Philadelphia: Incredible Scones (and Other Goodies) at Under the Oak Café

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Kelly McShaine Tyree in the cafe. [Photographs: Elizabeth Bomze]

How did Gertrude Stein put it? "America is my country, but Paris is my home town."

I'll always feel that way about Philly, and Philly's food. Boston is where I (happily) landed, but I'm all Philly at the core. I'm a sucker for all the hometown classics: soft pretzels from the concourse in Suburban Station; cheesesteaks from Delassandro's; a scoop of Bassett's butter-almond from the Reading Terminal. I've also missed some of the city's greatest hits since I left town 11 years ago. Fortunately, my family is almost as food fanatic as I am, so they keep me posted on the must-tries. Under the Oak Café was one of them.

Co-owner Kelly McShaine Tyree was an actress in New York when she began making frequent trips home to the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia to help her aging parents. As she spent more time in the old neighborhood, she became emotionally invested in the community—so much so that she and her husband, actor Robert Tyree, put their stage careers on hold to move back and open the small café.

Kelly runs the front of the house—a charming 20-seat cottage room with upholstered loveseats and banquettes and local art on the walls. Robert, who learned to cook in his mother's kitchen, does much of the food prep and turns out some truly spectacular hits.

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House-cured salmon sandwich.

The gravlax is stunning. Those who know me well know that I can (and, umm, have) put away an entire side of cured salmon myself, but the fish at Under the Oak is special: silky, rich, delicate, and with just the faintest hints of the sugar and salt lingering on the edge. It's a subtler preparation than most, obviously the work of a deft hand and palate. Order it piled on one of Rolings' Bakery's twisty bagels (the best in the area) with all the usual fixin's ($10.25), or sandwiched between slices of toasted brioche with mandoline-thin cucumber chips, capers, crème fraîche, and pickled onions ($10). It's like a Jewish deli fish platter and a dainty English tea sandwich had a baby. And it's perfect.

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Raspberry cream scone with lemon curd and crème fraîche.

Even more exceptional than the savory dishes are the sweets. They've mastered pie of all sorts: key lime, pecan-topped sweet potato, and the most sublime (not sweet) pumpkin pie ever created. (No, they won't give up the recipe.) But the item I can never leave without ordering is the raspberry cream scone. It tastes nothing like the sturdy, hearty specimens I've had in Ireland, and, frankly, I have no idea how they make them so tender without having the whole thing crumble in-hand. (Tons of butter? Pastry flour? A light—but not too light—touch?) All I know is that when I break off a piece and slather it with the accompanying satiny lemon curd and crème fraîche, I sometimes contemplate moving back.

Under the Oak Café

804 Oak Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19126 (map) 215-924-1410; undertheoakcafe.com