White Dog Café
200 West Lancaster Avenue
The original White Dog Café, domiciled in three adjacent Victorian brownstones on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, is very much the stuff of urban legend. Founded in 1983 by activist Judy Wicks, right out of the box it was a curious blend of contemporary American cuisine, social & political engagement, and environmental sustainability. Long before it became culinarily fashionable, for example, Ms. Wicks was thoroughly committed to serving her patrons locally grown, organic, humanely raised, and environmentally sustainable ingredients whenever possible.
But in 2009, Judy Wicks sold the White Dog to local restaurateur Marty Grims, and things changed… and some would say not for the better. The transition period was a stormy one, with a number of firings and vociferous charges & countercharges between the restaurant’s “Old Guard” and management newbies. The restaurant’s ethical commitment, however, via a rather unique contractual agreement, remained firmly intact. As spelled out in the most recent issue of the White Dog Newletter: “(Ms. Wicks) remains engaged with the new management team in continuing the sustainable business practices vital to both the restaurant’s legacy and its future.”
In an article in Philadelphia Weekly, Mr. Grims obviously took the high road by noting that he was dedicated to sustainability and good food rather than a broader social message. “I’m not political, and Judy (Wicks) was certainly much more political and had her ideas. To me, the restaurant is not a political forum for me to state my views. It’s about excellence in food and hospitality.”
I couldn’t agree more. I have always admired Judy Wicks’ ethics as well as her political views… but not particularly her food. We dined at the University City location on several occasions and, despite the often profusion of locally-sourced constituents, the cuisine, in many cases, lacked both flavor and finesse. Ms. Wicks, in my opinion, should have spent less time on various picket lines and more time in the kitchen consulting with her chefs. To paraphrase a quote from one of my favorite films, Dollars, starring Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn: “Owning a restaurant is a business, not a crusade.”
Once Marty Grims commenced his proprietorship, it become quite clear that the White Dog was setting off on a slightly (some would say radically) different course. Say what you will, however, with regard to his culinary & philosophical divergences with Ms. Wicks; the man knows food… and it shows. And there is absolutely no question in my mind that, under his tutelage, the restaurant’s cuisine has improved dramatically.
In 2010, the White Dog’s Wayne location made its debut, and the incongruities with its venerable elder sibling could not have been more apparent. If you’re used to the Bohemian Rhapsody, mismatched furnishings, and diverse rumpled academic & social action types indigenous to the University City establishment, prepare yourself for a severe case of culture shock. The Wayne restaurant is sleek & modern, sporting three distinct dining venues – garden room, den, and sunny “kitchen” room – plus a spacious bar/lounge area. The “doggie décor” may at first seem a bit overdone, but it is just enough to exude a touch of class without degenerating into kitsch. And, in addition to various representatives of the well-heeled Main Line human flora & fauna, if you considered preppies an extinct species, think again. They are alive and well, and appear to have found – in this wildly popular, bustling culinary enclave – their home away from home.
Decorative & cultural contrasts with its elder sibling notwithstanding, the White Dog Wayne has remained true to its founding principles – local farm purchases, sustainable seafood, pasture-fed and humanly treated livestock, fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate, and non-toxic, environmentally sound cleaning products – and the overall quality of its well-prepared and attractively presented contemporary seasonal cuisine finally appears to be on a par with its nobly intentioned utilization of organic & eco-friendly ingredients.
Among the dinner appetizers, it’s hard to beat the exquisite DiBruno Bros mozzarella burratta. This is a soft, Italian cheese that is made from a blending of fresh mozzarella and cream. Grilled toast points are provided for easy slathering, with greenhouse heirloom tomatoes, strands of red onion, and a dynamite basil pesto in strong supporting roles.
More basic, perhaps, but still a first-rate effort, is the pristinely fresh spinach salad. Slices of hard-cooked egg and mushroom add to the festivities, while house-made seasoned croutons offer a nice textural contrast and roasted red peppers add a delightful splash of color… It is the superlative warm bacon dressing, however, that truly transports this relatively simple starter out of the realm of the ordinary.
Other can’t miss preludes include a wonderful Kennett Square mushroom soup enhanced with moist morsels of grilled Amish chicken and garnish of truffle crème fraiche, hearty spiced lamb sliders on mini brioche rolls kissed by micro arugula, and two plates specifically designed for sharing: local artisan cheeses and house-made charcuterie.
The only disappointment among the appetizers proved to be the Griggstown chicken tempura. What you expect is a supernally airy batter that is uniquely fluffy and crisp when cooked. … Unfortunately, the batter proffered here had obviously been over-mixed, rendering the finished product both chewy and doughy. And the coating of Vietnamese chili sauce – delicious on its own account, which should have been served on the side as a dipping sauce – only succeeded in imparting the three constituents with an irredeemably soggy constitution. At first glance, the presentation clearly looked the part… it just didn’t deliver the goods.
