A new French flourish
Dining a la francaise is a la mode once again in Philadelphia.
Take a stroll down East Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia's buzziest dining strip, and you can taste any number of flavors that have defined the city's menu trends in the last decade, from craft cocktails to hipster Mexican, handmade salumi, and wood-fired pizza, washed down with a veritable river of craft beer.
But now suddenly, there are also soubise, snails, and cassoulet. Foie gras comes seared with spiced cream cheese or whipped with rabbit rillettes. Boudin noir (blood pudding) is back - très back - because French food has reemerged in a big, big way.
I realize it wasn't so long ago that French cuisine was pronounced, pretty much globally, to be dead and irrelevant.
But the proof is in the current soufflé of hot options: Four French restaurants - including Fond, Will, Townsend, and Laurel - have opened on or near East Passyunk within the last couple of years. And it mirrors a citywide resurgence. At least a quarter of the restaurants I've reviewed in 2014 either call themselves French (Le Chéri, Paris Bistro, Good King Tavern), or weave distinct Gallic accents through their menus, from the escargots "à la Georges Perrier" at Treemont to the soubise sauces and tartares at Pub & Kitchen, to the Bordelaise-sauced burgers at Crow & the Pitcher, where Le Bec-Fin's refurbished Christofle cheese cart trundles once again in its gleaming silver glory.
"Yes, it is back, and I'm glad because it was worrying me a bit," said Jean-Marie Lacroix, the former chef at Fountain Restaurant and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse known as "Papa" to his many proteges.
Along with Perrier, of course, Lacroix helped set the city's gold standard for luxury dining in the 1980s and '90s, training a generation of cooks in the fundamentals and helping put Philadelphia on the national map.
But that was then. In recent years, the stuffy trappings of haute cuisine, heavy sauces, and formal service had all but evaporated (along with Walnut Street's Restaurant Row) beneath the waves of BYOBs, Nuevo Latino ceviches, Asian fusion dumplings, farm-to-table small plates, Neapolitan pizzerias, molecular-gastro foams, Spanish tapas, Korean tacos, whiskey-bar pickles, and wild edibles foraged in the New Nordic style.
"Cuisine is cyclical, just like music and clothing," said Paul Lyons, who's cooking chickpea socca cakes, duck confit, and other Provençal flavors at Bella Vista's Good King Tavern.
"It's undeniable that French food was out of fashion," said Townsend "Tod" Wentz, a Lacroix acolyte who's now chef-owner of Townsend. "The increase in casualness - we covered that in the gastropub phase. But people do want to dine again."
It may well be a matter of generational timing, as a wave of young cooks who at some point trained under either Perrier or Lacroix have simply come of age to open their own restaurants.
"They were working in other people's places so they could make their mistakes elsewhere, because you can't open a restaurant when you're 20," said Charlotte Calmels, who co-owns Bibou and Le Chéri with chef-husband Pierre Calmels, a Lyonnais and former chef at Le Bec.
There was always, to be sure, a steady drumbeat à la Marseillaise pulsing softly in the background as survivors like Olivier de St. Martin (Caribou Cafe, Zinc Bistro), Patrice Rames (Bistro St. Tropez), Michele Haines (Spring Mill Cafe), Peter Woolsey (Bistrot La Minette), and the Calmelses' Bibou more than held their own. Stephen Starr's mega-bistro, Parc, was recently noted by Restaurant News Magazine as the city's most profitable restaurant, with an estimated $11.9 million in gross sales.
But what has emerged with this latest popular wave of Franco-Philly Dining 2.0 represents a stunning range of interpretations of what French cuisine has become - and with the talents to make it as relevant as ever, from Top Chef Nick Elmi's deconstructed cassoulet and cocoa-marbled foie gras at Laurel, to the gleaming copper pan of unrepentantly classic choucroute for two served at Townsend's bar, just a few doors away.
At one end of the spectrum informed by the French biblical teachings of Larousse Gastronomique, no one produces the forgotten standards like quenelles or boudin noir with as much grace and soul as Pierre Calmels at Le Chéri. Chris Kearse at Will BYOB, meanwhile, paints his gorgeous plates with an avant-garde mastery of modern techniques often associated with Spanish cuisine. But underneath that foamy pouf of ham dashi, there are court-bouillon-poached snails in truffled red wine sauce. Scallops are sauced with vivid green Chartreuse. Duck comes with orange-caramelized Belgian endive.
"The combinations are very, very French. The whole philosophy of these dishes is French," says Kearse, whose restaurant, after my most recent exceptional meal, has been elevated to three bells (see "Good Taste" on F3).
