'I don't love moving. Really, I don't," says Terence Feury. "I want to be somewhere for the long haul."
I believe it when Feury says this, because a working chef of his skill - easily among the region's best - deserves a permanent home where his passion for hands-on cooking and exceptional seafood can thrive with the chance to be an owner-chef.
The evidence of recent history, though, hedges against that desire: a half-dozen restaurants in 14 years, from Striped Bass, where he debuted locally in 1999, to Fork, where he earned three bells in 2009.
And now Tavro Thirteen in - Swedesboro?
The only-in-Philly snobs no doubt sniffed at the notion that Feury would leave cosmopolitan Old City for the tract-housing paradise of deep South Jersey. True, the poor guy isn't even allowed to cook striped bass in the Garden State, where the sale of wild striper is illegal. But a gorgeous black bass with blood oranges and celery root, or a braised lamb belly with harissa, or a delicate bowl of squash agnolotti with lobster and truffles is presumably just as worthy of the drive no matter what state it's in.
Right? After my meals at Tavro Thirteen - very good, but not as exceptional as I've come to expect from a Feury project - I'm not entirely certain.
One can't be entirely surprised that Feury saw the possibilities for a new lease on his career in the country. After a long courtship, Tavro's developer, Gus Tzitzifas, finally lured him to partnership after a tour of the Old Swedes Inn's gutted Colonial bones.
It makes more sense when I learn that Feury wandered through the 1771 building before the Tzitzifas family's self-guided decoration job was complete.
The roaring faux fireplace is nice. But with its jarring lipstick-red-leather furniture-against-black-paneling contemporary look, the dining room looks like the Sky Miles lounge of Black Widow Airlines. The hostesses in body-hugging black numbers traced with red hourglasses heighten the cartoonish effect.
Tzitzifas himself is an inspiring figure, a self-made entrepreneur who arrived from Greece as a child and worked his way up from diner jobs to launch an accounting firm, own a golf course (Patriots Glen), build his own diner (the Marlton Diner), and now this fine-dining gambit. And he's invested the resources ($1.8 million) to be taken very seriously.
But designing a restaurant is different from decorating the McMansion. Professional help would have been worthwhile.
Feury's challenge - to bring a universal sense of taste - has thus become even harder than the simple prejudice of its geography, which, despite growing affluence, has yet to produce a regional dining draw. With a solid kitchen behind him, well-meaning service that tries hard, and a smart bar overseen by manager Tom Pittakas built on well-made cocktails, craft beers, and better-than-average wines, Tavro Thirteen has genuine qualities to grow from.
Feury at his best, especially with top-notch seafood, is worth the visit, whether for pristine Fire River oysters with Champagne mignonette, scallop ceviche enlivened with lime and chiles, or tender calamari marinated in serrano chile oil and seared on the plancha with pureed almonds and preserved lemon.
A swordfish over squash puree with pumpkin seeds was meltingly moist. Seared cod topped with parsley and potato chips provided the perfect flake-and-crunch contrast to the funky pairing of soft, potatoey salt cod brandade.
But his kitchen was not uniformly as strong in its concepts as usual. The chestnut soup was so stunningly thick, brown and rich, it would have been more enjoyable in a demitasse than a bowl. Mackerel cooked in cardamom leaves is intriguing, but the steam technique neutered the oily fish's trademark swagger, letting the tart coconut yogurt overpower the dish. A heavy hand with the lemon aioli took away from the cod. The bar menu's fancy chicken wings - deboned, cooked sous-vide, stuffed with ground capon farce - were not worth the fuss.
There are moments when Feury's menu seems to have gone conservative for the suburban crowd. But with the quality of ingredients, his sharp takes on king salmon (with mushroom ragu, gnocchi and chive puree) and bone-in shell steak (with celery root-potato puree and fresh horseradish) were too good to be boring.
Even so, I'm glad his gamy braised lamb belly appetizer has been a surprise hit. It's maybe emboldened him to serve other full-flavored meats: like the richly braised lamb shank, pulled off the bone and formed in a puck beneath spiced orange chutney; a juicy slow-roasted Berkshire pork rack rubbed in clove over buttered cabbage; and a deeply apple-smoked duck breast with roasted carrots, parsnips, and salsify.
Dessert is the menu's weakest link, though the fine house-churned gelati (peanut butter, salted caramel) and rosemary panna cotta with saffron-poached pears are good bets. The small but excellent cheese selection (Pleasant Ridge, Bleu de Basque, Robiola) may be an even better choice.
Still, there is nothing on this menu that master Feury can't tune up to his usual excellence over time. But fine dining restaurants are the sum of their parts, lipstick-red leather and all. And whether Tavro Thirteen is, in fact, Feury's long-awaited home for the long haul remains to be seen.