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Monday, January 07, 2008

The Ugly American

Update: Chefs David and Carla Gilberg left the Ugly American and opened their own excellent restaurant called Koo Zee Doo, in Northern Liberties.  The Ugly American is still in business, but seems to have scaled-back the food side of their operation. 

We like the idea of riffing-on informal regional specialties in a restaurant, and of American takes on classic French dishes, so those attractions alone might have gotten us to check out The Ugly American. But when we heard they were serving versions of the Buffalo, NY classic "Beef on Wick" and a Rochester, NY "Garbage Plate," we had to get there ASAP! And our experience was mostly good: we have a few quibbles with some specifics of the preparations, but overall the food was fairly satisfying.

Their "Beef on Wick" is a very tasty roast beef sandwich, given an extra dimension by a very good roll studded with caraway seeds and coarse salt. We suspect these rolls are made in-house, they're certainly not from Wegmans, and house baker Carla Gilberg made some wonderful bread during the short stint she and her husband, Ugly American chef David Gilberg, spent at the Queen Village bistro Coquette. The roll is the secret to this sandwich, and this is a very good version, but there's one other crucial element that didn't quite survive the trip from Buffalo to Philly. A Beef on Wick is always served with horseradish alongside, to provide its unique kick to the rich meat. In this version, a cup of jus on the side was supposed to be spiked with horseradish, but bore no evidence of it. When we asked about it, they brought us a small dish of grated fresh horseradish, which illustrated the problem: it was dried out and flavorless. The concept could have worked, and we respect the impulse to use fresh horseradish root, just not if it doesn't taste like anything! Note to the Ugly Americans: no need to deconstruct this, just put some good jarred horseradish on the side, it'll be an awesome sandwich. This version is somewhat unconventionally topped with caramelized onions, but I can heartily endorse that variation!

(Incidentally, although "weck" might be more proper, "wick" is a commonly-seen spelling for these rolls, and sandwiches. Around Buffalo, they can be found called "kummelweck" "Kimmelwick" and variations of the two.)

Another Upstate New York specialty on offer is the notorious "Garbage Plate" made famous by Nick Tahou's in Rochester. It's basically a variety of diner foods all piled together on a plate, although a few particular ingredients have become emblematic. The base is fries, usually home fries, but sometimes french fries. There's either macaroni salad or baked beans at the core as well. Burgers or hot dogs are usually stacked on top, then slathered with a unique "hot sauce" then mustard and onions. Ugly American doesn't slavishly adhere to the conventional structure, but includes most of the elements in a slightly upscale version. There are good french fries, decent macaroni salad, juicy burgers, and a "mustard pan sauce" drizzled on top.

The hot sauce (not a spicy pepper concoction like Tabasco, more like an exotically spiced meat sauce, similar to a thin chili) is a crucial element in a Garbage Plate, but is sadly absent here. So it's hard to directly compare the Ugly American's offering to the classic version. Theirs is more of an interpretation, and as such, it's pretty tasty. But other than the burgers being served on top of mac salad, it's not especially Garbage-plate-ish. Stack everything on top of the potatoes, and glop-on a version of the hot sauce, and they'd really have something. I'd love to see white hots as an alternative to the burgers too. OK, I'll admit it, I just want to see some white hots...

A chickory salad echoes a French classic made with frisée. The dressing was a little shockingly lemony, but an earthy truffle flavor comes through as well, and the combination plays well off the bitter greens and rich poached egg.

The "American Cassoulet" was very close to excellent. The black-eyed peas and collard greens provided a hearty base for luxuriously fatty pork belly and nicely spicy sausages. Everything was baked together with a crispy breadcrumb crust, creating a pleasing textural range along with the comforting flavors. The one thing that kept this dish from greatness was that one of the sausages had dried out completely. The second one was quite delicious, but that first one was tragically dessicated. One would hope that was a fluke, and we'd recommend this dish as the ultimate winter comfort food.

Lighter and brighter is a dish featuring perfectly-seared scallops, along with clams, brussels sprouts, and "salt potatoes." The tiny new potatoes weren't roasted whole with rock salt, in the fashion of the classic central NY "salt potatoes" but sliced-up, they absorbed the vibrant butter sauce to pleasing effect. This was an excellent dish, similar to, but much better than, an entrée Gilberg had prepared at Coquette.

We were too stuffed to attempt most of the numerous desserts, all of which sounded quite appealing. We did manage to sample some sorbet, which had good flavors, but a curiously thick, creamy, almost gummy texture. It was not completely unpleasant, but odd, and made the sorbets a bit less refreshing than one expects. But we noticed some great-looking desserts being delivered to other tables, so we're eager to try some more.

We're being a little nit-picky in some of our complaints, although there's not much subjective about a dessicated sausage. The wine list is perfunctory at best. The beer list is better, but they need a cocktail menu.

