We touched base with the elusive chef David Ansill, who, after months of being off the radar after abruptly closing his eponymous Queen Village restaurant last summer, has popped up as the new executive chef of Ladder 15. He gave filled us in on what he has in store for Ladder 15’s menu, plus gave us some more details on why Ansill closed its doors.
It’s been a while since we heard from you. What have you been up to?
Well, it’s been tough finding a job. Between the economy and the fact that all people think I do is the "interest food," it was tough for a while. That reputation is kind of a double-edged sword. Well, that’s my theory, I don’t know for sure. After Ansill closed, I did a short stint at Feast Your Eyes catering. Then these guys [from Ladder 15] got back to me and it seems to be working out really well. I just started on Monday.
What should we expect from your menu at Ladder 15?
We’re trying to go for more of a recognizable style of bar food, but with my twist on it. The owners are kind of going with the gastropub stuff - good sandwiches, bar snacks - and want to bring the food up to the next level. They got a couple of nasty reviews and they don’t want to go through that again. They realized they wanted a chef and a real kitchen.
We’re playing with different stuff - I love fried foods and fried bar snacks. It’s the kind of food I like to eat. The pressures of ownership are off and they’re letting me be free. So, a bunch of sandwiches, some nibbles, more functional salads. I’m doing the grilled chorizo sandwich with fried egg on it, the Korean short rib tacos that we had at Ansill. They have a Philly Pretzel Factory next door and they do a roast pork on a pretzel roll. I’m going to keep that idea, but with braised sauerkraut. I’m on the roasted pork side of the great cheeseteak-roasted pork debate, so that seems like the perfect thing.
Also corn fritters, fried oysters, really simple, recognizable stuff. We’ll do a mushroom truffle burger with truffle mayonnaise. We sauté a mix of mushrooms and dice them up real fine with shallots and garlic and what-not. We make a truffle puree and mix it up with the ground beef. Top it with marinated mozzarella cheese on a brioche bun with hand cut chips.
As we get rolling, I’ll think about doing a more adventurous night once a week with things like the pig’s feet and the rabbit legs, but still keep the idea of bar snacks. I made a slow-braised squid in ink sauce, to run as a special and they seemed to love it. Goat cheese and potato cigars with herb sour cream dip. Simple stuff but fun and tasty and not too scary. I want to do fried banana fritters. I didn’t have a fryer at Ansill, now I’m excited to have two!
Do you really think that diners were put off by the "adventurous" reputation of your food at Ansill?
I don’t think they were put off, but Philly is a blue collar city and the percentage of adventurous diners and foodies is pretty small. When I first opened, our menu was really adventurous and between that and the foie gras protesters, it brought a lot of attention to us from the neighbors. Not necessarily good. Although it was critically acclaimed - the people who really liked food loved it.
I’d sit at the bar and see people make faces when they looked at the menu and they would leave. I think it scared a lot of people away.When I took back the kitchen [from chef Kibett Mengech] and especially towards the end, the menu was pretty generic, like grilled steak, chicken, with a few interesting items But between the summer and economy, I couldn’t float it anymore.
The worst day of my life was waiting for my staff to come in and having to tell them one by one that it was closing.
Do you think the neighborhood played a factor? A lot of praised restaurants in that Queen Village/South Street neighborhood have struggled.
Initially, when I opened up, the Queen Village Neighborhood Association shot me down when I wanted outdoor seating. Which I kind of thought was a no-brainer. It’s a beautiful corner and a beautiful visual aspect to have it. They didn’t seem happy I was coming in there and cleaning up the corner and making it more of a service to the neighborhood, which is how I thought about it. Even the neighbors that came to the meeting - I was surprised at how adamant they were about it.
I think people are sometimes intimidated by South Street. A lot of my clientele from Pif were from the suburbs; they’re not kids anymore and they were concerned about coming down to South Street on a Saturday night with the parking and stuff.
My across-the-street neighbor was the former zoning commissioner [David Auspitz]. I had a couple of tables set out on Bainbridge Street, just for eye candy, to say "Hey, we’re open here." We weren’t going to seat anyone out there. He said "You can’t do that and next time we’ll call L&I; on you." He never stepped into my place and had no idea what I was doing.
When can we expect to see your menu changes turn up?
Probably in the springtime, maybe another month or so. They’re not rushing me and they really want it to be excellent. They’re also revamping beer, wine and cocktails to go along with the quality of food that will come out of the kitchen. The spring is our ambiguous time frame. They just want to make sure it’s 100% percent perfect. But I will running the short rib tacos for the weekend. I started working on them today.
Ladder 15, 1528 Sansom St. (215) 964-9755