Is there another way to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same?’ Apparently not for Kevin Meeker, owner of Keg & Kitchen in Westmont. Less than a year ago, in the space that is now Keg & Kitchen, Meeker hired a new chef for his restaurant Cork. In February, he closed Cork, reopening in March as the beer-focused Keg & Kitchen with a different chef. That chef lasted four months and was replaced by Mike O’Meara, a former Cork chef who, miraculously, is still there after 11 months.
“It’s frustrating to get so excited, thinking this is the guy, and then it doesn’t work out,” Meeker said in a phone interview after I returned to K&K to taste O’Meara’s food. “There’s a big difference between a chef who’s creative and a chef who’s creative and organized. It really comes down to finding somebody who understands that it’s not about them, it’s about the customers.”
Of O’Meara, 32, whose most recent stop was the Trump National Golf Club in Pine Hill, Meeker said, “Mike is here to stay.” It’s worth noting he said that about his previous chef.
With its wood-slab communal table and dangling Edison lights, Keg & Kitchen looks new, different and kind of cool.
Unfortunately, I found O’Meara’s cooking as uneven as his predecessor’s. There were highs (fluffy doughnut holes, delicious smoked St. Louis-style spareribs) and lows (over-crusted calamari).
O’Meara has retained the best items from K&K’s previous menu: whiskey hot wings; flourless chocolate-stout cake; the signature burger cloaked in Red Dragon, a beer-washed Welsh cheddar studded with mustard seeds. And he’s added some winners, like beer-battered cod and chips, crisp and golden outside, moist and flavorful inside. It comes with a mountain of terrific, twice-fried, skin-on russets. Those fries also chaperone the St. Louis ribs, which get a cocoa-and-spice dry rub, are smoked over hickory, lacquered with an agave-based barbecue sauce and finished on the grill.
On the other hand, the turkey burger on a Hudson Bakery brioche bun failed to deliver the punch promised by its “hot & honey” sauce. Its smear of blue cheese aioli tasted more like plain mayo with a rumor of blue tang. Pork nachos, part of a whole-pig roast offered on football Sundays, starred succulent (if under-salted) shredded shoulder braised in Yards Jefferson Ale. Even with the pork, the chips needed reinforcement. More guacamole, salsa, melted cheese and jalapeños would have helped.
Apart from the dreamy doughnuts served with splatters of berry compote and soft vanilla ice cream, desserts were a crapshoot. Apple-cranberry crumble was missing its crumble, the fruit lost in a bath of butter and brown sugar. Maybe my server was sending a hint when she offered the check without asking about dessert.
Fortunately, the beer selection is among the best in South Jersey, with 70 bottles, 25 cans and up to 17 taps. The draft selection varies day by day and is posted on the webite. It’s usually rich with imports (Affligem Tripel, Weihenstephaner Weissbier) and American crafts (Goose Island Mild Winter, Lagunitas New Dog Town Pale Ale). So the keg part of the deal is solid. The kitchen, so far, not so much.