Of course, a few years ago, many of these restaurants could just as easily have been called "New American," that pervasive catchall label that spoke to the desire of American chefs to roam free without the constraints of any ethnic borders.
But what defines the current wave as French, perhaps even more than any particular repertoire of touchstone flavors, is a renewed fervor for the hands-on basic skills, from stock-making to bread-baking and charcuterie, that was always lurking at the roots of the American culinary revolution.
"French cuisine is what everyone learns at culinary school," said Lyons, who said he's now "having a blast" with the daily tasks of making terrines and duck confit at Good King after a hectic summer turn at Morgan's Pier deep-frying burgers that, as a high-tech experiment in cooking for the masses, had been cooked sous-vide then frozen in liquid nitro.
For the many other young cooks who never quite found such occasion to re-embrace those fundamentals - skipping straight to agar-agar and meat glue instead of learning to properly reduce a sauce or roll a torchon - chefs like Wentz can see you: "You stick out like a sore thumb. You still need to be able to do it with your hands."
After a decade of other culinary infatuations and trends, this return to French ideas, old masters like Jean-Marie Lacroix agree, is a good thing: "What some of these chefs are cooking today is different, maybe a little lighter, and a little cleaner from the things we've learned along the way," he says. "But sometimes, when you can go back and do something over again, you will do a better job."
The Good King Tavern Socca recipe accompanying this article has been corrected. There should be 2 cups of chickpea flour and 4 cups water.
Choucroute Garnie from Townsend
Makes 4 to 8 servings
2 large onions, peeled, halved, sliced thin
4 packs Kissling's sauerkraut
4 smoked pork hocks (or knuckle)
2 cups white wine
4 bay leaves
6 large thyme sprigs, tied in a bundle
16 juniper berries
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into large pieces, parboiled
Black pepper, ground, to taste
1 pound slab bacon, skin off, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 pound smoked pork loin, trimmed, cut into ½-inch slices
4 fresh pork hocks
4 beerwurst (or subwurst or kielbasa)
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a pot large enough to hold all the ingredients, sweat the sliced onions over medium heat until translucent.
2. Add the sauerkraut, smoked pork hocks (and fresh if utilizing), white wine, bay leaves, thyme, juniper berries, and season with ground black pepper. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook in oven for 2 hours, or until the hocks fall off the bone.
3. Add the potatoes and wursts and cook 30 more minutes, or until they are cooked and hot inside.
4. While wursts are cooking, saute the bacon and smoked pork loin in a separate pan over medium heat until browned.
5. When everything is hot, adjust for taste with salt and pepper, then garnish with cooked bacon and smoked pork loin and serve.
Per serving (based on 8, without optional ingredients): 937 calories; 54 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; 57 grams fat; 166 milligrams cholesterol; 2,918 milligrams sodium; 6 grams dietary fiber.
Good King Tavern Socca
Makes 8 socca cakes
2 cups chickpea flour
4 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1. Combine all ingredients thoroughly in a blender. It should be about the same texture as pancake batter.
2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place a 9-inch cast-iron pan (preferably heavy-bottomed) in oven.
3. After 30 minutes, carefully remove hot pan from oven. Put 2 tablespoons of canola oil in cast-iron pan and then ladle 6 ounces of the socca batter into the pan. Tilt and rotate pan to cover bottom and place in oven.
4. After 10 minutes, check to make sure socca is crispy throughout; if still slightly wet, cook for an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from pan with spatula and cut into wedges. Repeat to make the rest of the soccas. Serve.
Per cake: 840 calories; 29 grams protein; 92 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams sugar; 42 grams fat; no cholesterol; 1,199 milligrams sodium; 27 grams dietary fiber.
Good King Tavern Ratatouille
Makes 2 quarts
10-12 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cups eggplant, peeled and diced medium
2 cups zucchini, diced medium
1 cup red pepper, sliced
1 cup Spanish onion, sliced
10 whole garlic cloves, ends removed
1 tablespoon thyme, chopped
2 pounds canned crushed tomatoes
Salt and pepper
1. In a Dutch oven or deep sauce pot, saute each vegetable separately in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. (The zucchini and eggplant will need additional olive oil as they cook because they tend to absorb the oil.)
2. Combine all vegetables, add the garlic, thyme, and crushed tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until thickened, about 20 minutes. Check for seasoning. Fold in chopped parsley just before serving. Bon appétit.
Per serving (based on 8): 227 calories; 4 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 18 grams fat; no cholesterol; 222 milligrams sodium; 6 grams dietary fiber.