City Paper: The Climb

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on Mar 10, 2010.

The Climb

Behind Ladder 15’s Ansill-fied revamp.

by Felicia D’Ambrosio

When word leaked that David Ansill had been hired as chef at Ladder 15 (1528 Sansom St.), the Internet backlash was instantaneous. It consisted mostly of criticisms of the crowd believed to frequent the bar — think young, soused fraternity/sorority types — and trepidation toward how a critical darling like Ansill, who closed his eponymous restaurant in June 2009, would thrive in such an environment.

Ladder 15 partner Max Tucker finds the assertion that his clientele consists exclusively of Jager-chugging students unfair. “When we signed the lease, our landlord sent out a press release that some of the partners in Ladder 15 also owned Mad River,” says Tucker, referencing the collegiate-friendly, multi-location concept he has a stake in. “There was immediate punch-in-the-kidneys stereotyping in the press.”
Ansill, who landed at Ladder 15 after eight months of job hunting, was brought in to overhaul the bar’s food, which has received just as much vitriol as the supposed crowd ordering it. “A great chef [and friend of Tucker’s], Mike Stollenwerk, developed the menu, but executing a menu is an entirely different thing,” says Tucker of the bar’s opening eats, which were conceived, but not cooked, by the owner of fish and Little Fish. “It was a learning experience. It just wasn’t good enough, nowhere near our expectations. … That was enough reason to say we can do better.”
Not every business owner can admit failure, but those who do have an opportunity to start fresh. Hiring a chef to create a menu without executing it is a mistake Ladder 15 won’t make again — Ansill is on-site. “I’m the chef,” he says firmly. “My name is on this. If I walk away, who knows what will happen?”

What has happened is a bar menu populated by Ansill-style twists. (Check it out in full on Meal Ticket.) The Ladder 15 burger comes topped with wine-braised shortrib, mushrooms and caramelized onions on Metropolitan brioche, sided with truffle aioli and jus, plus a bone of roasted marrow ($18). There are Korean tacos with shortrib or pork belly, kimchi and Korean barbecue sauce ($11), and empanadas stuffed with curried lamb ($9).

Mindful that the food-oriented crowd they hope to attract turns up their noses at industrial lagers and overly sweet drinks, Ladder 15 has altered its beverage program, as well. A new draft list, developed by Wine School of Philadelphia instructor and Phoodie contributor Collin Flatt, features craft brews like Port Wipeout IPA and Dogfish Head Black and Blue.

Bartender Zach Smith has created a list of new cocktails, preserving only one of the original drinks — the Pop Rocks-fortified Cherry Water Ice. Otherwise, drinks like the Dr. Strangelove (Milagro Silver, Grand Marnier, vanilla bean, agave nectar, orange juice) incorporate homemade syrups spiked with ingredients like watermelon, mint and jalapeno, as well as fresh-squeezed juices.

The Ladder crew will introduce its evolving menu with free hors d’oeuvres at 8 p.m. on March 16 — expect chicken confit “lollipops,” goat cheese and potato cigars and fried cauliflower, among other bites. If interest is there, management will debut a “Foodie Night” featuring a prix-fixe menu for the offal-loving diners who frequented Ansill and Pif.

“We’re not changing our vision,” says Tucker. “We’re finding it.”

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