Clink! Clink! Clink!
“Hello everyone! Can I have your attention? We have an add-on tonight …”
The boisterous little dining room fell silent with anticipation as chef Amanda Shulman, clad in a crisp red apron and remarkably composed despite the flurry of solo cooking that had led us already through a couple memorable plates, stepped up to the steel counter beside her open kitchen with an announcement: “It’s truffle season!”
All 24 diners, it seemed, erupted in cheers to the happy news at Her Place Supper Club. I then did a double take at the next detail. Did she say the supplement for Burgundian winter truffles was only $15?! That’s just a fraction of what most restaurants charge for the luxury bonus of shaved truffles.
“I love them so much, I want everyone to taste them,” said Shulman, 29, who regaled her audience with the story of traveling to Italy to document the Umbrian truffle harvest on a student grant while at the University of Pennsylvania. Her final project, which involved serving truffled pasta to her professors, was understandably a hit.
“Ambrosia” would be an apt description for the deep forest aroma that filled the air inside this snug BYOB on Sansom Street as marbelized brown flakes of those earthy nuggets rained down over the next course — a hollowed-out roasted acorn squash filled with Comté fondue. The alpine warmth of its molten cheese boosted the truffle’s primal perfume. And I’ve never crunched through carrots and radishes quite lustily as this crudité, though Shulman could’ve served tree branches with that squash hot tub of truffled cheese and I’d still happily be dipping.
The ability to splurge on making truffled luxury a relative bargain for guests — food cost be damned! — is part of the beauty of a pop-up. And Shulman’s residency in the former Slice pizza shop did indeed begin as a temporary two-month experiment this summer, serving four-course tasting menus for $65 that changed every other week. Its eight seatings consistently sold out within minutes of being posted on the Her Place Instagram profile on Sunday nights.
If you got a chance to devour the warm poppy-speckled pretzel rolls that came alongside that fondue (baked with the scooped-out squash pulp in the batter) you’d be eagerly awaiting your next Her Place adventure, too. Nothing goes to waste in a kitchen with the imagination, skill, and self-reliant resourcefulness Shulman has cultivated during her training under Marc Vetri (in Philly and Las Vegas), at Joe Beef in Montréal, and a short stint at Momofuku Ko in New York, where her side-hustle dinner party feasts got their start in her Greenwich Village apartment.
By September, the Connecticut native was sabering off Champagne bottles to celebrate a six-month extension of her stay on Sansom Street, deepening her fast-growing roots into the local dining scene. In many ways, Her Place is a Philadelphia story we’ve seen before: talented out-of-towner finds an affordable opportunity at a Philly BYOB, and the launch of their start into the welcoming embrace of an eager local audience.
But this chapter has also been updated with some pop-up era twists, from its steady pipeline of prepaid reservations fueled by social media, to the deliberate sense of impermanence that has allowed Shulman to continue taking risks.
“My whole life has been about fitting my life into the restaurant and just accepting that I’ll miss every event and milestone. But we’re making this work for us right now,” said Shulman in a call from the bridesmaid’s room at a friend’s weekend wedding. Her Place is rarely open weekends.
Her crew is small but impressively efficient, led by one of her best friends, manager Steven Posner, another Vetri alum who’s been collaborating with Shulman to reimagine a restaurant experience as more casual and free flowing.
Want another sip of that complimentary prosecco-vermouth cocktail to start the meal? (Yes, please … since I’d accidentally downed my wife’s glass!) Server Nick Pak magically appeared for the save with another glass.
And then the family-style sharing plates began. A bowl of pickled mussels escabeche with roasted pepper vinaigrette and a rustic hunk of Shulman’s crusty, double-strength sourdough made with house-milled local grains. Tender white leek hearts glossed in the shine of a mustard vinaigrette scattered with toasted hazelnuts was simple but satisfying.
A snowy white slice of meaty halibut appeared, topped with leaves of tangy sorrel and ringed by a buttery riesling sauce and chanterelles. Its perfect flesh was so gently cooked in a prosecco steam, that I needed to do yet another double-take to remind myself that Shulman was producing this feast for two dozen diners nearly single-handedly (she had only just hired a prep cook).
The thrill of witnessing it from the dining room, along with her charming commentary between courses, is more than just a parlor trick of facile culinary juggling. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a young talent defining her own identity in live time, embracing the challenge of regularly expanding and refining her repertoire, and drawing on her myriad of distinctively different influences.
In early August, I could see her strong Italian roots at work, gently framing the season’s ripeness. Perfect cherry tomatoes, deftly stripped of their skins, hovered over whipped goat cheese and basil oil alongside the complimentary crunch of sweet watermelons. Wedges of Lancaster cantaloupe basked in the tangy heat of peppery vinegar beneath the silken folds of smoky speck. More tomatoes were baked into the flaky embrace of a savory mini-cobbler. Plumes of roasted lamb shoulder showed up beneath shaved peppers alongside cucumber salad over charred eggplant yogurt and Romano beans in anchovy vinaigrette.
The clam toast was perhaps a nod to Shulman’s New England roots, a deconstructed clam chowder in all its buttery goodness layered with an aioli whipped from the mollusk’s liquor over a slice of brioche laced with blades of tarragon (”the most romantic herb,” she says, “which I put on everything”).
Her add-on that August night was meatballs flavored like a zesty pork sandwich stuffed with oozy caciocavallo cheese. Were these a sly nod to Sal Vetri, father to chef Marc and master of the meatball with “tomato-potatoes” whom she profiled for an assignment many years ago in a food writing class taught at Penn by former Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols? That interaction was the spark that led Shulman to begin helping Sal with staff meals at Amis, then eventually get hired by Vetri for whom she worked for two and a half years.
As the weather chills, Shulman’s tendencies have leaned toward the rich sauces and simmering stock pots of the Montréal French flavors from Joe Beef (a personal favorite!). That explains the meat stock darkening the riesling sauce for the fish, as well as her old soul fondness for retro dishes with aspic, mayonnaise, or even the effectiveness of a proper vinaigrette, like with those leeks. And then there was the lavish lobster thermidor with sauce Américaine she created for a recent Bookbinder’s throwback meal collaboration with Middle Child’s Matt Cahn. I regret missing that one. Shulman has promised a reprise.
I have zero regrets about my most recent visit, which culminated with the classic elegance of a Paris-Brest pastry ring topped with pumpkin seeds and stuffed with a salted caramel-apple cremeux. Fresh Gala apples, sliced paper thin and layered inside, brought tart crunch to the richness.
And that would have been a fine enough finale — until Shulman walked into the dining room with one more surprise: a tray of fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies made with a touch of her leftover sourdough. Sublime home comfort, updated with a cheffy wink.
There’s no telling what the future holds for Her Place once this temporary lease expires. Can it still be a pop-up if it never ends? Inevitably, talent like this lands somewhere and grows into something bigger. But there’s a special spirit nonetheless in this moment of beginning that I hope Shulman carries with her along the way, a freedom to define herself and her restaurant as she goes, and a willingness to keep challenging herself — and her audience — to continue to evolve.
Her Place Supper Club
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1740 Sansom St., herplacephilly.com
Dinner served in two seatings (6 p.m. or 8:30 p.m.) four nights weekly. Check website for schedule and menu. Two-week blocks of seats are released on Sundays at 6 p.m.
Four-course menu, $65, prepaid during online reservation process.
Not wheelchair accessible.