Chef Paras Shah, who wowed at the opening of Barcelona Wine Bar on East Passyunk Avenue, has traded Spanish for French at the comfy Chez Ben, a spiffy brasserie featuring a cafe counter, and M Brown's, a bar specializing in aged spirits.
Both are in soft-opening phase on the ground floor of the newly rebranded Renaissance Downtown Philadelphia at 401 Chestnut St., the former Franklin Hotel that for years was the Omni.
The hotel used to have its dining room on the second floor of the Chestnut Street frontage; that space is now private dining and banquet.
Management wisely took over the lobby with the current setup.
Chez Ben, open from breakfast through 10 p.m. and including an all-day cafe counter, serves raw-bar items, tarte flambée, bites such as crispy chickpea fritters, French onion soup that recalls H.A. Winston's classic, and entrees such as steak frites and bison burgers, all reasonably priced.
Its bar has an extensive by-the-glass wine selection and French aperitif cocktails. Across the way, on the Fourth Street side, M Brown's serves mainly finger food that's been smoked, cured, pickled, and aged.
Ben Franklin and Francophilia imbue the whole concept: a lineup of portraits depicts Franklin's mistresses, a metal railing's design includes bifocal glasses, and waiters wear Breton striped shirts (alas, it results in an unfortunate Where's Waldo? look).
Shah, born and bred in Queens, N.Y., with a kitchen background that includes externships at Momofuku Ko and Per Se, says his menu reflects seasonality. He's also using local suppliers wherever possible.
Shah also says he had no intention of leaving Philadelphia after his departure from Barcelona.
"This place reminds me of Queens," he said, specifically comparing his block in Bella Vista with Woodhaven.