Entrées, however, with the exception of one or two minor quibbles, are uniformly well prepared and presented, with seafood items of particular note. The Icelandic Arctic char, for example, is a superb effort. The orange salmon-like flesh is perfectly pan seared, and the filet is presented skin side up on a seabed of horseradish potato purée. Crowning touches include diagonally sliced roasted asparagus spears, carrots, cherry tomato halves, garlic leeks, and truffle brown butter.
The rich, meaty day boat scallops, on the other hand, are beautifully sautéed in caper brown butter, companioned by curried cauliflower florets & golden raisins, and pillowed on a poignantly pervasive parsnip purée. The various ingredients appear to breed – like politics – rather strange bedfellows … but the combo succeeds in beguiling the palate with its interesting intermingling of flavors & textures.
The pesto-crusted Pacific cod also seemed to have a great deal going for it… but the pesto was particularly heavy handed, the pairing of sautéed broccoli rabe & kalamata olives rather ill advised, and the entire presentation completely overwhelmed by a surfeit of oven-dried tomato vinaigrette. A more judicious selection of accoutrements, and an infinitely lighter touch would undoubtedly have proved more beneficial.
When it comes to meatier matters, the lamb Bolognese is a winner in every respect. The slightly spicy Jamison natural ground lamb sauce is blended with al dente Severino rigatoni & torn baby spinach. And that palate-invigorating bit of heat finds the perfect foil in a generous splash of cooling basil ricotta. If you enjoy lamb, this is one entrée that is not to be missed. Highly recommended on all counts.
But if you’re searching for the establishment’s signature dish, several of our servers seemed to feel it was, hands down, the wood-grilled Duroc pork chop. I haven’t personally sampled the dish, but – enhanced with Savoy spinach, Vidalia onion marmalade, and coarse honey mustard – it certainly peaks one’s interest. Just one small caveat. Weighing in at a hefty $35.00, it seems rather pricy to me. In point of fact, it is only a buck shy of the menu’s most expensive item, the 8-ounce filet mignon.
Given the fact that dinner at the White Dog, depending upon your particular and/or peculiar peristaltic proclivities, will most assuredly put a significant dent in your wallet, I would certainly consider lunch as an eminently viable, significantly less expensive – and, to my way of thinking – even more enjoyable dining alternative.
For example, if you happen to be a hamburger addict, the outstanding Green Meadow Farm cheddar burger, sporting smoked bacon mayo and grilled red onion on a brioche bun, is something of a must. Generally served up with incredibly scrumptious truffle Parmesan fries (also available as a side), it is also occasionally accompanied by an equally delicious red cabbage coleslaw. But even better, in my estimation, when it is available, is a special piscatorial variation on the theme: the fried cod sandwich on brioche embellished with lemon/caper remoulade and heirloom tomatoes.
Other heartily recommended luncheon items include the provocatively seasoned Vietnamese shrimp salad and the smoked turkey Cobb salad. The former is dressed with chili aioli, crushed peanuts, and sesame vinaigrette; the latter comes replete with the usual components – bacon, avocado, bleu cheese, cooked egg, tomatoes – and a light but assertive Dijon vinaigrette.
To conclude your meal, the White Dog boasts an excellent array of desserts – a fabulous cherry almond bread pudding, delicate multi-layered carrot cake, and first-rate chocolate tasting for two – as well as an interesting selection of local cheeses.
In addition to luncheon and dinner possibilities, you might also consider popping in for their happy hour menu (Monday – Friday, 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. at the bar or in the den). House wines & sangria, house & infused liquors, and draft beers are offered at $5.00 per; sliders – lamb, crab cake, and “BLT” – go for $6.00 per; sandwiches & shared plates at $10.00; and small plates for $5.00. Among these latter offerings, the fried Lancaster dill pickles with red chili mayo and the glazed Brussels sprouts with smoked bacon & maple syrup are just okay; the truffle fries with spicy aioli, on the other hand, are very, very good… ditto the panko-crusted onion rings with horseradish mayo.
I realize that this has been a rather lengthy review… but just one or two concluding thoughts: As noted above, the White Dog is an exceedingly popular restaurant. Whether contemplating a visit for lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch, unless you wish to run the risk of being turned away, reservations are mandatory. These may be made by calling the restaurant directly or by accessing their website and utilizing the convenient services of OpenTable.
Secondly, if you insist upon chowing down in prime time – that is, approximately between 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. – especially on free-for-all weekends, even with benefit of reservation, you may still find yourself cooling your heels at the bar for a period of time. My suggestion: Make your reservation for around 6:00 p.m.; that should give you plenty of time for a leisurely preprandial libation and also a good start on dinner before the joint really starts jumpin’.
A visit to the White Dog can certainly be an extremely enjoyable culinary experience… But, be forewarned. The atmosphere can also be downright zooey at times. So if you prefer a modicum of peace and quiet with your meal, I would strongly suggest that dining early or at slightly off-peak hours is a discretion that is most assuredly the better part of valor.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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