'I fell in love with the brigade," said David Jansen.
That's a sentiment I don't hear much anymore, or, actually, ever. And no, he didn't say that he loves a parade.
He wasn't talking about an infantry battalion, either, though the military metaphor is apt. The longtime Four Seasons vet was referring to the culinary hierarchy established in the late 19th century by Georges-Auguste Escoffier, the famed French chef who defined roles for every kitchen worker, from chef de cuisine to the plongeur elbows-deep in dishes.
Some terms are still commonly spoken today, from sous-chef to the garde manger. But the rigid structure, discipline, and camaraderie of the kitchen brigade's big-team machine has eroded over this last decade of more casual concepts, personality-driven kitchens, declining French sway, and the rise of the efficient small restaurant.
The now-closed Four Seasons Hotel, where the brigade reached 60 souls cooking at the highest levels for several venues, including the Fountain, where Jansen was night chef for a decade, was one of Philly's last great examples: "We spent so much time together in the restaurant we became like brothers."
Has the brotherhood of the brigade moved to Mount Airy? The chef, not to mention his fast-growing fan base along Germantown Avenue, sure hopes so. And even if his self-named restaurant, Jansen, will never quite approach the Four Seasons in scope with its 72 seats and outdoor garden, it's already showing the old hotel's spirit of polished professionalism and devotion to top-line quality.
When I take a bite of the perfectly poached lobster, or a giant cocktail shrimp draped over a martini glass, each morsel is so moist and sweet with briny sea, it's clear someone has done this before.
Of course, succeeding at a new neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood where ambitious fine dining has not thrived is tricky. It's not like working inside the cushy bubble of a luxury hotel where entrées hit $50 and the chef could order 105-pound tunas directly from a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico.
So Jansen has smartly refused to let plates crest $29, without sacrificing much at all. When he's serving up prime-grade filet alongside bacon-studded mashed potatoes and a classic veal sauce, that's admirably fair.
And the restaurant's tone is consistent. The former Avenida (and Cresheim Cottage Cafe) now looks the fine-dining part, the interior of its 316-year-old stone bones handsomely renovated with whitewashed walls that feel bright and linen-crisp. A walled herb garden blooms around tented tables strung with twinkling lights. The service staff stands upright and delivers with classic hotel formality earnestly, though at times awkwardly overmanaging, too, with the occasional mangling of a key phrase ("Nishy-was" salad?) that would make Escoffier cringe. The Eurocentric wine program is a solid starter list built on small producers, but it still has plenty of room to find more interesting selections by the glass - for now, bottles are the way to go.
But these few unfinished edges reflect a restaurant with serious aspirations, and already well on its way, that is still working out some fine points.
As for the food, it's not cutting-edge contemporary cuisine. It's classic and approachable, which is surely a safer bet for longevity in a Chestnut Hill/Mount Airy world that has a reputation for conservative tastes.
And yet, Jansen consistently rises above being boring through the quality of its ingredients and impeccable preparation. A hunk of sushi-grade tuna is rubbed with olive tapenade, lightly grilled, then sliced open to reveal a ruby-rare heart perched beside a Niçoise salad with shaved fennel and sheer potato crisps. The same template is reprised at a later meal, but with rack of lamb as its centerpiece, and the chops are so beautiful, blushing pink and juicy with lamb-iness, it shows the rôtisseur meat chef and poissonnier fish guy are in perfect sync. (Perhaps here one and the same?)
Another dish I saw in two incarnations shows the same breadth of international influences always evident at the Fountain, too - a boldly spiced Thai-style root vegetable curry topped with tempura-fried seafood. I had magnificent softshells one night, then big sweet chunks of lobster and shrimp at a later meal. The change was a nod to seasonal shifts, naturally, though Jansen has at times been slow to switch. A luscious duet of grilled gulf shrimp entwined over a huge mushroom ravioli at my first meal was simply delicious - but the truffled stuffing and bisquey Américaine sauce were too rich for summer. The dish was finally replaced recently by succulent scallops with a zingy gazpacho sauce I loved - until the garish addition of truffle oil slightly dimmed its shine.
That lily-gilding instinct is a legacy of Jansen's hotel DNA. The deep-fried pork-belly dumpling that added altitude and crunch to the chinoiserie turbot was another unnecessary crowning move. The poached fish itself was luxurious and delicate, and was paired with black rice in an aromatic ginger-lemongrass broth that didn't need the assist.
More than a few dishes, though, were just right. Raw hamachi crudo crackled beneath a mince of fennel and shallot zipped up with pickled habaneros. A chilled vidalia soup was a sweet and creamy onion riff on the usual vichyssoise. A tender pork loin, served over cavatelli early on, has now gone summer with corn and favas. A perfectly grilled slice of buttery Norwegian salmon was hard to resist over Israeli couscous tossed with earthy smoked paprika dressing and fried chickpeas.
One very brigade-ish bonus Jansen has installed that few new restaurants can accommodate is a real pâtissier, Eboni Peartree. She's not perfect, as evidenced by a watery affogato. But spoon into the silky coconut creme caramel, or the poppy-seed genoise studded with pineapple wrapped in a fire-roasted pouf of meringue, or the cast-iron comfort of a fresh cinnamon bun spiraled around summer berries beneath lemon cream glaze, and you'll know Peartree doesn't play. Her stunning salted-caramel-stuffed chocolate tart could be oozing right off a magazine cover onto your plate.
With more of the same, and plenty of room still for Jansen to grow into a special-occasion anchor for its grateful neighborhood, a parade for this brigade could someday happen.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Café Lutecia in Fitler Square.
Jansen (three bells out of four)
7402 Germantown Ave., 267-335-5041; on Facebook
Longtime Fountain chef David Jansen has brought a touch of Four Seasons polish to Mount Airy, revamping a historic stone building on Germantown Avenue (formerly Avenida) into a whitewashed oasis with a garden where luxury ingredients, classic haute-cuisine, and thoughtful service present fine dining with a personal touch. Though there's a slightly retro feel to the cooking, Jansen's commitment to quality and professionalism has created a haven of accessible fine dining that an underserved and traditionally conservative dining neighborhood will surely embrace.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Shrimp, crab, or lobster cocktails; chilled onion soup; hamachi crudo; dayboat scallops with gazpacho; mushroom bruschetta; filet mignon; salmon; chinoiserie turbot; lamb chops; lobster-shrimp tempura over curried stew; softshell crab (in season); grilled tuna special; chocolate caramel tart; Philly Cinnabun.
DRINKS The cocktails shy away from complicated mixology in favor of simpler drinks with fresh (and often fruity) twists that would be at home in a party punch bowl. The pineapple fizz and cucumber-forward Jansen gimlet are highlights. The small beer selection needs improvement. And wines by the glass solidly cover the standard bases affordably for $9-$12. But the best-quality values are on the Eurocentric list of small-producer bottles with lots of choices between $45 and $65, including Lois grüner veltliner, dry Heddesdorff riesling, Paul Hobb Crossbarn chard, and Ettore Germano barbera d'alba. Lots of bigger names (Sperino, Torbreck, Carl Roy, Colombo Crozes-Hermitages) are available well under $100.
WEEKEND NOISE Noise can hit 86 decibels in the smaller back room, but, usually, the sound sits in the more civilized, conversation-friendly low-80s. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Dinner entrees, $22-$29.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested. Outdoor seating available on first-come basis.