But on the up-side, overall the food was pretty good, and we could certainly see going back. We feel like they're missing an opportunity by not featuring more regional American specialties (Binghamton Spiedies? Cincinatti Chili? A Kentucky Hot Brown? New Mexico Green Chile Enchiladas?) But even without any geographical expansion, there's good food to be had here. I could see going back on a regulaar basis just to get a Wick fix!

The Ugly American
1100 S. Front Street


  1. Anonymous9:47 AM

    Your description of the garbage plate is dead on. I'd love to have that hot sauce on top - then it would be fabulous!

  2. OK, that's two of us, maybe we can start a petition?!? But seriously, their Plate is good, it just could be better with that one crucial element included.

  3. Anonymous10:52 AM

    i think this place is great though. despite the nitpicking.

    the cassoulet was delicious but yeah, just a smidge dry
    i think maybe just a little more moisture and it would be amazing
    but still overall great.

    the cauliflower mac n cheese was great!

    you should check out brunch!
    the cheddar grits are heaven!

    and the cinnamon rolls...MY GAWD!!

  4. Thanks for the heads-up about brunch. Sounds great!

  5. Anonymous9:10 AM

    Simply put... BEST BRUNCH EVER.

  6. Anonymous1:52 PM

    it really is the best brunch!

    and it's so beautifully executed and presented

    and the service is the best!

    did i mention the cinnamon rolls?

  7. Say, I'm thinking I might just need to try that cassoulet, pronto or at least pronto-ish.

    What's the vibe there? More specifically, would it be an okay place to take a baby? We'd be eating on the early side, and she's generally very well-behaved, but I don't want to be inappropriate... (My hunch is that any place that has a "garbage plate" on the menu has to be pretty casual, but I've been wrong before!)

  8. That's an interesting question, in that the dining areas are actually surprisingly upscale. Part of it is the split personality of the place itself: there is a separate bar menu, on which the garbage plate and Beef on Wick reside. The regular menu is a bit more swanky and pricey, and the dining room fits more with that style.

    The actual experience of dealing with the multiple menus is a bit unergonomic, in that the main menu, the bar menu, the beer list, the wine list are all on oversized single-sheet cards, so one ends up with a stack of identical-looking paper when perusing the various options.

    That said, they were happy to serve the bar menu in the dining room, and the vibe was indeed fairly casual overall, so I'd imagine that a relatively well-behaved baby would not be out of place, especially on the earlier side.

    But it's not a diner, or super-casual pub, despite the style of some of the food! Given how angelic the Principessa is, I can't imagine anyone objecting to her presence, but the dining room is more upscale than the presence of a "Garbage Plate" would suggest.

  9. Cool, I was just asking about Garbage Plates on PhillyBlog...

    I always like the way food writers dance around the issue of what Rochester hot sauce is. On one hand a "serious" restaurant probably wouldn't want to get too close to hot sauce's greasy authenticity unless they opt for the stuff Bill Grey's packages. On the other hand, it would be cool to have the sauce there as a condiment on hots and burgers, just like at every street meat cart and truck in Rochester.

    For what it's worth, Tahou's is the only Roc greasy spoon that actually stacks all the components. Having the potatos and mac or beans separated is the way it's done at Gitsi's, all the Marks, etc. No roll with the plate at UA either?

    I also think the way they're doing "beef on wick" is more like Rochester's Festival Sandwich. I've never had the Buffalo original, but just the sandwich and juice is what you get at Frontier Field and the festival circuit. Usually no fries either.

  10. I just got a bottle of "Steve T's" hot sauce, but haven't cracked it open yet. It's reputedly not the same as the sauce at Nick Tahou's, but I have to assume it's close, as this is what was originally the second Nick Tahou's, on Lyell Ave, now owned and run by a nephew, I think...

    It is surprising that Tahou's hasn't marketed a sauce, they have the name recognition, and would likely do well.

    As for the stacking thing, I'm not sure there are any hard and fast rules, I've had a plate at Mark's on Monroe that had everything all piled-up, but who knows, maybe it's up to who's manning the spatula at that moment. The last time I was in Gitsi's, I don't think i was sober enough to recall details of their plate... and I think that's as it should be there!

    But I stand by my initial claim: there ought to be something approximating the Rochester-style hot sauce on anything being called a "Garbage Plate."

  11. Anonymous1:10 PM

    I don't care about how good the food might be. I would never eat in a place called the Ugly American.

    It seems the owner is responding to the French put-down of new American cuisine, fair enough. But this toxic phrase has been around for half a century, and helps to brand Americans in a negative way, especially in Europe. Other favorite adjectives in this Euro branding: fat, stupid and loud.

    Owners, this is a one-joke chuckle, don't saddle your restaurant with this self-imposed ridicule.

  12. You may be taking the Ugly American name a little too seriously. I suspect the owners were just brainstorming on the American food concept and found a catchy phrase. I'll agree that it's not the the most enticing moniker for a restaurant, but you'd be missing out if you avoid it just because you don't like the name.