When Philip Manganaro, executive chef of Keg & Kitchen in Westmont, was working in restaurants that, like many places, had Mexican cooks, “once a week a different cook would prepare a traditional Mexican dish for everyone, and we would all take a minute to eat together,” he told me. “Yes, the food was amazing, but I also did this to truly learn the cuisine.”
Learn he did. Staring up at me at Keg & Kitchen was a heaping platter of chilaquiles in a lake of salsa verde. It’s the classic Mexican breakfast of fried tortilla chips tossed in hot salsa, a dish born of limited means. Manganaro takes it further, adding succulent strips of beer-braised pork, tangy lime crema, salty queso fresco and fresh cilantro. I cleaned the plate.
Kevin and Janet Meeker have operated two restaurants at this address: the upscale Cork for seven years, followed by Keg & Kitchen since early 2012. Manganaro, 35, a Marlton native and veteran of the Stephen Starr organization, came aboard in 2014. Having reviewed all the Cork and K&K chefs over the years, I can confidently say Manganaro is the best yet.
With its communal table, booths, bare-bulb chandeliers and fireplace, K&K looks like the neighborly pub it is. You can scoot in for pizza with the kids, enjoy a romantic dinner for two, or watch sports on flat screens while munching with your pals.
On one visit, I enjoyed a dinner of silky, brown-butter cauliflower soup (scented, surprisingly, with caraway) and a 14-ounce grilled rib eye with spicy peppercorn sauce. On another, my group went casual: a hefty, flavorful turkey burger oozing blue-cheese dressing and hot honey butter; and a dark and crunchy jägerschnitzel with mushroom gravy and mustardy, vinegar-spiked German potato salad.
K&K’s gently blistered, 10-inch pizzas rival those of the worthy Treno down the street. I liked the subtle scent of nutmeg in the white sauce blanketing the white pie with mozzarella, sautéed spinach, and ricotta whipped with roasted garlic and parsley. Petals of cured-pork coppa gave the red-sauced clam pizza a fiery edge.
When dishes fell short, the culprit was often a single element that muddled an otherwise excellent dish. Old-fashioned hard candies broken into chunks had no business loitering on a plate of rich, brandied chicken-liver mousse with sweet-and-savory apple mostarda. (Was I supposed to suck on them after?) Nor should ungainly slices of Serrano ham have been draped over tender clams steamed in fragrant saffron butter with potatoes and fennel. It was impossible to eat the ham as an integral part of the dish. Crisping the slices and crumbling them over the clams would have worked much better.
The short rib in the Korean tacos crossed the border from tough to inedible. The “roll and butter” followed the nascent trend of charging for what used to be gratis. I’m okay with paying, but not for a flavorless roll and cold, brittle butters embedded with flavorings (salt and pepper; Burgundy shallot; roasted marrow) that tasted a mite stale.
Desserts righted the ship. Excellent apple crisp burst with buttery, spiced Granny Smiths. Devil’s food parfait alternated layers of dense chocolate cake and thick peanut butter frosting. It came with a pleasant shooter of vanilla milk.
“When I first got here, a busy Saturday was 149 covers,” Manganaro said. “Now, a normal Saturday is 400-plus, and we’ll do 1,200-plus from Friday night to Sunday.”
That puts enormous strain on the staff. On a packed Friday night, water glasses were not refilled, dirty plates sat, the server couldn’t answer questions without dashing to the kitchen, and it took way too long to get a check. On a weeknight in the bar, service was much better.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $4-$17; pizzas, sandwiches, $10-$15; entrées, $14-$21; desserts, $4-$6.
Ambience:Rustic tavern, bustling bar.
Service:Frazzled on weekends.
Wine list:15 by the glass; 18 by the bottle; 17 beers on tap, 51 bottles/cans.