by Len Lear
I’m going to make a post-New Year’s prediction here: a few months from now, the new center city restaurant that will have all the foodies buzzing is the one with a Southwestern flair, a charming female chef, a funny name, a state-of-the-art LED lighting system and a variety of small plates that will make all your efforts at dieting go to waist. Customers will be vacuuming up lots of food on those small plates. It’s Kokopelli, which opened recently at 1904 Chestnut St., which formerly housed Akoya and before that, Pearl, and before that, Little Pete’s.
Kokopelli is the name of a fertility god to many Native Americans, and its symbol, a hunch-backed, flute-playing Casanova, is carved into many rock walls and boulders throughout the Southwestern U.S. You might say that this fertility god is now impregnating the 1900 block of Chestnut St. with sexy food. According to archeologists, some of the Kokopelli carvings are 3,000 years old. It is a sacred figure to many Southwestern Native Americans, and some of the dishes of Kokopelli’s chef Gina Rodriguez just may be regarded as sacred by customers. If there is no statute of limitation on fawning, then I will be tooting her whistle for a while.
Gina, who told us shortly after Kokopelli’s Dec. 2 debut that she had just seen snow for the first time in her life, was previously chef de cuisine at the LaCosta Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, California. Prior to that she was the first female chef at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort’s Ventana Room in Tucson, Arizona, when that restaurant became one of only 57 restaurants in the country to win the AAA Five-Diamond Award. (Gina also has a degree in psychology, so she knows how to handle customers who do not respond to her charm offensive.)
Managing partner Adam Solomon, one of three partners in Kokopelli, is a Bucks County native who has been in the restaurant business “since before I could walk.” His grandfather, Bob Zuckerman, was one of the creators of the Seafood Shanty chain of restaurants. After establishing a series of nightclubs, Adam began scouting for a restaurant of his own. “The ‘old school’ way of treating customers has gotten lost,” said Adam, who schmoozes with customers at each table. “Many restaurant owners have gotten so caught up with fancy décor and other externals that they have forgotten about the personal touch with customers, which is what everybody wants.”
Rodriguez has taken lots of familiar dishes and put a novel spin on them. For example, crispy quail with cayenne honey instead of fried chicken; or sliders with bison meat instead of ground beef. “What we are going for is to have every dish healthy and lean,” said Solomon. “Nothing mass produced. People are becoming more adventurous with protein, for example, and they will put their toe in the water, but they won’t jump in with their whole body. In other words, if we offered bison steak, no one would order it, but they will order the bison sliders because there is more familiarity with it.”
The complex flavors here are just as genuine and inviting as our server, Liane Bell, who is also the marketing manager. Dishes that we would highly recommend are the corn bisque with grilled prawn, although it was not served hot ($6), a divine grilled Caesar salad ($6), sublime crab cakes with candied orange and coconut salad ($15), fiery garlic chili-glazed prawns, which we loved but which would undoubtedly be too incendiary for some folks ($9), spectacular chorizo mac and cheese ($6) and a magical flan caramel custard from Gina’s family recipe. Beef tamales ($10) were just so-so, but we would echo the recent City Paper reviewer who wrote that “Rodriguez absolutely nails seafood.”
Small plates range from $4 to $17, and the average diner will probably eat three. More than 50 varieties of tequila are available for a wide variety of prices, as well as nine commercial beers. There is a bar that seats 18 as well as a second floor private dining space. A small wine list is comprised of Spanish selections for about $8 a glass. A Budini Chardonnay from Argentina was flavor-challenged and had no after-taste. Specialty cocktails are very good but definitely overpriced, from $10.50 to $13.50.
Parking spaces are much easier to find now near Kokopelli since the city replaced most downtown meters with kiosks and doubled the prices. We got a space on the 2000 block of Chestnut Street. However, although the signs say that you can park for three hours, the kiosks will only take two hours worth of quarters ($4) and then spits any more back to you. This happened to us on two different nights last month on two different blocks of Chestnut Street. I’m sure you’ll be shocked, gentle reader, that the Philadelphia Parking Authority has managed to screw this up.
For more information, call 215-557-7510 or visit www.kokopelliphilly.com.