August 30 2010

New spot at the Franklin Institute might lead to an early grave, but the food’s worth it.

Brian Freedman (Philadelphia Weekly)
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Steve Poses has a seat reserved for him in the Philly food Pantheon. He was a key player in the city’s Rocky-era restaurant renaissance that first great leap that eventually led to the great food scene we enjoy today.

But after he closed down the beloved Frog and Commissary and focused his efforts on his catering business and various side projects, his name slipped from the headlines. And while his Frog Commissary cookbook is still a standard in the kitchens of home cooks all over the region, his food had become little more than an abstraction, a rumor, for the city’s younger generation of foodies.

But don’t call Poses’ latest project, Frog Burger, a restaurant, or even a re-entry into Philly’s finicky scene. His company recently took over the dining facilities at the Franklin Institute, and Frog Burger is simply an offshoot. Still, Poses’ decades of experience are clear: He and his team (the assistant manager is his son, Noah, who had a hand in much of Frog Burger’s development) have whittled it all down to essentials, offering an experience as well-suited to summertime as Snooki’s mugshot.

This is a burger stand, first and foremost, and despite a well-thought-out selection of sides and other ephemera, the burgers are the focus. The meat tends to be a bit underseasoned, but it’s an appealing, straightforward 80-20 blend from Esposito’s, more than bold enough to hold its own against an onslaught of accompaniments with a whole lot of personality.

The most obvious example of this is the Love Burger, a sandwich that should be on the American Heart Association’s version of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, or at least in an entry on the blog This Is Why You’re Fat. Its 5-ounce patty would seem moderate if it weren’t dwarfed by the two grilled-cheese sandwiches that serve as buns.

The first bite is a bit like how I imagine the stages of death: You fight off your fear, give in, then are likely to find yourself won over by its warm, comforting embrace. And while the four distinct layers of texture may be odd at first – a palindrome of butter-crisp toast, molten American cheese, inner sandwich slightly soggy from the meat’s juices and bacon-emboldened Russian dressing, and the animal chew of beef – it ultimately won me over with sheer force of personality and fatty exuberance

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If you do decide to go the more heart-healthy route (or at least the route that isn’t a one-way thrombosis Autobahn) and order a straightforward burger in a Martin’s bun, make sure to take advantage of the sides and condiments. Pickled red onion straight from the Zuni Cafe cookbook, kissed with vinegar, sugar and star anise, cuts the richness perfectly; a free side cup of pepper-onion-tomato relish brings out the sweetness of the bun.

The crab roll is straightforward as it gets, which is a good thing. Knuckle-sized jumbo lumps of crab meat were cosseted in thick, zest-brightened lemon mayonnaise, and the roll thoughtfully kept from sogginess with a strategically placed layer of lettuce.

Chunky gazpacho, a soup whose simplicity leaves very little room for error, had the thrown-together, casual feel of a particularly skilled home cook’s version. Each component – tomato, cucumber, onion, red wine vinegar and olive oil – contributed to an exceptionally harmonic whole. Anything askew would have been thrown into glaringly sharp relief, but nothing was: The recipe was straightforward, the execution by chef James Dobbins flawless.

Along the same lines, the simplest sides and fixings tended to work well. Grilled jalapeños, evenly charred and liquefying in the center, were an unexpectedly great addition to the Love Burger. The sweetness of grilled local corn (even though the cob was a bit too wet with cilantro-lime butter) benefited from the amorphous heat of a generous dusting of chile powder. Only the jalapeño fries were uninspiring: The fries themselves almost physically transported me back to the summer camp of my youth, but the jalapeño component consisted merely of shriveled little rings of pepper.

Any missteps – and there were precious few – could be forgiven with a slurp of Bassets milkshake or a bite of carrot cake. The latter is a Frog Commissary Cookbook recipe that has, over the years, become a de facto standard for a generation of home bakers. Its success, as always, rests in a cake that itself isn’t overly sweet, an interstitial layer of German chocolate cake deep with caramel and pecans, and a remarkably wonderful cream-cheese icing.

I just wish the beers were available before 4 in the afternoon on weekdays: A hot day with a grilled burger screams out for the local brews on offer here, but, in deference to the Franklin Institute, you’ll have to wait until later in the day (or the weekend).

Sometimes, a simple burger stand, a patch of grass, wooden picnic tables and a grill are just ambitious enough to strike a chord. And while Frog Burger will only be around until September or October, there’s still plenty of time to head on up to the Institute and start clogging your arteries. Bathing-suit season is nearly over, anyway.

222 N. 20th St. at the Franklin Institute

Cuisine: Burger stand, pure and simple.
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 11:30am-dusk.
Price Range: $1.50-$8.50.
Atmosphere: Backyard barbecue in the city.
Service: Friendly behind the counter, where you pick up the food yourself.
Food: Gloriously artery-clogging.