The international headlines on Nov. 13 were horrific as I headed out to my first meal at Restaurant Neuf. As someone who had lived in Paris for a couple of years, my mind couldn't help but linger over the scenes of Boulevard Voltaire, where terror that night had transfixed the globe.
Of course, the confluence of world events and a Philadelphia dinner reservation is completely random. But the subtle irony of visiting a bistro devoted to melding French and North African flavors that night was impossible to ignore.
France's relationship with the Arab world is intimate and complex on both political and culinary levels. My first Parisian meal ever was a couscous royal. Many of my neighbors there were Moroccan. I wondered: How tense was the mood that night at my old go-to spot for merguez?
All was peacefully calm in the Italian Market, as is typical once the stores close at night. But there was an unusually bright glow in the heart of Ninth Street's canopied sidewalk.
If I squinted just enough, it easily morphed into a vision of a European market - and the new Restaurant Neuf looked very much like a thriving slice of Paris in a happier time. Diners clinked glasses of good Languedoc red at tables just inside the angled cafe windows and richly tiled facade. Chilled cocktails and forks bearing crisply fried oysters flashed in the patina glow of vintage lights that dangled over the large back bar.
And there was chef-owner Joncarl Lachman, welcoming guests as the ultimate patron du bistro. His mustachioed smile and gregarious welcome were tailor-made for the role, one part comforting host, the other eager showman dramatically lifting lids off tureens and tagines tableside to release fragrant billows of steam.
My first intoxicating voilà! whiff was of prawns steamed "en papillotte" foil, the meaty shrimp dusted in the sweet spice of house-ground ras-el-hanout scented with caraway, fennel, and rose. A delicate quail stuffed with dates and onions bobbed over a raft of chickpeas in earthy harira soup. Oysters crusted in bulgur came with a tartar tinged with preserved lemon.
My second burst of tagine steam, though, was not quite what I'd hoped for. The lamb tagine was a stringy mess of shredded meat and disintegrated vegetables smushed over couscous. It would have been far more preferable with more carefully cooked chunks of meat in a brothier stew. But more perplexing was the seasoning, so muted (just a whisper of cinnamon) that a blindfold test would never have elicited "North African" as the provenance of inspiration.
The technical slip on an elemental stew was a surprise mostly because Lachman's culinary missteps have been few since his return to Philly with Noord, his Dutch-inspired eetcafé off East Passyunk Avenue that's one of my favorite BYOBs. The two places tap strikingly different culinary traditions, though there are stylistic similarities in his rustic approach, with good ingredients and generous servings.
The bouillabaisse at Neuf, for example, is a comfortable middle ground, served grandma-style inside a huge Emile Henry crock. It's also a treasure of delicately cooked seafood, with tender shrimp, clams and a crispy-skinned whole perch set beneath rouille-smeared toast in a saffron broth fragrant with wine and natural seafood juice.
But the cream, smoke, and pickles of Lachman's Northern European palate at Noord are a far jaunt from the warm spice and piquance of the southern Mediterranean. And when it comes to the exotic seasonings of the more African dishes, I'm not convinced his kitchen at Neuf has quite as firm a grasp yet on its core flavors as it does at Noord.
Several good ideas simply needed more focus. Such as the Egyptian kusheri macaroni and lentil salad filled with rice that was clumpy and overcooked. Or the caponata-like eggplant salad that was bland and too ice-cold. Or a "spicy" goat leg stew that erred in the opposite direction, with spice that ran away to an all-out burn - a heat level more typical of India than the Maghreb, where seasonings are more aromatic than fiery.
When this menu hits the mark, it's easy to see the appeal. Clove-spiced charmoula and grapes made roasted cauliflower irresistible. Underappreciated fennel is given a memorable three-way treatment - pureed into silk, stewed tender in lemony confit, shaved into crunchy salad sparked with cashews and tart grapefruit bursts.
