Before Cheesesteaks and Water Ice, This Was Philadelphia Food
It’s a little jarring, if you’re not expecting it—the moment a pointy antler lands on the pressed white tablecloth. Brown, bite-sized squares of venison scrapple, dotted with harissa ketchup and spruce jam, are skewered on the tips of horns that were once attached to a buck. The meta amuse bouche is your first bite at Elwood, chef Adam Diltz’s new Philadelphia BYOB celebrating Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, and the rustic presentation is more than just a taste of one of Philly’s most historic foods.
“I want people to remember where their food comes from,” says Diltz, who’s been planning Elwood, named for his grandfather, for years. The chef was inspired by his upbringing in rural Pennsylvania, where his great-grandparents farmed and raised hogs, and the book Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking by William Woys Weaver, which he read in high school. Later, as he navigated culinary school and then the restaurant industry, working at places like Everest in Chicago and Farmicia in Philly, he noticed a lack of representation of his home region’s traditional foodways.
“Italian food isn’t my comfort food,” says the chef. “Pork and sauerkraut is my comfort food.”
Recipes that once reigned on menus and dinner tables around the area are on display; snapper soup served with a flourish in a floral tureen, and smoked catfish with a crispy cornmeal waffle and pepper hash are on the menu, as is a ham pot pie inspired by the one the chef’s great-grandmother made. Instead of a crust-covered dish, though, Diltz’s version is more like a soup, filled with thick, doughy square noodles. (He remembers the five-gallon tin of lard she kept in her kitchen and used liberally in her cooking.)
But Diltz’s homage to the Pennsylvania Dutch is as much about reviving forgotten foods and recipes as it is about bucking what he calls the “agricultural industrial complex”. Family-style entrées—served with seasonal vegetables and at least a half dozen tiny bowls of housemade sauces and condiments—include whole rabbit and pork from a family-run farm near the Pocono Mountains, north of the city. Because the chef practices nose-to-tail cooking, the cut of the meat he serves changes depending on what’s been used and what’s left. In the few months since Elwood opened, the chef has gone through four hogs, preparing tenderloins, pulled pork, sausage, ribs, and more.
At a time when restaurants in cities across America can feel indistinguishable—a wash of crudos and uncomfortable metal chairs—Elwood is something else, boldly exploring a culture and history through its food. More broadly, too, it exemplifies Philadelphia’s thriving dining scene—the city’s receptiveness to the unconventional, and the real estate prices that allow for it.
The space was designed by Diltz’s wife, architect Jenny Ko, who grew up in Hong Kong and admits that before meeting her husband, she didn’t know much about American food culture.
“I didn't know there was such a history,” says Ko. “The pool is deeper than I realized ... it goes back to the Native Americans, to European cuisine. I saw that connection back in time, and I understood there was a deep culture that the design needed to tap into.” During the restaurant’s planning process, Ko learned more about the region through its artifacts, which she found combing through antique shops and on Etsy, and used as design elements and dishware.
“When we saw these fine-dining utensils and plates that people had abandoned, it was very emblematic of what American food culture had become,” she says. “There’s this past history, this deep resource that people abandoned through industrialization.” Mismatched silverware and serving platters and bowls are used to serve these revived recipes.
“There was a time when one of those tureens was the prize possession of some grandmother, and now it’s $5 at an antique store,” says Diltz. Oil paintings and prints depicting the region’s landscapes, farmland, and rivers cover the walls of the dining room. White tablecloths and plush fabric chairs add to a fine dining feel, thought Diltz is quick to say he’s not elevating the cuisine he’s honoring. “I’m literally making it the way [my grandmother] would.”
Situated in the ground floor of a house that was built sometime between 1790 and 1810, Ko and Diltz worked hard to preserve the front of the restaurant, making no modification to the building’s facade.
“It’s right next to the highway,” Ko says. “The contrast between this building and the highway is very symbolic to me. It says everything about modernization in America.” The couple opted to have the kitchen in the front, so the dining room overlooks a landscaped backyard, where Diltz says he’ll eventually plant pawpaw trees and use the tropical-like fruit (native to the Mid-Atlantic region) to make desserts.
For now, though, dessert at Elwood includes a funnel cake inspired by the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch folk festivals and fairs, made with whipped egg whites and without added sugar to the batter. The chef serves it with grape jam he makes using fruit grown on his grandmother’s property, and honey harvested from his wife’s beehive. The nest of fried dough, presented on a delicate china with its accompaniments, is a little less dramatic than the venison, but no less delicious. At the end of the meal, diners are sent home with molasses cookies, just like the ones Diltz’s grandmother made.