The Parc factor cannot be ignored.
After all, 10 years ago this weekend, chef Joe Monnich and Justin Weathers were part of the opening team for the Stephen Starr mega-brasserie that brought a vintage Parisian shimmer to Center City and became the defining restaurant of Rittenhouse Square.
So, naturellement, it was assumed that when Monnich and Weathers opened the Bercy in April inside the grandly rehabbed bones of the former Haverford Trust bank (more recently, the space was Primavera Kitchen), Ardmore would finally get its own steak-frites taste of Parc's buzzy Franco-glamour.
The steak-frites they certainly have delivered, with a choice of cuts from bistro (bavette) to deluxe (the lightly dry-aged N.Y. strip) that get broiled to perfection, butter-dunked and served beside a pile of irresistible fries with a dollop of maître d' butter melting lusciously over the meat. Yes, more butter. This menu that plays enthusiastically to the familiar French canon from the escargots to boeuf bourgignon. And Monnich — a former lead chef at Parc and C.I.A. grad who worked for Susanna Foo and Jean-Georges Vongegrichten before several years with Starr (he also ran the Dandelion) — knows what he's doing. His molten crock of French onion soup, rich with blond beef stock, sweet onions, and croutons of house-baked baguette, has a tangy lid heat-bubbled raclette and gruyère that can stretch skyward with the best of them.
But from the moment I handed my keys to the valet (complimentary — yay, suburbs!), stepped past the big yellow clock, and entered through the scalloped glass-and-iron canopy inside the soaring space, I realized this ambitious brasserie, as beautiful as it is, is a very different animal from Parc. For one, with no outdoor seating, the Bercy is a self-contained universe that does not benefit from the lively streetscape and sidewalk views that inject Parc with priceless urban energy and allow it, in turn, to reciprocate with an elegant cafe glow that enhances the Square.
The Bercy's multimillion-dollar interior is nonetheless an impressive destination, with ruffled fabric chandeliers hanging like giant muffin cups from 30-foot ceilings, intricate Parisian tile work, teal leather chairs, and a base of golden onyx that glows from the long, circular bar near the entrance where a soigné set swirls frosty coupes of ginny Aviations, martinis and sparkling French 75s. But the energy here is noticeably sedate, in part because the massive 210-seat restaurant is divided into multiple levels and different zones that give it several distinct personalities: the artsy second-floor private room (the Atrium) favored by midday power-lunchers; the cushy captain chairs of the mezzanine; the see-and-be-seen "stage" of the main-floor dining room, whose bentwood bistro chairs overlook the bustling bar scene.
You're more likely to run into this posh older crowd at the White Dog Cafe in Wayne or Enoteca Tredici in Bryn Mawr than the hip breweries (Tired Hands), adventurous gastropub (the Ripplewood), and international restaurants (Maido!, Bam Bam Kitchen, Jason's Toridasu, El Limon) that have helped make Ardmore the Main Line's cool-kid hub. And I wish the Bercy, in the spirit of a brasserie as a true reflection of its community, could find a way to tap a bit more into that youthful spirit.
Weathers and Monnich have captured exactly that at their Stove & Tap, the multi-floor American bistro and bar that's become a lively anchor of Lansdale's resurgence. So they know it when they see it. And people forget that Parc went through plenty of its own growing pains the first year, changing chefs, recalibrating its systems, and shuffling through a huge amount of front-house staff before it settled in to become the humming machine of a do-it-all neighborhood institution that it is today.
I expect the Bercy to keep evolving here, even if it's perhaps unfair to expect it to ever emulate Parc's indispensable role as a cornerstone restaurant with such a universal appeal. But for now, it's certainly tapping into Ardmore's more sophisticated side, and making a fresh case for the timeless appeal of French classics.
A crock of French onion is always a good place to start, but the frothy asparagus soup with a blooming cloud of Parmesan foam is where I'd head for lighter summer eating. Ripe, yellow tomatoes brought a farm-market touch to a flaky pastry crust layered with creamy sheep's milk ricotta, arugula pesto, and a sweet-tart balsamic drizzle.