A platter of grilled huge Portuguese sardines was among the most vivid Mediterranean bites, with soft hunks of Algerian anise bread streaked with za'atar and baked by Jonnathan Yacashin, plus tangy dips of green olive tapenade and honey-roasted tomato puree. Two other seafood dishes were also among my favorites: a meaty monkfish with clams and Sardinian fregola in buttery broth; and a buttery swordfish steak over pale green French flageolet beans glazed in a sauce thickened with powdered pistachio.
A broad clay tagine filled with stewed chicken, olives, and artichokes - "Lunch tomorrow!" Lachman quipped when lifting the lid - was a solid evocation of both Morocco and France, its wine broth scented with ras-el-hanout and herbes de Provence.
It reflects a bicultural spirit in many dishes here, including desserts such as the Moroccan-spiced tarte Tatin. As interpreted for Philadelphia by an American who comes to the cuisines out of admiration rather than birthright, it's an earnest amalgam of two cuisines that secures its charms because Lachman is both a fine instinctual cook and a natural restaurateur.
Few personalities on the local scene have been able to create destinations that feel as effortlessly congenial as does Lachman. And Neuf, with the bonus of fine cocktails by Jesse Cornell and an affordable wine list that roams from Morocco to the Canary Islands and the Rhône, succeeds much like Noord in that it is simply an enjoyable place to be.
The service is professional and well-informed without being stuffy. The artwork from Lachman's partner, Bob Moysan, adds a personal touch.
Not all the dishes yet are quite as confidently focused as the smørrebrød and rabbit with zuurkool over at Noord.
But Neuf - which means both "nine" and "brand new" in French - is most certainly something new and positive for the nightlife of this usually quiet stretch of Ninth Street. And on an evening when the wider world was roiled by the angst of the terror attack in Paris, I took comfort in a meal at Lachman's bistro, not to mention his whimsical ode to Middle Eastern-French relations gone right: a giant Paris-Brest ring fluffed with rose water-scented Chantilly and crowned with candied cherries. As we plunged our forks into that cloud of cream and fruit and crust, the day's headlines finally receded, if only for the moment.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Kanella South in Queen Village.
VERY GOOD (TWO BELLS OUT OF FOUR)
943 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia, 215-309-5847; neufphilly.com
Chef-owner Joncarl Lachman, already known for his Northern Euro cooking at Noord, has ventured to the warmer flavors of France and North Africa for this charming new Ninth Street bistro. The food is rustic and satisfying, even if Lachman's feel for exotic Maghreb flavors is not quite as vividly focused as his mastery of Dutch cuisine. But with its sophisticated vibe, good ingredients, excellent bar, and welcoming service, this newcomer is nonetheless still a welcome breath of grown-up dining life for the heart of the Italian Market.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Fennel three ways; cauliflower charmoula; bulgur-crusted fried oysters; stuffed quail on harira; prawns in papillotte; swordfish; monkfish with clams and fregola; Jonnathan Yacashin's bread of the day; bouillabaisse; chicken tagine; Moroccan-spiced tarte Tatin; orange blossom milk pudding.
DRINKS A small but thoughtful and well-rounded drink program is one of Neuf's strengths, as is the large and congenial bar in back where bartender Jesse Cornell makes some excellent cocktails. Don't miss his cognac-kissed take on French 75, a Laphroaig-smoked George Burns, or the complex and herbal "Les Arbres, Les Feuilles, Le Râteau." The hand-picked wine list is very well-suited to the Mediterranean theme, with bottles from Lebanon (Château Kefraya), Morocco (Les Trois Domaines), Spain (Cono 4 Monastrell), and Languedoc (Paul Mas Marsanne), including many choices below $60. The tiny beer selection also features quality: Sculpin, Clown Shoes, and Hof Ten Dormaal, plus Virtue Percheron cider.
WEEKEND NOISE Slightly quieter than its predecessor (Restaurant 943), but still a boisterous bistro in the low-90 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, until 9 p.m. Closed Monday.
All major cards.
Street parking only.