REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
Andrew Kochan is a charming 27-year-old who grew up in Penn Valley and graduated from the Haverford School for Boys. He strikes this observer as one who could approach any challenge with sangfroid. He earned a degree in mathematical economics from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and seemed on his way to a successful career in finance. However, he explained, “I lost my job opportunities to corporate downsizing and an ultra-competitive job market. Once I found myself working in the back office of J.P. Morgan and realized how little my role contributed and how little room for advancement there was, it didn’t take long for me to begin exploring other career paths.”
His family members had always been “foodies,” and because he had so many fond memories of family gatherings around food, Andrew walked out on the high wire and went back to school — this time to the culinary program of the Art Institute of Philadelphia. “Looking back,” he recalled, “it was a wildly risky move, but one that I would not change for the world.”
Andrew worked in catering for a while but did not have a full-time position anywhere until he was contacted last year by Tim Lanza, a friend and former classmate at the Art Institute. Tim persuaded Andrew to join him at Marigold Kitchen, 501 S. 45th St. in University City, where Tim was a chef de cuisine. Marigold Kitchen, which opened 70 years ago in a 1907 corner house, is an upscale BYOB which has always been a critical favorite but has been somewhat handicapped in recent years by its location way off in the culinary outfield.
Some of the region’s best chefs have run the kitchen at Marigold in recent years such as Steven Cook (2005), Michael Solomonov (2006), who went on to open Zahav and Citron & Rose; Erin O’Shea (2008) and Robert Halpern (2009-2014), who moved to the West Coast after earning a three-bell review from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan. Current executive chef Keith Krajewski as well as co-chef/owners Kochan and Lanza all worked under Halpern, whose elevated standards have been maintained at Marigold, which was just named the Delaware Valley’s 10th best restaurant in the January issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Dining at Marigold Kitchen is an adventure that is orchestrated with chess match ingenuity and is probably unique in the Delaware Valley. That is because there is no menu to choose dishes from. (If you visit its website, you will not find a menu.) The server will ask if you have any food allergies or if there are any foods you simply will not eat. If there are, some adjustments will be made to the dishes served. Then the server will proceed to bring out 12 to 18 modernist small “tasting” courses, depending on what is available and fresh, and describe each one. Although it sounds like enough food for a team of defensive linemen, you probably will not leave with a doggie bag.
“Much of what makes this place special,” said Andrew, “is that eating here is not just a meal; it is meant to be an experience (undoubtedly true). The anticipation between courses and the surprise when a dish is placed in front of a customer is what we rely on to provide the kind of service that is expected at Marigold Kitchen.”
There is a cafeteria of reasons to like Marigold Kitchen. We visited in January on the coldest night in a year with the wind-chill factor in single digits, so the warmth of the fireplace was most welcome. Not every one of our 15 courses sent us into paroxysms of delight, but some that did were the pumpkin bisque with sage, apple, cumin and pepitas (pumpkin seeds); salmon enrobed in kohlrabi (turnip cabbage) that chaperoned bits of rye, dill and celeriac, a knobby root vegetable that often languishes on supermarket shelves because it will not win any prizes for beauty but might for flavor; a soupçon of risotto with sunchoke, pine nut, shiitake mushrooms and red wine that melts on the tongue like a cloud; divine clam chowder swathed in the richness of littleneck clams, velouté (stock and cream thickened with butter and flour), carrot and celery; sublime velvety and moist wild mushrooms with port wine, puff pastry and egg; and addictive salted caramels with lava salt that they should bottle and sell by the gallon.
The fixed price for the 12- to 18-course dinner at Marigold Kitchen is $90, but as other reviewers have noted, it is well worth it for this culinary adventure. Our server, Andre Evers, was also a major asset, knowledgeable and personable to a fault. I fully expect Andrew Kochan’s star to rise like the mast of a righted sailboat.
For more information, call (215) 222-3699 or visit www.marigoldkitchenbyob.com.