By Len Lear, Columnist
Q: What is a pig’s favorite position to play on a baseball team?
Q: What do piglets have to do every day when they come home from school?
A: They have to finish their hamwork.
Kevin Sbraga is a 35-year-old baker’s son who grew up in Willingboro, N.J., trained at the prestigious Johnson & Wales Culinary School in Miami and then worked for a triumvirate of Philly’s top restaurateurs starting in 2004. Obviously Georges Perrier, José Garces and Stephen Starr all saw a budding star in Sbraga. At one point he also directed the kitchen at the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia.
But as impressive as all of that is for a young chef, none of it garnered as much attention for Sbraga as the fact that in June of 2010, he was named the winner of the seventh season of “Top Chef,” the TV show on the Bravo Network.
His prizes were $125,000, a spread in Food & Wine magazine and a showcase at the magazine’s annual event in Aspen, Colorado. He also won the “Best Meat Presentation” in the 2008 Bocuse d’Or USA culinary competition.
After winning the Top Chef prize, it was inevitable that Sbraga would be opening his own restaurant rather than working in someone else’s kitchen and being restricted by someone else’s concepts and recipes. “All my life I’ve known that I wanted to have my own restaurant,” said Sbraga.
And on Oct. 15 of 2011, that inevitability became a fact when Kevin parachuted into public consciousness with the eponymous Sbraga, a 65-seater at 440 S. Broad St. (at Pine) in the Symphony House in center city Philadelphia. Previously in that location was Chu Man Chew, an Asian restaurant that lasted about as long as a baseball game. Sbraga is huge with the pre-theater crowd these days. It is literally just steps from the Kimmel Center and Academy of Music.
It has received rave reviews. For example, Esquire magazine named it one of the country’s “Best New Restaurants” in 2012; the Zagat Restaurant Guide anointed it the “#1 Restaurant on the Avenue of the Arts;” Bon Appetit magazine called it a “Knockout,” and Philadelphia magazine included it in its “Best Restaurants of 2013” list.
And in December of last year, Sbraga opened his second restaurant in the city, which is anything but a clone of his first. In The Fat Ham, a 48-seater at 3131 Walnut St. that was previously occupied by Tria Wine Room, chef Sbraga takes you on a galloping horseback ride of Southern foods, ingredients and culinary traditions as well as a bourbon-and-rye-centric bar operation.
The bold flavors on the “small plates” are as vivid as the lipstick at an Academy Awards ceremony, but because of all the pork dishes, fried foods, etc., I would not go there just for the health of it. (I would, however, go there for the swine and cheese parties.)
Tweets by @TheFatHam
Thanks to a renovation by a local design firm, the small but lively dining room now features rustic wood panels, whitewashed walls and comfortable banquettes. You may wind up sitting just one or two feet from the neighboring diners, almost all of whom appear to be students. When (and if) we ever see warm weather again, the front windows will open to permit both indoor and outdoor dining.
If you are going to a jam at World Cafe Live, which is just one block away, have dinner first at The Fat Ham. Of course, World Cafe Live also serves food, but eating there instead of at The Fat Ham would be like losing a foot race to Chris Christie.
Prices at The Fat Ham are reasonable. The most expensive dish is country-fried lobster tail, which is $16. We enjoyed everything we tasted, but my favorite dish was the mustard greens salad ($8), a tangle of the freshest green ribbons tickled by peanuts, sesame seeds, scallions and a sublime, subtle hot vinegar dressing. A dinner at The Fat Ham without this dish would be like a kiss without a squeeze.
Normally we would never eat fried chicken in or out of a restaurant, but I had heard from more than one source that Sbraga’s version was one they would love to have if stranded on a desert island. Sbraga must have stock in a cayenne pepper company because this dish has it in abundance, but if you like to bring the heat, this dish rocks. The really moist chicken makes a perfect marriage with cold beer, although the white bread that it sits on is extraneous ($13).
Other dishes we enjoyed thoroughly were the baked macaroni and cheese with a barbecued potato chip crust ($8), butternut squash soup with pumpkin seeds and yogurt ($5), shrimp and grits with ham and peanuts ($14), Southern hummus with garlic oil and boiled peanuts ($6), phenomenal charred cabbage with pork rinds and tomato nuggets ($9) and a divine chocolate chip skillet dessert with ice cream ($6).
For a small restaurant, The Fat Ham has an extraordinary wine and spirits program — more than 100 different hard-liquor selections, two dozen canned and bottled beers, eight on tap, seven cocktails, including two on tap, and a dozen wines by the bottle, seven of them by the glass, all under $10.
Our server, Cameron, was delightful, and the young ladies who delivered dishes and picked up plates could bottle sunshine.
Kevin Sbraga’s career so far has had legs that some would envy, and that is not likely to change. The Fat Ham is open every night for dinner, and they started serving lunch on Feb. 10. There is kiosk parking on both sides of the street, and believe it or not, there were several available parking spaces right in front of the restaurant when we visited, as there were when we had dinner at the former Tria Wine Room.
For more information, call (215) 735-1914 or visit www.sbragadining.com. For the original Sbraga on South Broad Street, call (215) 735-1913. Connect on Twitter: @TheFatHam