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Forsythia review: Christopher Kearse moves into Old City spotlight with a full bar, larger space, and more accessible moves

One of Philly's BYOB success stories takes the ambitious next step in Old City.

Chef Christopher Kearse plates the tuna collar at Forsythia in Philadelphia's Old City on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Chef Christopher Kearse plates the tuna collar at Forsythia in Philadelphia's Old City on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

I peered over the edge of the big, red crock and inhaled the soulful aroma of rabbit cassoulet. This beautiful French bean ragout at Forsythia was packed with tender braised legs, browned sausage rounds of rabbit boudin, and spicy chunks of andouille. The tan gravy — laced with delicate green pea tendrils and spiked with mustard, ginger, and bacon — enriched a rustic classic that demanded a big spoon for sharing.

I took a hearty scoop for my plate, and then another, and another, wondering why I’d never tasted such convincingly homey cooking from Christopher Kearse before.

His reply surprised me: “I would never have been allowed to do something like this at Will.”

Wait a second. Didn’t Kearse used to own Will BYOB? And isn’t the whole point of running your own little bistro the freedom to serve those 28 seats whatever it is your cheffy heart desires? Well, yes — unless your success pigeonholes you, in which case your audience has expectations.

That is how Kearse — who seven years ago became a darling of Philly’s culinary avant-garde, known for tweezer-touched plates that were foamed, gelled, and meat-glued into precious beauty — began to feel trapped inside his tiny bubble.

He felt the need to evolve and explore more casual, rustic styles. He wanted to serve snacks like chickpea panisse fries with whipped raclette and big tureens of bouillabaisse for sharing. But the limitations of a small restaurant menu built around intricately conceived plates wouldn’t bear it. Philly’s uniquely accessible BYOB scene had given him the opportunity to make his mark on East Passyunk Avenue in 2012 for the modest investment of $22,000. But it wouldn’t allow him to truly grow.

“The amount of time you spend inside those four walls can make you feel isolated," said Kearse, 35. “I’m into different stuff now than I was in my 20s, and there were things I wanted to do, but just could not afford with the amount of staffing, menu format, and space [at Will].”

Creating an entirely new restaurant with Forsythia, named for the early-budding spring flower that’s a symbol of rebirth, is the bold stroke of ambition he needed.

It’s a considerable gamble. Kearse took out loans to invest $500,000-plus into the 75-seat space that had been Capofitto, which failed, at least in part, due to a neighboring hookah-bar arson and the vagaries of tourist traffic on its Old City block.

But Forsythia shouldn’t need to rely on tourists (even if a smart lunch service could pay dividends). It deserves to become a citywide destination. Because it reflects, not just for Kearse but also the neighborhood, a welcome breath of maturity in every sense: the graceful room, the outgoing service, the appealing French wine list, well-crafted light-touch cocktails, and a menu that reveals a chef who has found a voice with a broader, more approachable appeal than Will ever had.

The space, designed by Phoebe Schuh of PS & Daughters, beautifully melds French country touches of tiled floors and rattan lampshades with industrial Old City bones of concrete walls and exposed rafters. There’s decent soundproofing (yay!) and more than enough light to see the gorgeous creations that, while perhaps not as ornate as Will’s used to be, reflect a kitchen that hasn’t lost its artful touch.

There are still plenty of edible flowers blooming across Kearse’s plates, not to mention the occasional xanthan-stabilized sauce. But classic French techniques play a far more prominent role in his cooking. One of his most compelling dishes, a superbly tender Rohan duck breast, eschews modernist moves for an old-fashioned pan roast, its Szechuan-spiced skin glazed with honey and roasted to a crackery snap alongside pickled plums, black trumpet mushrooms, cashews, and a sweet umami scoop of cherry-miso jam.

A traditional omelet, folded like a velvety blanket around a filling of Jonah crab, was topped with a tomato-blushed béarnaise called sauce Choron that would earn a five-star Yelp review from Auguste Escoffier — though I’m uncertain how many contemporary diners will order this chef’s badge of honor for dinner.

