"THAT'S THE place opening in the Le Bec-Fin spot, right? I'll wear my ascot," a buddy of mine goofed when I asked him if he'd like to join me for dinner at Avance, which opened in Center City this past weekend.
It's understandable to assume you'd need to make a Thurston Howell III neckwear statement to assimilate at this address, given the haute reputation Georges Perrier's palace of Gallic gastronomy cultivated over its four-decade run as this city's best restaurant.
It's a mentality Philadelphia-born chef Justin Bogle, who's been waiting for the chance to return to his hometown, is hell-bent on hanging up for good, though he'd prefer to let his cooking lead the conversation.
There's not much to be said about Le Bec-Fin, established by Lyonnais legend Perrier at 13th and Spruce streets in 1970 and upgraded to Walnut Street in 1983, that hasn't already been said about the reign of Louis XIV. The Sun King feel of this chandelier-draped room, rightly credited with establishing Philly's national food relevance, carried a gilded air of opulence and unattainability - the type of air the ascot-wrapped enjoy breathing.
It's an allure out-of-towners Nicolas Fanucci and Walter Abrams attempted to harness when they took the restaurant over from Perrier in mid-2012, with plans to keep the name.
Their idea was not well-received.
"It was very apparent, almost immediately, that the product and the style of service were antiquated . . . [it was] something that people clearly just didn't want," said Avance general manager Adam Olland, whose relationship with Abrams brought him from San Francisco to Philly to run what local industry types refer to as "2.0" in casual conservation.
Silent partners rang up chef Chris Scarduzio, a longtime Perrier associate, to diagnose 2.0's issues over a 10-day period. It took him three to declare it DOA.
Abrams' eventual departure necessitated the search for a new executive chef, and Scarduzio dragged his net across the country, a process that sussed out more divas than contenders. "They wanted their names on the door, they wanted to know about financial arrangements, how they're going to be marketed - me, me, me," said Scarduzio. "But Justin wasn't like that. He was such a refreshing guy to talk to."
The Roxborough guy
An even-keeled Roxborough High and Restaurant School grad who began his back-of-house career as a buser at Manayunk's River City Diner, 33-year-old Bogle is not flashy, but his resume is.
After working locally at Striped Bass and Alma de Cuba, he moved to New York City at 26 to work under another former Philly chef, Christopher Lee, at Midtown's Gilt, which carried a prestigious, two-star mark from the Michelin Guide. (There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Philly; Le Bec-Fin at one time rated five Mobil Travel Guide stars.)
When Lee left, Bogle stepped into the top role, maintaining that Michelin standard for three consecutive years before Gilt shut down in December 2012 - almost a year ago to the day that Avance, the first restaurant Bogle's been able to build from the ground up, debuted.
"I was not trying to be the chef of Le Bec-Fin 3.0. It just wasn't in the cards," said Bogle of his early conversations with Scarduzio, a managing partner in Avance. It would have to be an entirely new concept - a "new interpretation of fine dining" he'd always had sketched out in his head. They struck a deal, and "suddenly, it was like, 'Here you go, man - here's 1523 Walnut. Take it for a spin.' "
In May, Bogle had his first chance to walk the space to reimagine the restaurant on his own terms. Its name references Bogle's mentality to always advance, move forward with food.
"You second-guess yourself a lot," said the chef of the early process, which required him to opine on topics he'd never had the opportunity to consider. "We know that there's going to be a lot of eyes on the space itself, not even just the food."
The physical transformation is as shocking as it is refreshing. Sleek, modern gray, wood and leaf-festooned green walls have replaced the let-them-eat-cake look, and the servers, sharp in tailored suits, do the atmosphere justice. But the kitchen, redesigned to Bogle's specs, is where the most transformative work is taking place.
About the food
The meticulous, modernist bent to food that earned Bogle so much attention in New York, is apparent throughout Avance's menu, which features both a la carte and two fixed-price routes: an $87 five-courser (closer to eight, with canapes and mid-courses), and a $138 chef's tasting option in the 12- to 13-dish range.
Jerusalem artichokes are cooked sous-vide in buttermilk whey before they're roasted and added to a salad that also features compressed Seckel and red crimson pears.
An arctic char dish comes topped with a crackable eighth-inch-thick disc of green apple and fennel juice made on an antigriddle, a flash-freezing flat surface.
Served with a powdered yogurt and black cardamom "snow," Bogle's foie gras gains its smooth, wavy look thanks to a Thermomix, a blender with a customizable heating element.
He's still poking around for the perfect application for his Gastrovac, which can create instant flavor infusions in a vacuum chamber.
"I don't know where it came from, his creative side," said Arthur Cavaliere, chef of In Riva in East Falls, who's been friends with Bogle since the third grade. "He's a Roxborough kid who grew up playing roller hockey, and he suddenly came out with this next-level food."
But Bogle will be the first to insist that his most advanced meanderings are tempered by old-school discipline. "It's not sci-fi," he said. "Do we know a lot of those techniques? Yes. Will we implement a lot of those techniques? Yes. But it's not the driving force of the restaurant. It's rooted in fundamentals."
A perfect example of such duality is Avance's steak entree. A roasted local strip is joined by elements like sous-vide smoked potatoes and creamed spinach pureed in a PacoJet - along with what Bogle calls "Chef Perrier Sauce," an old-school beef jus base enlivened by port, cognac and Madeira, and mounted with foie gras butter.
It's much too early to tell if Philly's dining public, which has an unpredictable track record with fine dining of all formats, will embrace Avance, but Scarduzio hopes people will recognize that the guy running the line has reinvested himself in his hometown. "To close [Le Bec-Fin] down and have some chef from New York come in here and take it over would be a tragedy," he said. "I just want Philadelphia to give him a chance."
"He stopped being my friend probably 20 years ago - he's been family ever since," said Cavaliere. "It's good to finally have him home."