Garces' Volvér overdoes the culinary performance art
There are 15 courses in the "performance" that is currently dinner at Volver, Jose Garces' jewel-box kitchen atelier in the Kimmel Center. And some of them are memorable, from the skewered takoyaki balls stuffed with salt cod among the opening snacks to a bowl of "milk & cereal" unlike anything you'd eat for breakfast.
There are 15 courses in the "performance" that is currently dinner at Volvér, Jose Garces' jewel-box kitchen atelier in the Kimmel Center. And some of them are memorable, from the skewered takoyaki balls stuffed with salt cod among the opening snacks to a bowl of "milk & cereal" unlike anything you'd eat for breakfast.
But the most telling item I was served here wasn't meant to be eaten. Between the sardine course and the live scallop, our waiter brought a silver platter bearing a phone charger: "Is your battery running low? A lot of people like to Instagram while they're here, and we wouldn't want you to run out of power."
For a grand luxe gambit that hasn't exactly been packing the crowds in, despite the draw of its celebrity chef and much-talked-about reservation system of prepaid online "tickets" (now available by phone), any social-media buzz could be helpful.
We definitely needed all the extra juice we could muster to survive the Volvér experience. We sat down at 8 p.m. and endured so much preamble that it was 40 minutes before I nibbled the crackly puff of carnitas spice-dusted pigskin that launched this nearly four-hour marathon of culinary indulgence. One that would push the bounds of our appetites and budget - about $500 for two - and test my withering patience for egocentric cooking that, ultimately, didn't add much depth to the city's culinary conversation.
Indeed, what Volvér's concept serves up is gastrono-"me!-me!-me!" - this is the tasting menu as memoir, with each dish "a food memory" annotated by a story our server promised would "make an emotional connection."
Some did. Some didn't.
We tasted echoes of Garces' travels in Iberia with sheer ribbons of lomo ham and those silver-skinned sardines (which would have been perfect without the pasty pureed eggplant garnish.) We heard about Tokyo, where he competed to become Iron Chef, as we nibbled pristine Tsukiji fish market hiramasa and madai (one night perfect, the other drowned out by its creamy horseradish foam and tart apple "snow"). There was a live scallop inspired by mentor Douglas Rodriguez (upstaged by a ham-hock ravioli in seaweed "pasta").
A wistful homage to childhood picnics with his dad brought "Kentucky Fried" squab, brilliantly upscaled with chicken mousse stuffing, a tiny biscuit over potatoes, pureed corn, and celery root slaw. Served on a plate with an image of two outstretched hands making the offering, it was a rare moment when concept and substance combined for genuine poignance.
We even saw the fruit of Garces' visit to the MOMA gift shop where, "he saw this vessel and it snowballed from there: 'How do I fill this vessel?' " said our server, imagining the inspiring moment in the chef's voice. "I won't spoil it before it arrives."
With such a cliff-hanger, the mood was, as a friend put it, positively "Garcessistic."
The vessel, a school milk carton made of glass, brought warm white asparagus milk that triggered savory sparks in my brain as it splashed over shaved summer truffles, smoked bacon nuggets, and jet-black frosted flakes made of rice. It would have been infinitely more clever, though, instead of contrived, had we been allowed to decide its brilliance for ourselves.
Without the constraints of the ethnic themes that have defined his career, Garces says, "I can stretch my culinary wings here, I can cook whatever I want."
His hardcore faithful will likely lap it all up like a mythology cocktail even if the man is absent (two of my three visits) while opening a new steakhouse in D.C. or another Distrito in the Moorestown Mall. If Volvér means "to return," should those nights be subtitled ¡Nos Vemos! ("See you later!")? The chef's absences will not be advertised.
