Just a few months before Richard “Todd” Cusack landed with a measure of desperation in the sudsy dish pit of someone else’s restaurant, his work life had been full of foie gras, braised rabbit, and precious game birds crushed tableside the ancient French way.
That was in early 2020, when he was still running the first June BYOB, the elegant 24-seater he’d opened less than a year before on East Passyunk Avenue with his wife, Christina Cusack. It had been the culmination of two decades of hard training, having labored his way up through the ranks from the salad station of his uncle’s South Philly restaurant and bar to the Michelin-starred heights of Daniel in Manhattan, flanked by multiple stints under Pierre Calmels at Bibou and Le Chéri, Starr restaurants (Parc and Dandelion), and private chef duties for Sixers star Joel Embiid.
But it all crumbled within a few months of the pandemic. Cusack, 34, had quickly pivoted that spring from his haute French menu to comfort takeout meals priced to go in order to save his restaurant. But business evaporated by the summer of 2020, and he soon found himself scrubbing pots at a friend’s place, then managing the burger grill at the landmark Chatterbox in Ocean City, N.J., simply to pay rent on his old space and feed his wife and two young children: “I came to terms with closing June. It sucked. But I was also determined that it would not be the end.”
He landed a new job with a steak house chain, and Christina confesses that she hoped he’d stick with its steady weekly paychecks and reasonable hours. But she also knew, “it was soul-crushing, he wasn’t happy ... and reopening June was his dream.”
And so they saved. And kept looking for a new space. And suddenly, there it was: a bustling corner room in the midst of Collingswood’s vibrant dining scene which, at one point was comprised of 90% Italian restaurants, now seems ripe to welcome a more diverse menu. (The Lebanese Li Beirut is another promising pandemic addition.)
The new Jersey edition of June BYOB opened in August with 42 seats, almost double its previous space. It had its same old fussy tufted chairs, golden silverware, and crystal chandeliers hanging over plush white linen tables, as well as a vintage silver-plated duck press one generous customer permanently loaned to Todd after a successful dinner with a shrug and the high compliment: “You’re not a schmuck!”
June puts that gleaming 1942 crusher to good use almost nightly for its reserve-ahead whole duck “voyage” for two that’s served in three acts for $170. It culminates in the tableside pyrotechnics of Cognac flames and duck jus that’s thickened with foie gras, and blood that streams from the press’ spout as the carcass is crushed. If you can overlook the medieval method to extract that bird’s essence, the finished result is sublime. The herb- and port-marinated Muscovy breast of the birds once raised for Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm before the chef went vegan was incredibly tender, the sauce superbly layered despite its stunning richness. Along with the opening course of a foie gras parfait, a complimentary Lillet and duck confit salad, plus more flames for the Crêpes Suzette finale, I can think of few duck shows in the region more worthy, even at that price.
June has never been a bargain destination relative to most restaurants. And its current a la carte menu, with entrees hovering between the mid-$30s and $54 for a duck trio bearing a generous serving of a rosy-hued breast, seared foie, and a flaky pithivier pastry dome stuffed with ground duck, won’t lessen the sticker shock. But that doesn’t mean June is a poor value. In fact, Cusack serves fairly large portions of premium ingredients, from the tin of Venetian ossetra caviar offered one night as a special with a complimentary split of Moët to a dewy fresh hunk of halibut over cranberry beans and snap peas glazed in the lobster-steeped richness of a sauce Américaine.
One can surely debate whether big-ticket French cuisine inspired by the Larousse Gastronomique on June’s coffee table even has a place in 2021, in the wake of a traumatic year when restaurants have reemerged largely more casual and more forward-thinking than before, and culinary trends have continued to evolve away from the meat stock-heavy traditions of French cooking that long ruled American kitchens and culinary schools.
For all those very reasons, I’d argue that a place like June BYOB has become even more valuable. With the sad demise of Bibou during the pandemic, Cusack is now one of the few skilled guardians of Philly’s long Gallic tradition, dating back to Le Bec-Fin and La Panetière. And he’s certainly not braising pig trotters and roasting their picked meat in caul fat-wrapped batons because it’s trendy. Cusack was driven to wash dishes and work six odd jobs for more than a year in the aftermath of closing his first restaurant so that he could reopen June here because it’s clear he’s passionate this food. I can taste it.
And so when I saw Bibou’s famous nautilus plates reappeared on Cusack’s Collingswood table, I was struck by the unexpected emotion of witnessing a generational handoff with each lovely bite. The plump escargots that tumbled alongside snappy fava beans through its swirling channels of mahogany Bordelaise were not simply as delicious ever, they were imbued with the satisfaction of a legacy that had been successfully preserved.
You’ll see echoes of Cusack’s French mentors across this menu, from that pig’s trotter, a Bibou signature served a bit differently here over tarbais beans, to even the warm mustard vinaigrette borrowed from Le Bec’s old galette de crab used to dress the warm potato salad that accompanies the pressed duck. His crisply sautéed sweetbreads in Madeira sauce with roasted chanterelles was a classic as it gets.
But Cusack, ultimately, is also crafting his own identity here, too. You taste it in the ricotta cavatelli tossed with sweet lumps of crab in roast corn stock enriched with sherried cream. (Cusack upped his noodle craft at the pasta station at Daniel.)
I could also taste that in the delicacy of a moist steelhead trout fillet dusted with espelette pepper and steamed inside fresh fig leaves that get carefully unwrapped tableside by manager Constance de Uriate and glossed with an ivory beurre blanc scented with orange. That dish was inspired by the fig trees growing outside the Chatterbox in Ocean City, where Cusack put in two post-June summers by the grill, but still always dreaming of his comeback.
The road back was not easy. The Cusacks had essentially no savings left in the bank by the time they finally opened June 2.0 in August, several months later than intended. The cooking this first month has been very good but not quite flawless — too much vinegar in the fromage de tête; an underwhelming vanilla cremeaux for dessert that was bland and runny. And hiring staff has remained a perpetual challenge, as Todd currently has just one other cook working alongside him.
But for the Cusacks, who live in South Jersey, there is a renewed sense of energy in reopening their project closer to home in a lively restaurant hub like Collingswood that continues to rise. Christina says they’ve even filled their dining room with a noticeably youthful date night demographic alongside their many previous regulars, a largely older wine-collector crowd that made the old June a regular stop on Philly’s BYOB circuit.
And Todd, who’s been working toward this dream since he was 14, is not afraid to roll up his sleeves. That’s literally the case each night after the last table is served, once the dishwasher has gone home, and he steps in to scrub the final sizzle plates, sheet trays, and restore the gleam to his well-used duck press once again. He’s back in the suds. But at least this dish pit he can call his own.
690 Haddon Ave., Collingswood, N.J., 856-240-7041; junebyob.com
If you go: Dinner Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Brunch service launches Oct. 10).
Entrees: $28-$56. Three-course duck à la presse for two, $170 (must be preordered at least a day in advance).
Street parking and public lot parking only.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.