The menu’s snack section of canapés nods to more current grazing instincts and shows Kearse’s natural wit for high-low whimsy. Tender snips of fried pig tails glossed in a sweet-and-tangy sauce evoke the General Tso’s chicken he grew up eating at Hong Kong Pearl in Langhorne. Bits of ham hock get folded into airy ricotta beignets along with black truffle. The ham and cheese plate needs no real cooking, but simply shows Kearse’s good taste — the smoky pink folds of Benton’s country ham alongside an oozy spoonful of washed-rind Greensward cheese are the ultimate munchies from a knowing chef’s larder.

The smoked trout rillettes and beer-battered cornichons will have you ordering another floral-themed cocktail — perhaps the rose-infused RBG&T. Then grab a glass of melony white Jacquère from Savoie or a cherry-red Mercurey from Domaine de l’Evêché to accompany the larger plates.

The short rib was memorable for its steak-y texture, the result of a five-day process (curing, sous-vide, and a finishing roast) that arrived beneath an oniony bread crumb crust alongside a tangy house A1 sauce enriched with truffles. The bouillabaisse for two brought a feast of seafood — luscious scallops, meaty octopus arms, and a beautifully seared sea bream — over an intense lobster broth; inventive side dishes, like shiso pesto, add fresh angles to the Mediterranean classic.

It would be wrong to imply Kearse has abandoned his modernist molecular gastronomy. But the techniques are used effectively in pursuit of a larger culinary point rather than for the trick. Sodium citrate — a casein-bending salt used to produce Velveeta — allows him to transform oozy French cheeses like Époisses and raclette into frothy white sauces that are remarkably light but still genuinely potent. The chickpea panisse fries were meant for their date with Rac-leeta. And the pungent fog of aerated Époisses that rolled off the towering pommes Anna, a butter-crisped scroll of shaved potato, was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve eaten all year.

The downside of a large menu is there are relative weak spots. Forsythia has yet to master pasta, with house-extruded noodle dishes that ranged from fine (a good but unremarkable cacio e pepe) to overambitious (a sweet potato-stuffed agnolotti whose pasta seams were too crunchy). The best was a spaghetti alla chitarra, whose highlight was a sauce steeped to deep-sea richness with shrimp heads.

The desserts were nothing special, either — a trio of predictable chef moves (chocolate cake, cheesecake, a baked fruit dish) that could have been elevated by a real pastry chef. They were all upstaged by the complimentary macarons at the meal’s end.

None was a complete fail. But neither did they have the dynamic effect of so many other dishes. A pumpkin soup became more intriguing when poured over apple, puffs of grain, and a tart scoop of cranberry mousse. A Moroccan-spiced cauliflower roasted to a light char in Capofitto’s old pizza oven was set over creamy gribiche sauce greened with avocado. Even the house-baked breads were impressive.

The roasted tuna collar amandine, meanwhile, is Forsythia’s most daring dish, as well as its most divisive. And not simply because the staff asks diners to wear a linen bib. This primal wing of fin and flesh is not for everyone. It’s sliced from behind the head of a 100-pound fish, then roasted to a smoky crisp beneath a tangy dashi glaze that accents the rich, oily, slightly funky dark meat. It slides off the bone with a spoon. It was the colorful hail of garnishes over top that divided my circle, especially my friend the hearts-of-palm hater. I liked the palms’ fresh snap against the crunch of shaved almonds, but we both agreed the yuzu gel on the side was a misstep — a lonely molecular blob that got lost on its way from one of Kearse’s old plates at Will.

For the most part, though, the food at Forsythia is a clear departure for a chef who’s embraced the opportunity to write his next chapter with bold flavors and rustic pots of cassoulet. If Kearse was one of Philly’s BYOB success stories, he’s poised now to take the next big step.