A proper brasserie raw bar should have more than the two oysters choices the Bercy offered at my visit. But they were well shucked, with briny Wellfleets and the cucumber-melon delicacy of Washington state Capitals to pair with my crisp glass of sauvignon blanc from Ateliers Raspail in the Loire's Touraine. The Bercy's sommelier, Steven Gullo, ably helped us navigate the many good (and reasonably priced) options of the restaurant's two dozen wines by the glass, three-quarters of which are French.
Other raw bar delights — perfectly poached shrimp cocktail, sweet king crab legs, and cured yellowtail crudo with the novel touch of a curried aioli — were a fine way to start. The razor clams, diced into tender discs and sautéed warm with guanciale before being stuffed back into their slender shells, were an adventure bite worth ordering. The little fritters of creamy, smoked whitefish topped with salty jewels of trout roe nestled in crème fraîche were an elegant take on brandade.
Monnich's kitchen also does a fine job with its charcuterie, especially the coarse-ground chicken-mushroom pâté scented with Madeira. I also wouldn't miss the "foie gras brûlée," a brandied mousse of sublimely creamy liver formed into a little brick that gets caramelized with a blowtorch, then served with chopped pistachios and salted cherries over a pistachio puree that's far tastier than its drab green schmear suggests.
I would have loved the steak tartare had the filet mignon been minced a little finer and if the dressing had more mustard punch. The creamy gratin of oysters and artichokes with tasso ham is another fabulous idea, but par-cooking those oysters for consistency left them chewier than I prefer.
And as much as I actually did like the escargots, the distracting addition of like-textured mushrooms to the little divots of bubbling green herb butter took away from the delicacy of what were some really excellent, tender snails. They're served so hot, by the way, that I'm still not sure my singed taste buds have fully recovered. But the best part might have been the crusty loaf of "epi" bread (a mini-baguette shaped like wheat sheaf) served alongside for dipping. It was one of several good breads that Monnich bakes in-house.
The entrées here are solid, if not amazing, but would satisfy my occasional craving for a perfectly pan-crisped fillet of trout amandine, served over a raft of haricots verts in a puddle of brown butter and slivered almonds. A grilled fillet of branzino ("loup de mer") over a piperade of ribboned roasted peppers offers an equally good but lighter Basque-country take on fish.
The boeuf bourgignon is textbook cold-weather comfort, the morsels of prime-grade short-rib braised to tenderness in an intense wine gravy studded with lardons and mushrooms over snappy ribbons of house-made pappardelle. The lobster Thermidor, meanwhile, was a fun retro indulgence of a butter-poached lobster that's split open and stuffed with crab, though the Newburg sauce was a tad drier than expected, and the side of Brussels sprouts was an odd choice as a summer garnish.
The rotisserie roasted duck was one dish that truly disappointed, a thick pad of unrendered fat still ringing its breast, whose meat was also threaded with a sinew. But the big and juicy burger more than compensated, its half-pound patty of lightly packed Creekstone beef topped with raclette — not unlike the burger that's also one of Parc's best-sellers. Actually, I like the Bercy's a little better, because it shows the brasserie's more casual side has some genuine magnetic appeal.
The desserts here offer the soft landing of various mousses, soufflés, and tartes that were fine, but could benefit from more intensity of flavor. (Hey, pot de crème buried curiously deep inside a chalice of mocha fluff, I'm looking at you.) The bananas Foster bread pudding was one satisfyingly rich exception.
But the best finale here is really a platter of fromage, which comes with some nice options — including Ossau Iraty, Tomme de Savoie, pungent Tête de Moine, and a rare, perfectly ripe wedge of my absolute favorite, Époisses, which I'm glad to know Monnich and Weathers do not think is too stinky for delicate Main Line taste buds. Add a glass of Sauternes, Armagnac or old Calvados for good measure, and that sounds like a nice send-off.
If only the service staff, which at times struggled with a forced formality, hadn't made such an awkward show of confidently butchering the pronunciation of every cheese, misidentifying multiple milk sources, and then repeatedly touting the Époisses as made of raw milk, which would be illegal. (Sadly.)
It's just the kind of early-days blooper that shows the Bercy's green staff still has work to do to lose some of its starchy pretense and settle in to fill the more comfortable role of a genuinely accessible brasserie. It can take a while to get it right, as Parc itself has shown. And the Bercy will need just that — some more time to evolve and refine an identity of its own to become the distinctive neighborhood brasserie that rising Ardmore deserves.