On the Wednesday that Philadelphia’s mask mandate dropped, a packed house of loud diners and louder drinkers gathered at 3636 Sansom Street.
Before Covid, this full house would’ve meant iconic restaurantapreneur Stephen Starr’s white-on-white, minimalist marvel, Pod: the forward-fusion, Pan-Asian eatery where hot pots rolled, icy cold sashimi trekked along conveyor belts and sake enthusiasts teetered precariously on red pleather cubes.
Starr, restless as he is, and, in a pandemic restructuring mode, turned several of his spaces over, including the venerated, Pod.
“Pod was one of my very first dining concepts, so it’s special to bring new life into the space and attract the next generation of diners,” says Starr by email.
Now with Executive Chef and partner, Peter Serpico (of the now-closed Serpico on South Street, and its Covid pop-ups Pete’s Place and Chicken Scratch), Kpod is that breath of fresh air — a new South Korean-based menu that takes from Serpico’s roots.
Starr says that, “Peter’s signature Korean American cooking style was a natural extension of the brand.”
To go with the ardor of Kpod’s menu, there is a warming-up of the once-futuristic lacquered space with elegant shades of mustard, brown and mod wood textures replacing Pod’s sleek eggshell tones and space-age primary colors. The conveyor belt is replaced by a raw bar serving raw items and handrolls of fatty tuna belly with caviar and Wagyu tartare with Maldon salt in wooden sluices. A railway station split-flap sign there reflects the night’s menu, but will eventually be used for all sorts-of personalized messaging.
Greeted by Chef Serpico—who mentions how glad he is to be in action again, and utilizing several menu items of his recent past (Kpod’s Whole Fried Chicken with Ramyun seasoning is reminiscent of Chicken Scratch’s bird)—he says of Kpod and the welcoming University City crowd: “Diners here truly seem to be loving the intense, salty, spicy, umami-rich flavors.”
Serpico’s not kidding when he brings up the unique and smashing savoriness of Kpod’s menu offerings from start to finish. Though a complete switch from Starr’s previous dining aesthetic at Pod, Serpico’s Kpod re-do is more of an extended remix where the breakbeats fall with fresh punctuation and its melodies, though vaguely familiar, are freshly funky.
After the bittersweet cocktail (or two) of vodka, Cynar, cold brew coffee and black sesame, Serpico’s wide-ranging Kpod menu finds are drenched in S-Korean traditionalism close to Chef’s heart (gorgeous glass noodle dishes, stir fried with beef bulgogi), as well as off-beat takes on preservation such as the shrimp, crabs and scallop-stuffed Seafood Pancake, and Serpico’s many many Ssams. Lettuce wrapped with ssamjang and sesame oil, this Buddhist-influenced, Goryeo-kingdom dish is uniquely au courant as its cooked with tender pork belly with maple glaze or blood-red skirt steak, fall-off-the-bone short rib and Kimchi-butter shrimp.
Serpico’s Kpod mandu – his Korean dumplings – are genuine works of art. Nearly translucent yet not without mystery, his ground beef with ginger and garlic, his spicy marinated pork with chili paste and onion, and his shredded roasted carrot with tofu and scallion spoil you for other dumplings. Period.
Though my dining partners and I didn’t have the opportunity to sample the 16th Century-based hot stone rice bowl Bibimbap, Serpico’s radically new school Korean Army Stew with spicy broth, scallions, hot dogs (!) Spam (!!) and American cheese (!!!), or his whole roasted pork shoulder Ssam (which requires 72 hours advance notice to slow cook), we did hit the dessert cart hard. The Rice Pudding Mandu with Asian pear, rice pudding and ginger syrup dipping sauce, the steamed dark chocolate cake bowl with white chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and the Korean sweet pancakes filled with coconut, walnuts, brown sugar and cinnamon were just-the-right-amount of sweet for a finale. The slow roasted sweet potato with brown butter, honey and vanilla ice cream, however, seemed yanked from Serpico family tradition: welcoming, homey, simple and humbly magnificent.
“This is the kind of food that I personally love to cook and am most excited to eat,” says Serpico.
Me too. I may miss everything about Pod – its ultra-modernism, dining chic and such – but will relish returning to Kpod again and again.