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University City is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The seemingly incongruous jumble of hipsters, young professionals, students, and long-time residents is an unexpected but decidedly harmonious mix, and the charm of Rx lies in proprietor Greg Salisbury’s ability to conjure a gastronomical manifestation of this discordant harmony.
My guest and I, both denizens of the neighborhood, had walked by the restaurant on several occasions but had not yet marshaled our resources for what we assumed would be a high-rolling meal. Salisbury is committed to purchasing locally grown and organic products from farmers in the surrounding Lancaster and Chester counties, and we assumed that high prices would inevitably accompany such quality fare. Yet the magnetism of the restaurant eventually surmounted our fiscal hesitations, as one can’t help but feel drawn to this near epitome of a quintessential neighborhood restaurant.
The street entrance opens immediately onto the dining area, an intimate room with seating for 50 comprised almost entirely of free-standing tables, save for one lone booth along the front wall. We were greeted at the door by Salisbury and shown to a diminutive table for two; importantly, although most tables seat two to four patrons, they can be rearranged to hold larger parties comfortably. A quick scan of our fellow diners revealed a middle-aged couple, three boisterous professionals, and two students on an evident first date. Later appearances included three academic young women, a father and his pajama-clad toddler picking up take-out, half of a sorority and, bizarrely, a mustachioed man collecting a butcher knife. All were greeted by Salisbury, who clearly prides himself on welcoming his guests with casual comfort.
The décor of Rx reflects the discordant diversity of the neighborhood, with captivating results. Upon entering, the eye is immediately drawn to a wall lined with mirrored shelves that are filled with brightly colored bottles, antique apothecary supplies, and what appear to be a grandmother’s cook books. Across the room, a local artist’s work provides a subtle indication of Salisbury’s commitment to all local talent, be it agrarian or artistic.
Our server arrived promptly, delivering menus and encouraging us to pose any questions we had. We quickly took him up on his offer, as the choices included enchanting descriptions of dishes that neither of us had encountered (pintado? branzino? What is a kalamata olive?) Impressively, our server responded to these and other questions without a trace of annoyance, a gesture that was much appreciated and contributed greatly to the relaxed and hospitable atmosphere that Salisbury strives to create.
We were fortunate enough to take advantage of the Tuesday and Thursday night prix fix option, a decided bargain comprised of appetizer, entrée and dessert for $25 ($30 for some dishes). My guest selected the Oley Valley Mushroom and Leek Soup; I resolved my indecisiveness by ordering both the Rx Salad and Tamal de Pollo. We waited only a few minutes before the dishes were placed before us, an expediency that came, unfortunately, at the expense of consistent quality. The lukewarm Tamal de Pollo arrived in a corn husk, wrapped in a light and airy cornmeal shell but boasting only a single bite of chicken at its core. The accompanying salsa ranchero was a watery orange compilation of indecipherable ingredients, garnished with a scattering of diced green and red peppers.
The Tamal was easily trumped by the Mushroom and Leek Soup, which was garnished with bacon, mushrooms and fresh cilantro. Blended to a velvety texture, the soup had a smoky flavor that recalled winter wood-smoke and complemented the late autumn weather.
The most successful dish by far was the Rx Salad, with fresh baby greens providing the perfect palette for roasted red peppers, pecans coated in an indecipherable concoction of ‘sweet-and-spicy,’ and soft, fresh chevre. The combination of distinct textures- the crunchy pecans, the creamy chevre, the firm roasted peppers- ensured that one could decipher each distinct flavor throughout the inevitable melding of components.
Despite the mixed results of the appetizers, we were eager to sample the entrees. We did not have long to wait- and we were not disappointed, as it was here that Chefs Mayton and Lopez truly hit their stride. The Grilled Waluu had a hint of charred, cracked pepper that provided an unexpected twist to the flakey fish. Smoked bacon lent the jet black Beluga lentils a rich, earthy undertone, while the delicately steamed Brussels sprouts acted as a subtle base for the chile morita glaze drizzled across the plate.
My guest’s Hereford NY Strip Steak was an upscale rendition of a classic ‘meat-and-potatoes’ dish. No artful plating here; simply a substantive cut of beef cooked medium-rare throughout (as requested), golden mashed potatoes, and vibrant green spinach. The simple presentation belied a wealth of flavor; garlic seasoning fortified the mash without overpowering the subtle taste and texture of the Yellow Finn potatoes, and even the most pronounced vegetable-phobe would be hard-pressed to resist the spinach sautéed with garlic and served with truffle butter.
Although sated, we were more than willing to finish our meal with an Rx dessert. The Strawberry Shortcake, although lauded by Philadelphia City Paper and likely delectable during the summer months, was not the best November selection at a restaurant renowned for seasonal fare. My guest’s Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake, however, was divine. There was simply no comparison to the dense, flavorless bricks of ‘NY style’ cheesecake that are seemingly requisite fare in diners across the eastern seaboard. Golden brown, creamy, topped with pecans and served with whipped cream and mocha sauce, the dessert nearly ended a long-standing friendship when only one bite remained.
Rx provides evidence that the dining venues of Philadelphia’s outlying neighborhoods can rival the best of Center City. West Philadelphia residents looking for a relaxed, fine dining experience that offers innovative dishes and organic products need look no further than 45th and Spruce Streets, and avid supporters of ‘buy local’ campaigns can rest assured that a meal at Rx supports the efforts of local and regional farmers. In fact, Center City diners will likely find that Rx is well worth a trip across the river, and that University City is not so very far removed after all.
Copyright © Restaurant Agent Inc.
After waiting forever for the host, he led us to a banquette style seat (bench up against a wall, tables close together) that I physically couldn't get through. I asked the host about the other open tables, he said one was broken (although I saw a party leave it while I was waiting) and he was holding the other one until a party of three came in. We said "thanks anyway" and walked outside. The man followed us and confronted us and said we shouldn't complain because there was a group of four people sitting on the sidewalk waiting, and they were there first. Not only was the customer service terrible, but it's bad business to hold a table until a bigger party comes in when you have paying customers there now.