My first taste of socca was in the summer of 1990, with the Nice Jazz Festival swooning behind me in the dusky Roman ruins of the Jardin de Cimiez, and a sunny July day's worth of Côte d'Azur sea salt still crusting my skin.
As they emerged in giant round steel pans from the blazing hearth, I hungrily watched that socca, a paper-thin crepe of chickpea flour and olive oil, being scraped up in curling yellow shards and folded into paper cones to go. The heat-charred edges were irresistible, and the cake's silky-soft, earthy batter, tinged with wood fire and sea air, was gone in few bites. But that taste has lingered for me as an indelible memory of the Mediterranean - one I've craved often ever since.
Who knew it would take nearly a quarter-century to taste it again?
It arrived on a long board in Bella Vista, as the best nibbles at the Good King Tavern often do, stacked into a pile of crispy-edged triangles. And it disappeared nearly as fast, though with a couple of unexpected accoutrements: a crock of ratatouille and a mound of Bibb lettuce. Chef Paul Lyons, 29, who went on a reconnaissance trip to the south of France, the ancestral home of co-owners Chloe Grigri and her father Bernard, thought the pancakes needed a little something to jazz up his rendition for Philly.
They really didn't. But I loved his twist nonetheless, the fresh greens adding a tender crunch, and the tomatoey chunks of eggplant and zucchini lending an emphatic Provencal tone as vintage soul from Bill Withers and Dusty Springfield poured from the stereo into this boisterous South Philly bistro.
The Good King Tavern - named in honor of René d'Anjou, the 15th century ruler who was the last king of independent Provence - was not intended to be "overtly French," said Chloe Grigri, who grew up spending summers in her father's hometown of Luynes near Aix-en-Provence. At the very least, this project was intended to showcase the un-stuffy, accessible side of French culture.
And they have succeeded in many ways. Their warm revamp of the former Chick's, aided by family friend Owen Kamihira, has removed walls and made the corner space feel larger and more inviting, now with a long wood community table and booths, and cheery hues of Provencal blue and mustard for the vintage pressed-tin ceiling and walls.
There are other places nearby to get better cocktails and more craft beers. But the Good King's wine program, explained with surprising aplomb by the well-informed young staff, is just what I'd hope for from a neighborhoody French boîte. The list of 20-some bottles is mostly under $50 (with pitchers of vin du table from $20 to $30) and focused on lesser-known labels from Cahors, Alsace and Languedoc, including a crisp white Muscadet from Chateau de l'Oiselinière that gave me a craving for raw oysters.
Of course, bivalves were about the only thing Lyons didn't serve. The former George Sabatino sidekick, who worked at Stateside, Barbuzzo, and Morgan's Pier, is so enthralled with his exploration of French bistro flavors that the printed menu of 20 items, ranging from spicy grilled octopus to plank-sized "meat boards" laden with housemade sausages and pâtés, is not enough to contain him. A chalkboard of 10 more specials meets with mixed success.
I was thrilled with his urge to whip salt cod into a funky, garlicky potato crock of brandade, or fava beans into a vivid green puree over toast with garlicky sauteed maitake mushrooms. His guinea hen rilletes, confit in duck fat and shredded into a cold, unctuous spread, was essentially a knockout chicken salad.
But Lyons would also do well to stifle himself a bit, working to refine fewer dishes rather than keep adding on new challenges. I loved his take on smoked Morteau sausage, a cuminy nutmeg-scented link steeped in wine that evoked a kielbasa. But his sausages with rabbit and Toulouse-style pork were dry. The foie gras torchon was too sweet from Grand Marnier. The bacon-wrapped "country pâté" reminded too much of liverwurst.
The odd house-made "mortadella" (reminiscent of a pork roll) was the least of the croque monsieur's issues. It was too bready. Other classics, the less-than-tender snails and some very dry frog's legs (though dusted with tasty Moroccan spice), also need work.
The French onion soup was one standard I loved despite its unconventional presentation outside the usual crock - a wider bowl allowing for more cheese-encrusted house-baked crouton action, the balanced broth deeply steeped from veal stock, thyme, and onions. His crispy-skinned trout amandine, shined with brown butter, scattered with slivered almonds and haricot verts, was a retro delight and a bargain at $15. The duck confit, with meltingly soft meat beneath its crispy skin, was perfect with bitter frisee greens and smashed fingerling potatoes fried in more duck fat. There may be no $15 cut of beef in town more tasty than his rosemary-marinated skirt steak-frites, with herb butter and fries dusted with an onion-garlic powder and an umami-boost of nutritional yeast.
But Lyons' personality (and Stateside/Barbuzzo pedigree) most emerged in riffs on bistro ideas for small plates laden with seasonality and clever tweaks. The pan-roasted Brussels sprouts were scattered with the BBQ crunch of smoked hazelnuts and a Provencal undercurrent of raw garlic-basil puree. Tender artichokes poached in a white wine barigoule took an unexpected turn with smoked lentils that mimicked the meaty twang of bacon. Skewered cubes of seared monkfish were moistened with a buttery stew of spring onions, ramps, peas, baby artichokes and a fava bean-olive tapenade.
Eggplant "3 ways," though, was my favorite, a multi-technique display that didn't forget to showcase the ingredient. Baby eggplants were tenderly cooked sous-vide before a finishing pan char. Pickled cubes of eggplant added tangy little bursts. And a silky "eggplant caviar" puree at the base of this colorful medley (which also crunched with shaved raw sunchokes and purple rounds of watermelon radish) had a Mediterranean richness and a sneaky prickle of spicy heat.
The handful of desserts here are simple, but also elevated by satisfying little winks - a hazelnut brittle for the rich chocolate pot de creme, and a lavender ice cream for the brioche bread pudding.
The unmistakable perfume of the purple flower evoked a distinctive flavor of Provence - much like the opening nibble of those chickpea socca cakes. What makes the Good King Tavern so promising, though, is how easily this tavern channels that casual, south-of-France flavor for South Philly.
Bernard Grigri, his daughter Chloe, and chef Paul Lyons discuss the Good King Tavern at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats. EndText