Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Writing This Ship: Part 2 - Eating and Drinking well in Northeast Philly

(John Primavera, co-owner, P² Lounge; Katie Tella, Jack's Abby; and Bruce Santino, Chef, P² Lounge)

(The four-course menu pairing Jack's Abby craft lagers from Framingham, Mass. with food from P_Square Lounge on August 10, 2016.)

Northeast Philly. What a fascinating place comprised of the Lower Northeast and the Greater (or Far?) Northeast. Depending upon how you draw the dividing lines, Northeast Philly stretches out along the always-maddening Roosevelt Boulevard and constitutes roughly a third of the city's land mass as well as population.

My first introduction to it was around 40 years ago as a kid visiting my great uncle and great aunt who lived just a couple of blocks from Cottman and Frankford Avenues. Who could have guessed that decades later, I'd cover the beer scene just a few blocks in one direction (Grey Lodge Pub - more on their 20th anniversary party in an upcoming post) and a few miles in the other direction at Macaroni's Restaurant and its new P² Lounge in the Bustleton neighborhood.

But what continues to, on the other hand, frustratingly fascinate me is how more quality beer hasn't shown up in NE Philly. Grey Lodge has had a long and well-earned monopoly on great beer with its classic Philly neighborhood-style bar for years. Anyone else come to mind? Even as you push closer to the city limits, toward the farther stretches of the Greater Northeast and the more affluent neighborhoods....anyone?

Well, how about I finally get to the point? I was invited to attend the first beer dinner at P² Lounge (or P Square, if you prefer) last week. They brought in Katie Tella from Jack's Abby, the Framingham, Mass.-based based brewery which continues to position itself for significant growth throughout the region. Did I mention that they are 100% lager-based brewery? And how well they do what they do?

As for the new P² Lounge, I could share with you the full back story that I learned of last week from co-owner John Primavera or I could point you to Danya Henninger's excellent portrayal of it in a column she wrote a little while back. She covers a lot in the Philly area and covers food and beverage quite well.

The nutshell version is that there's been a restaurant at this location since 1986 that the current owners have worked at. In 1993, they acquired it as Macaroni's and in recent years have completely rebuilt it and now, even more recently, used the space behind Macaroni's to open P² Lounge. But, save a few bits and bytes for me here and go read Danya's piece; it covers the restaurant's and brothers' full stories quite well.

I can't say anything about the Macaroni side of the business without having first dined there, but suffice to say from the decor and menu review, it's moved up significantly on the list of future places to dine.

The "backyard" P² Lounge, however, I can talk quite highly about as what has a leg up to be the most comfortable outdoor dining in the area. As you'll see in the pictures below, at the center of P² Lounge is a large enclosed and climate controlled bar with a high ceiling, full length glass windows, and accordion doors to open in nice weather. Around the bar's exterior is all manner of seating from a long hightop, bench seating, and standard table seating.

From inside the bar as well as from at most of the outdoor tables, customers have a view of the P² Lounge kitchen, which is headed by Chef Bruce Santino. Plenty of greenery and umbrellas shield the dining and bar area from direct sunlight as well as provide an extra level of privacy from the bustling neighborhood streets.

The visual greeting of P² Lounge as well as a couple of pre-dinner drinks set the stage for what then was a very well-conceived and executed dinner. Jack's Abby has been around for roughly five years but my first experience with the all-craft lager brewery wasn't until during Philly Beer Week 2015 at Bierstube during a co-event with my Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic book promotion. I'd heard plenty of praise for their beers in advance and the tastings I'd done that evening validated the praise.

Katie Tella, regional sales rep for the brewery, was on hand to walk the dinner guests through each course along with Chef Santino. At this time, southeastern Pennsylvania is their most distant market. Her account of the beer hall at the brewery back in Massachusetts had me researching the brewery even more the following day.

She mentioned that the brewery output 19,000 barrels of beer last year and is on track for 35,000 in 2016. Currently in the Philly-area market, we can routinely find Hoponius Union IPL, Smoke & Dagger Black Lager, Calyptra Session IPL, House Lager Helles, Leisure Time Wheat Lager, and a limited supply of Cranberry Berliner Sour Wheat Lager (select bottle shops). Copper Legend Octoberfest will be here soon as well. As a result of this dinner, a Boston-area trip is a little higher on my travel list than it was just a couple weeks ago.

(First course: Jack's Abby Sunny Ridge Pilsner paired with Ahi tuna, melon, & heirloom tomato salad)

Back to Bustleton. The dinner began nicely with a light salad of melon, tomato and Ahi tuna that the Sunny Ridge Pilsner (5.1% ABV) played nicely with. Perfect beginning. Not too overwhelming. Not too filling. Nice array of flavors on the plate that went quite nicely with the clean and crisp pilsner.

(Second course: Jack's Abby Leisure Time Lager paired with charred fennel & crab raviolo)

The second course continued the theme of a variety of flavors on the plate. Crab, corn, and fennel with an excellent Leisure Time Lager (4.8% ABV) that brought its accompanying herbal flavors of lemongrass and orange peel.

(Third course: Jack's Abby Calyptra Session IPL paired with Grilled Wagyu Zabuton Steak and wild mushrooms)

The Calyptra (4.9% ABV) might be referred to as a "session" IPL, but it certainly had enough backbone to stand up to the rich and savory flavors in the Wagyu beef and mushrooms dish.

(Fourth course: Jack's Abby  Cranberry Berliner Weisse paired with Almond Pound Cake, mango sorbet, and vanilla rum crème anglaise)

The dinner was closed out with what I was calling the best pairing of the evening. Though, I thought I'd given that crown to each preceding course, the Cranberry Berliner Weisse (3.5% ABV) worked so well with the mango sorbet, sliced mangos and almonds, and the cranberries. While I often tout rich desserts with the big burly likes of imperial stouts and barleywines, this was such a refreshing and welcome departure, particularly at the tail end of a blistering hot and humid day.

I'm looking forward to a return visit soon at Macaroni/P² Lounge both to learn more about the Italian menu offering as well as to monitor as they grow their beer program and education on both sides of the bar in Northeast Philly.

(Jack's Abby on full display in the striking P2 Lounge in the Bustleton neighborhood of Northeast Philly.)

(Jack's Abby Sunny Ridge Pilsner getting things off to a great start at P2 Lounge.)

(Great attention to detail at the new P2 Lounge behind the Macaroni's Restaurant in Northeast Philly's Bustleton neighborhood.)

(The most comfortable outdoor dining in all of Northeast Philly?)

(The simple exterior of Macaroni's leads to a darkened and comfortable dining room and further to P² Lounge out back.)

(More comfy exterior environs at P2 Lounge)

(More comfy exterior environs at P2 Lounge)

(More comfy exterior environs at P2 Lounge)

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