The plates, without doubt, were still camera-ready gorgeous: ember-seared cubes of Wagyu beef posed beside crimson swipes of beet puree; nasturtium leaves floated atop lubina sea bass in a composition of rice and shrimp evocative its own ecosystem; epic salads tweezered into perfect still lifes by talented chef de cuisine, Natalie Maronski. Those dishes were examples of Volvér at its best, in which the inspirations were prime ingredients, not biography. The intricate salad was a naturalistic playground of delicate greens, creamy cauliflower panna cotta, and sublimely sweet carrots drawn from the garden at Garces' Luna Farms, lifted by tangy Meyer lemon puree and the faux "dirt" of goat-cheese crumbles tinted black with squid ink.
My phone's camera didn't waver - handy to share on social media with those who would never dream of spending this kind of money on a great meal.
But they don't need to - not in Philadelphia in 2014, which has arguably been the city's greatest year for new restaurants, many of which charge a fraction of Volvér's price and offer food (if not the soigne trappings) that is just as compelling. That fact significantly raises the bar of expectations for a project intended to mark Garces' triumphant return from empire-building to the creative kitchen spotlight, and also to give the Kimmel Center a fresh breath of cultural relevance. My experiences offered mixed success.
The makings of a four-bell dream restaurant are certainly here - a striking multimillion-dollar space (partially financed with state funds) carved into the Spruce Street side of the Kimmel Center, with a high-tech show kitchen and a glass-enclosed dining room that gazes like a fishbowl onto the sidewalk. There's serious art on the walls, a top-notch cellar chilling behind glass, and a sommelier in Gordana Kostavski who knows how to use it, whether it's grower Champagne, sake, quirky finds from the Savoie, or Ichtegem's Flemish sour ale to pair with the squab.
The à la carte lounge is the perfect place to head with a friend who announces, as mine did: "I've been killing the slot machines at SugarHouse - let's get some great Champagne!" The American caviar may not have the pop of true Siberian sturgeon, but the raw Kumamotos with squirt bottles of horseradish foam are exquisite. The cocktails are a well-crafted deal at $12. And the deconstructed tartares of Wagyu beef and ruby-red diced tuna would get me revved for a night at the symphony.
I'm not convinced, though, that Volvér's dining room has made its case quite yet as an experience worthy of a mortgage payment - at least in its current mega-tasting menu form, which will rise to $175 this fall and crest $600 (including tip and tax) for two investing in the complete food-and-wine-pairing bonanza.
Taken individually, many of these dishes are three-bell-plus material that I'd happily choose off an à la carte menu. Even with the nine-course "pretheater tasting" bargain offered at $75 for early birds during the Kimmel Center's season (not available in summer), I see its virtues.
But creating a tasting menu of this length with harmony and finesse is a delicate art. And this experience as a whole, presented over 15 courses and several hours, ultimately felt both superficial and excessive, magnifying the superfluous garnishes (chewy threads of "chicken floss"? hand-carved fennel "tears"?) as too precious, the tales of Chef's inspiration amplified to become parodies of misguided hero worship. Our appreciation doubled once we asked our server to deliver the plates without the stories.
There's a reason my favorite course was the petit pois. This tiny cup of sweet peas from Luna Farms swathed in vivid pea butter was the height of understated perfection - its soulfulness trumped many of the menu's more complex dishes.
And for all the high-tech gadgetry at Garces' disposal, I saw few novel ideas - including the faux "dirt," flavored tapiocas, powdered fats, Styrofoam-like crisps, and way too much foam - that I haven't tasted in Philly before.
Nothing risks becoming more of a cliché than the deconstructed carrot cake, a dish I've had so often in the last year that it's become the molten chocolate cake of this generation. It landed quite literally with a Course 13 thud on our table atop a massive cutting board scattered with orange sherbet, candied roots, shards of carrot Styrofoam, and tumbleweeds of spongy cake.
Could we take it to go? Even in top eating form, I didn't look forward to eating another bite. The Volvér experience would be better with the option of paying less for less.
"Sorry, this one's interactive," said our waiter, smashing a crispy white blob of nitro-frozen coconut-labne mousse to bits.
All we could do was sigh, snap an action shot for posterity, pick up the pieces, and eat.