshadow the elements of the meal to come: salt, acid, and creaminess.
The Brussels Sprouts Caesar (which I think was made with both raw and roasted Brussels sprouts), was tossed with pickled onions, grapes, and pine nuts. Then topped with crispy squash, which is just brilliant. Who needs croutons when you have vegetables (or whatever a squash is)? As with the other dishes, great acid in this dish along with silky creaminess.
Chicken liver generally turns me off. Too often, it's metallic, gritty, and just unpleasant to my palate. The version at Abe Fisher was creamy, subtle, and a real pleasure. Perfect booze-drinking food. If you are a chicken liver-hater, order this and sort your shit out. Served with pickled onions and buttery thick-cut toast. While I enjoyed this, my wife was going gaga over it (she even eats that metallic gritty unpleasant stuff).
The hot-smoked Sable cake immediately earned a place on a Best Dishes of 2015 list. Here we go again with smoked fish and dill, two things I wasn't a fan of until this meal. This crisp, moist cake of fish made my brain think I was biting into tender, slightly fishy brisket in Hill Country. And that's a good thing. Topped with pickled cucumbers and set in a creamy base. Salt, smoke, and sour elements.
We also thoroughly thoroughly enjoyed the corned pork belly reuben. You heard me. Topped with creamy melted cheese and served with pickled green tomato. Holy shit. That could have been the meal right Did I mention the flavor profile? Salt, smoke, sour. And fat, glorious fat.
Salmon preparations typically don't impress me, but that wasn't the case at Abe Fisher. Cooked to a moist barely-medium, and served over a bed of Swiss chard, roasted tomatoes, and dill sour cream. The skin was crispy beyond imagination. This dish wouldn't seem out of place at any restaurant at any level, regardless of their focus.
A few days later I was telling a Jewish friend about this meal. We were wondering why this type of food isn't more popular at this level. He posited that this style of food is often salty, smoky, and sour. Flavors that people typically haven't warmed to. It occurred to me that these are exactly the flavors that I enjoy. It's no wonder I enjoyed this meal so much. I've clearly been a dope for living in ignorance, unaware of what this cuisine can be. And now I'll be sure to explore it in more depth, every chance I get.
I can't say enough about Abe Fisher and our experience there. Everything from the initial exchange with the hostess, the rest of the top-notch staff, fantastic and unique cooking, a comfortable bar, it was simply near-perfect in all respects. We ate and drank very well during this trip to Philly, and Abe Fisher stands out. The only thing left to say is that we are now talking about driving down to Philly, staying in a hotel for a night, just to eat at Abe Fisher again. But now, I'm going to the Kosher Nosh, probably to get pastrami on rye, if I'm being honest.
Abe Fisher : 1623 Sansom Street : Philadelphia, PA : 215.867.0088