Before one gets to play with luxuries like Scottish game birds served with tableside pomp, a young chef must first learn to honor the scraps.
And that is exactly what Richard Cusack did for several months at Restaurant Daniel when he started at the celebrated New York restaurant as staff-meal cook, transforming the daily trim of zucchini guts into tempura, cabbage cores into slaw for chicken sandwiches, and discarded fish tails into mousse for quenelles and ballotines to feed a crew of 60-plus people each day.
Such humble beginnings are essential for any aspiring restaurateur — for its lesson that nothing should go to waste, for its work ethic-building grind, and especially for its creative challenges: Even scraps can impress when handled with skill.
Since Cusack and his wife, Christina, launched June BYOB this summer, the chef has no doubt drawn deeply on the resourcefulness he honed over a year and a half of varied responsibilities at Daniel, along with experiences at other notable French restaurants such as Bibou, Le Chéri, Parc, and the end-days of Le Bec-Fin. Simply finding another cook to keep up with him in this two-person kitchen dedicated to the labor-intensive techniques of classic French cooking — from sauces to charcuterie and chocolate mousse — had been a challenge until he landed his current sous-chef, Thomas McMonagle.
“A lot of chefs come in and can make me a gelée — but they can’t make a béarnaise,” said Cusack. “Thomas has been a godsend.”
Cusack has a wide support network, from the family members who helped him revamp the little 28-seat space that was previously Will BYOB, to his old boss and mentor, Bibou chef Pierre Calmels, who popped by for an unannounced visit one day, then rolled up his sleeves for hours to help his former chef de cuisine clean the kitchen.
It was an appropriately DIY beginning for one small new chapter in East Passyunk’s latest restaurant makeover, and one definitely worth cheering for. This is a pivotal moment for the Avenue, which has lost more than half a dozen first-wave pioneers who helped transform this South Philly strip into one of the city’s prime restaurant districts. It’s going to need some new hits to remain energized.
But given June BYOB’s daunting prices (from $30 an entrée on up) and decidedly retro take on French cuisine, I have to wonder about its impact. Are truffled duck-stuffed cabbages and precious wood pigeons crushed “à la presse" going to save the Avenue from its recent stumble in momentum? Delicious as they were, I’m not entirely convinced.
This is not to criticize June’s quality so much as its broader relevance. While it’s got charm, it will likely only appeal to a niche crowd. For those who cherish the Philly tradition of ambitious indie BYOBs and especially those who pine for the old days when Bibou was still à la carte, June has become a new happy place.
Puff-pastry crowns of vol-au-vents tilt like top hats over creamy sautées of scallops and crab in a beurre blanc sauce enriched with sea urchin. Terra-cotta crocks of cassoulet arrive with flavorful beans sporting legs of duck confit, house garlic sauce, and tender hunks of pork shoulder. Deboned chicken legs stuffed with foie gras anchor coq au vin’s brothy wine sauce studded with lardons over house-made pappardelle.
Fans of fleeting seasonal game and arcane kitchen gadgets, meanwhile, should bring their wallets if they’re determined to experience the “presse” in action. Servers Ricky Lorenzo and David Sandoval deftly debone roasted Scottish grouse ($85) and pigeon ($50) on a tableside cart, then finish the rare breasts in a pan. Each turn of the wheel on the antique press between them crushes the cut-up carcass and innards inside, extracting every last trickle of juice.
With the addition of blood and a splash of Macallan to thicken the simmering sauce, the dark meat’s savor was extraordinarily heady and giblet-forward — distilling the birds’ wild essence. Served over wheat berries with cranberries and pumpkin puree, the larger grouse was memorably gamy in a good way, like duck but far more intense. The smaller Scottish pigeon? Tasty enough to try once. But I’m not eyeing its untouchable Rittenhouse cousins with any new hunger.
Of course, when it comes time to flambé, it’s a tight squeeze in this dollhouse of a room, which explains why the tableside shows stop on busy weekends. Cusack, who spent time saving for the project while private-cheffing for Sixers star Joel Embiid, designed the royal blue-and-white room himself with carpentry help from his brother and father (both pro tradesmen). They did their best to dampen the sound challenges with wainscoting, plus linens for the table and a large rug. But it can only help so much when this space is at capacity and flowing with some of the guests’ collector-grade wines.
Then again, Cusack’s cooking — which is as retro as the gold-plated silverware and crystal-dripping sconces — is built for classic French crus, an Larousse Gastronomique-inspired version of Gallic cuisine with more cream, roux, and stock-based sauces in two meals than I’ve consumed in the past few months combined. June provides a reminder of just how delicious that can be.
Tender sweetbreads are roasted with chestnuts and fava beans, then tossed with a veal suprême sauce (its roux thickened with rice flour to keep it gluten-free). Filet tips are minced into a tangy tartare sparked with pickled huckleberries, white balsamic, Dijon, and citrus. Creamy butternut squash soup gets a tint of intrigue from espresso brewed into the broth. Lobster bodies are roasted to a deep-brown bisque that’s deglazed with sherry and cream, then poured tableside over wheat berries and winter truffles.
That soup was a more satisfying lobster preparation than a later meal’s pasta special, which brought precious few bits of crustacean (for $22) and brittle noodles that were more like sheer fettuccine than the advertised spaghetti alla chitarra — usually a sturdy, square-cut strand. More consistency and finesse are what holds June back from truly earning the “Baby Bibou” nickname I’ve already heard some early fans begin to whisper.
An oozy gratin special of potatoes with raclette Mornay (more roux!) lacked the bite and contrast needed to give that crock of richness-upon-richness some dimension. I loved the rustic savor of the lamb shank pot au feu, but for $36, it was a disappointingly stringy mallet of meat bobbing in broth with root veggies. There are many good things at June BYOB, but good value is not always one of them.
June’s service staff is also a step shy of perfect. These cheerful veterans of Le Bec-Fin and Le Cheri ably balance old-school formality with genuine warmth — but sometimes they work on autopilot. No sooner had my guest requested a dish without caviar (“I don’t eat fish eggs”) than she was presented one minute later a complimentary amuse-bouche covered with salmon roe.
But when the 32-year-old chef and his team hit his mark, this food can be deeply satisfying. A classic cabbage roll (chou farci) gets a stuffing upgrade with ground duck, foie gras, and truffles before it’s nestled into a bowl of creamy polenta — so good I began to eat more slowly to savor its comfort. Another memorable showcase for duck delivered three preparations on one plate: a seared slice of foie gras draped over a crispy-skinned breast, a daisy-shaped ravioli stuffed with mushroom duxelles, and whipped duck confit rillettes. With tiny, colorful borage flowers scattered over its wild rice and butternut squash, it was as beautiful as it was delicious.
Like many new restaurants with small staffs, June’s dessert offerings are limited and conventional. I’d suggest opting for the fromage if they’re showcasing one of excellent cheeses we had (Époisses; Tomme de Savoie; Langres). There was also a solid version of tarte Tatin.
Far less predictable was the gâteau crèpe, an elegant stack of crèpes — 22 layers high, each one spread with chocolate mousse — cut into a thick wedge, and set on end over a vanilla-scented puddle of crème anglaise. Did it taste like the future of East Passyunk Avenue? Not quite. But it was a sweet finale nonetheless to June BYOB’s earnest debut.