Res Ipsa an airy space with many personalities
Res Ipsa is among Craig LaBan's best of Philadelphia.
The Latin phrase "res ipsa loquitur" is, apparently, a legal term that means "the thing speaks for itself. "
Hmmm … that's interesting, because over the last few months, I'd been thinking it meant either "house of the awesome Egg McMuffin makeover" or "favorite new Italian BYOB."
It turns out to be both of those and much more, which is why Res Ipsa, the restaurant, needs plenty of explaining. After all, how can such an airy little space — a spare box lined with blond wood banquettes, floor-to-ceiling windows, and just 26 seats in front of an open kitchen — have so many different personalities?
It's a 7 a.m. cafe hub at the western edge of Center City for one of the city's best roasters, ReAnimator Coffee. It's a morning stop for cheffy handpies stuffed with cauliflower and mushrooms, anise-scented plums or cocoa-laced caponata. It's a bustling lunch nook for soulful soups and sandwiches that might give you new feelings for eggplant.
And it morphs at night into something even more compelling, when the dangling globe lights turn down low into Italian BYOB mode, the sublime pastas and whole agrodolce chickens start appearing, and this kitchen becomes an unexpected showcase for one of the city's rising culinary stars, first-time executive chef Michael Vincent Ferreri.
An inventive take on caponata brings a vegetable riot of textures and flavors, with myriad roots cooked in separate methods — caramelized carrots, lemon-steamed parsnips, chili-roasted celery root, and snappy ribbons of pickled butternut squash — tossed with walnuts and pomegranate seeds in a sweet-tart emulsion of dates and honey. A perfect arm of flavorful grilled octopus, curling tenderly over escarole like a grilled bass clef edged by crispy suckers, comes with tangy dots of squid ink agrodolce for dipping. Hand-twisted tubes of semolina trofie pasta with sautéed mushrooms and marjoram doesn't look like much. But with mushroom stock moistening the noodles instead of pasta water, it takes on a long and resonant savor.
Co-owner Tyler Akin, the Asian noodle maven who also owns Fishtown's Stock, is a law school dropout — which explains the name. His partnership here with the duo behind ReAnimator, Mark Corpus and Mark Capriotti, explains the high-level coffee program that keeps the mornings buzzing, as Walnut Street Bridge commuters pop by for a handpie to go and "coffice" workers park their laptops at a marble table to linger and write. It's the perfect moment to spend some quality breakfast time with what I like to call the "McIpsa Muffin," a square frittata sandwiched by a house-baked English muffin with melty Asiago, a cardamom-scented fennel sausage patty, and a salsa verde of parsley, lemon, and long hots that has lasting zing.
But it's Akin's friendship and history with Ferreri, forged when the two worked the line at Zahav, that is a key to what makes Res Ipsa special.
The trend of all-day cafés — restaurants that transform into distinct formats as the day shifts from breakfast through lunch and dinner — is not new to Philly. High Street on Market, Talula's Daily, Double Knot, and Hungry Pigeon all do it very well. Res Ipsa is the most minimalist of them all, in equal parts due to its size, its lack of liquor license, and an austere but appealing design by Ambit Architecture that has an almost sunny, Nordic feel.
Ferreri, who's learned well from mentors such as Michael Solomonov, George Sabatino at Aldine, and especially Joey Baldino at Zeppoli, is able to channel refined minimalism with his food, drawing layers of depth from his Sicilian-inspired menu which, like that mushroom pasta, often defies the appearance of simplicity.
The silky handmade folds of fazzoletti look plain but snap beneath a lemony orange glaze of a citrus sauce sparked with shaved bottarga roe. Toothy semolina gnocchi in spicy tomato sauce bump against nuggets of fried eggplant that melt away like creamy pats of nightshade butter. A tangle of spaghetti with cockles, so clean and oceanic, as well as an off-menu special of square-cut tonnarelli in a cacio e pepe sauce, amped by toasted black pepper, Pecorino, and nutty brown butter, were as good as any I've tasted in Philly.
The over-garlicked escarole Caesar at lunch was one of the few dishes I didn't love. In fact, the overcrowded and chaotic lunch hour is probably Res Ipsa's weakest service.
The prices at dinner, though, with entrées mostly in the low $20s (and half-portion pastas available for $13), are incredibly reasonable. But the $50 chef's tasting, coordinated deftly by the charming staff, is the best way to sample an array of what this kitchen can do.
Among the small-plate starters, don't miss the insalata verde, a lettuce-less salad where each morsel is a sign of spring — ramps, peas, fava beans, asparagus — magnified by a vinaigrette made from whey, a by-product of the house ricotta. A mound of fresh diced lamb tartare, lemony, minted, and crunchy with bits of pickled fennel stalks, is a beautiful homage to Zahav, sided with some clever risotto rice crackers that are a nod to Aldine. The plump Portuguese sardines, simply grilled and dabbed with olive oil and lemon, are a clear tribute to Zeppoli and perfect in their unfettered presentation — not unlike the rustic soup at lunch with heirloom Abruzzi beans, escarole, and ash-roasted garlic.
And yet, in this spare, bright space where every economy is decisive, Ferreri is expressing a culinary identity that is ultimately becoming his own. I taste it in the stellar vegetarian sandwich option for lunch — a thick round of clove-spiced fried eggplant on a house-baked bun with tomato jam that eats like a garden juice bomb. I taste it in the little touches, like the orange zest and piquant anchovy oil that elevate the deeply charred (yet still crunchy) cauliflower starter to another level — just when I thought Philly didn't need another cauliflower dish. Grilled broccolini basks in a warm vinaigrette that adds a meaty luster from rendered lamb bacon.
The large-format sharing dishes that culminate dinner also show this talent, finding nuances in familiar foods like chicken and whole fish. It starts with the stellar family-style sides — the amazingly crunchy potatoes roasted in smoky vegetable ash salt, a spicy long hot pepper, a quenching fennel-citrus salad, and peppery broccoli rabe. Then it's a matter of finesse and good taste, like choosing a sea-forward dorade (as opposed to the milder, more common branzino), stuffing it with herbs, and serving it deboned in all its moist glory, striped with salsa verde, along with its head and meaty collars splayed like wings flying off the side of the plate.
The whole chicken, meanwhile, has become a cliché of the modern restaurant, the perpetual object of upscale comfort refinements. But Res Ipsa's is already one of the city's best birds, salt-cured, then roasted upside down for maximum juiciness before a flip and finishing roast that turns its skin into a tawny crisp of poultry parchment. The deep-brown agrodolce sauce, fortified stock turned sweet and sour with sugar and vinegar, is every bit as irresistible as the "country sweet" wing sauce that inspired it from Ferreri's upbringing in Rochester, N.Y.
So many personal histories, enduring kitchen relationships, evolving demographics, and broader trends can go into the creation of yet another fashionable day part cafe-restaurant. And yet when almost every bite is so thoughtfully crafted, and the overall results so outweigh the expectations of a minimalist vanilla box of a room, a critic can only shrug, proclaim "Res Ipsa!" and suggest you go. The food at this little gem, in all its personalities and many parts, really does speak for itself.