Northeast Meets Deep South with Philly Biscuit Mashup
By Barbara Booras
Justin Swain wants his customers to “crave the food they eat here, when they’re not [at Rex 1516].”
“It’s really easy, when you’re doing southern food,” says Swain, Rex 1516’s Executive Chef and Philadelphia native. Any uncertainties my inner skeptic had on whether this former bike messenger from Philly would deliver one of the all-time, crave-worthy biscuits, were quickly quelled when a warm plate of Everything Bagel Drop Biscuits appeared before me.
Over six years ago, fueled by a love of learning and a wide range of interests varying from art, to cooking, and bicycle mechanics, Justin Swain found himself being pulled in several directions. He was encouraged by his girlfriend to focus his energy on one single pursuit, culinary arts. Sage advice from the Chef’s now wife.
Rex 1516, opened its doors in the spring of 2012 and has been serving up a blend of regional southern cuisines with a twist ever since. Swain, on board since the opening, joined the team as sous-chef but found himself quickly promoted to Executive Chef, when his predecessor fell ill. The promotion was a big break for the novice chef, wrapping up his culinary program at the time.
Situated in the South Street West area of Philadelphia, the customer base consists of locals, young professionals and families. As for the neighborhood, Swain says, “little by little, there’s more and more happening on this street.” He likens it to “a very young Passyunk,” a trendy Philly neighborhood experiencing a food renaissance. For the husband and wife owners, Evan Malone and Jill Weber, the couple aims to have the small 34-seat restaurant and bar be a local fixture in the growing community.
Southern comfort, the influence of the former Executive Chef Regis Jansen, remains at the heart of Rex 1516. The dinner menu features classics like fried green tomatoes, crawfish, skillet cornbread, and grits along with more creative interpretations of southern cuisine like the ham hock ravioli or smoked pastrami short rib, one of Chef Swain’s personal favorites.
The southern emphasis doesn’t stop at the menu. The hospitality is palpable from the moment you walk through the door and are warmly greeted by the staff. Rex 1516 makes the effort to remember customer names, birthdays, and backstories. “If you know those things, people will realize you went the extra mile,” Swain explains.
Rex 1516’s take on a biscuit could arguably be the most brilliant northeast and southern culinary mashup to date. After four iterations of a biscuit recipe, Chef Swain landed at his current creation. Scratch made biscuit dough is brushed with melted butter then rolled in the signature everything bagel blend of poppy, caraway, sesame seeds, garlic, onion and flaky sea salt.
Great care is taken with the preparation of each ingredient. Frozen butter is shredded by hand on a box grater. Temperature of each component is key. Swain mixes the biscuit dough delicately by hand rather than using mixer or food processor. Similar to his approach to barbecue, Swain believes “a lot comes from feel and knowing how things are supposed to look.”
Biscuits are served warm, topped with fried eggs and come served in a bath of surprisingly light and creamy “sawmill gravy” despite generous additions of onions, garlic, bacon, and house made sausage. Justin goes on to explain, “Southern food is about building layers. Cooking your onions in the fat from the bacon and sausage is key to building a good base.” For those less carnivorous, a mushroom gravy is available as well.
“We probably sell out of biscuits every brunch,” Swain boasts fairly. Although the classic Everything Bagel Drop Biscuit is reserved strictly for brunch goers, you can find variations on the recipe included with the Farmer’s Platter available at dinner. Swain has experimented with rosemary and honey, cheddar, and Nashville hot dill biscuits, to name a few.
For those lucky enough to taste the everything bagel drop biscuit with sawmill gravy at Rex 1516, you will certainly be craving the addictive hybrid again soon, just as this Chef had hoped.
By Chef Justin Swain
Rex 1516 - Philadelphia, PA
Makes 1 Dozen
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
14 tablespoons of butter, divided as such:
8 tablespoons (4 oz) butter, melted
4 tablespoons (2 oz) butter, frozen and shredded
plus 2 tablespoons additional butter, melted for brushing biscuits
Mix dry ingredients and frozen butter by hand.
Mix melted butter and buttermilk together separately.
Add wet mixture to dry and mix until biscuits come together and are well combined.
Use an ice cream scoop to portion out biscuits onto greased parchment paper.
Brush tops with melted butter.
Bake at 350°F for 10-15 minutes or until golden on top.
*Please note: Chef Swain won’t reveal his secret everything bagel seasoning blend. Those trying to recreate the recipe at home can try their own blend of poppy, caraway, sesame seeds, garlic, onion and sea salt. After brushing the biscuits with butter, roll them in the topping mixture. Chef adds that the recipe is very forgiving with additions like cheese and herbs or various toppings.*