If W.C. Fields was a food critic, the epitaph on his tombstone might read; "I'd rather be here than eating in Philadelphia." Unfortunately, except for a meal at the Striped Bass, the evidence of my three day trip to the city of brotherly love would have proven him right. And that even goes for the cheese steaks we ate for lunch on Friday at Dallesandro's, purportedly the city's best spot for this uniquely local specialty.
My journey began at Vetri on a Thursday evening. I know you're saying to yourself, he's going to eat Italian food? What is he out of his mind, he is going to hate it. But I had heard so many good things about the restaurant that I was determined to give it a try. But a handful of positive comments could not offset the lack of sophistication shown by the restaurant's kitchen where only one dish in an 8 course tasting menu rose to the level of truly delicious.
Our meal started with Foie gras prepared as if it was pastrami. Given the terrific foie prepared like bacon that I had at McCrady's three weeks earlier, I was looking to add this to my list of unusual, but enjoyable, foie gras dishes. Unfortunately the flavor of cracked coriander overpowered the subtle taste of the foie, and the dish was a bust. I mean doesn't the kitchen actually taste the food? I can't imagine that a properly trained chef tasted this dish and then said, yes, those flavors are perfectly balanced. The foie was followed by a crudo of kampachi served with watermelon radishes. Nothing offensive here but not a lot of taste to begin with. Then a cutting board filled with home made charcuterie which was very good if a bit underspiced. And then a dish I specifically asked for, crispy pork belly in a chestnut crema. This dish was actually interesting and the pork belly was prepared perfectly. But the chestnut crema only came about 2/3 of the way to being fully flavored and so the dish was out of balance. But they deserve points for a good idea.
Sauteed veal sausage with quince agro dolce and chanterelle mushrooms was the dish of the night for me as it managed to be both fully flavored as well as perfectly balanced - as if Jean George was cooking Italian food. If the rest of the dishes met this standard I would have thoroughly enjoyed my meal. Then seared sea bream with cockles and an herb salad. Fine but it was on the plain side. Then a house signature, baby goat roasted over mesquite for three hours and served with warm polenta. Not bad if a bit greasy, but it was a hair overcooked and the goat wasn't as flavorful as I would have liked it to be.
Now there are those of you out there who might chalk up my impressions of this meal as being affected by my bias against Italian restaurants. But I assure you, if all of the dishes were as good as the veal sausage I would be quite happy with my meal. But the reality is, every other dish had some type of flaw from being underspiced, underflavored, out of balance, cooked poorly or even undersalted. The truth is, there are four or five Italian restaurants in New York City, including Sfoglia, Falai and Al Di La that I would rather eat at than Vetri.
Things got much worse at Le Bec Fin. Again, I am not big on traditional French cuisine. It's not that I don't like it - you can read about the superb meal I had at Auberge D'Ill here.. But the food at most restaurants still serving traditional French cuisine is typically tired. But this was one of the worst performances I've seen in years and George Perrier must be the Rip Van Winkle of the ovens as he doesn't seem to have paid any attention to any of the changes that have happened in French cuisine over the last two decades.
Despite the lavishness - three gigantic chandeliers dominate the room - the space had a charm to it. But if only the food was half as charming in any way, I started with what they describe as a risotto of Chinese forbiden rice with a pomegranite emulsion which in reality was a wild rice soup flavored with pomegranite. It had a nice flavor but it was somewhat diluted. It was accompanied by a small cup holding a sort of fricasse of sweetbreads and mushrooms which was nearly iinedible. Mrs. P ordered the escargots (sorry no photo) which came out like a pile of mud. You could tell we were in trouble when Mrs. P mentioned looking forward to the cheese cart after the first appetizer! Then I had a dish of salmon confited in olive oil, served with baby Brussel sprouts in a Zinfandel sauce was a slight improvement. The salmon perfectly cooked, but this time the sauce was overreduced and cloying. My main dish, roast nuggets of veal with crispy sweetbreads was on the ordinary side, although I will say the quaality of the veal was quite good. But otherwise simple and on the bland side. The cranberry beans were a mess.
I have to say I found the experience shocking. The truth of the matter is, all this food needs is for someone to care about it. I can't imagine that someone has tasted those sauces and found they were prepared properly. With a little bit of effort, this food would be 50% better. And the wine list has to be one of the biggesst ripoffs I have ever seen. Some wines seem to be marked up 500-600%. I hear the food they serve in the downstairs bar is more enjoyable than the main restaurant and I would be willing to give it a try. Otherwise I can't see spending $138 a person a meal that is no better than acceptable at its best moments.
Oddly enough, I was prepared not to like Striped Bass but it was the best meal I had on the trip by a reasonable margin. It's housed in a beautiful space that is reminiscent of New York's Eleven Madison Park, and the food is cut from the same cloth as other restaurants that occupy what I always describe as the upper middle dining scene. We started with some Kumamoto oysters and Maya shrimp with various dipping sauces (no photo). The oysters were tasty but they were the smallest Kumamotos I've ever come across and they should have charged half price for an order (or given you twice as many for the money.) Unfortunately the shrimp were overcooked. Then we split a delicious salad of fresh and crispy pears with dusck proscuitto, raisins, walnuts and a touch of gorganzola. My main was butter poached lobster served over Bomba rice that was prepared like paella with cockles and chorizo. The lobster was tender and loaded with ther taste of butter. Mrs. P thoroughly enjoyed a pairing of spiced yellow fin tuna with Korean braised short ribs and I have to admit that the taste I had was delicious. After dinner the chef came over to chat with is and we started talking food. After he heard of my dining exploits, he invited us back so he could cook for us. I don't get to Philly that often but I will take him up on his offer if I do.
So I was underwhelmed by some of the top dining that Philly has to offer. Even the Renoir landscape show at the Fine Arts Museum was less than exhilerating. Next time I am going to hit some of those BYOs that people rave about. But I have to say that given the quality I found at what other guides rate as the best restaurants in the city, I have to be honest and say that I am more than a bit circumspect.
Vetri - Acceptable Le Bec Fin - Can't Recommend Striped Bass - Recommended +*
* I am changing the rating system on this site so that it conforms with the rating system I am using on the Opinionated About Dining Surveys. While the three restaurants in this article do not appear on the current survey, they will appear in our Moderate and Inexpensive Dining Survey which will launch next year. Here is an explanation of our ratings:
Fine Dining Restaurants
Must Go - A restaurant worth planning a trip around
Recommended +++ - Important restaurants to dine at when visiting a region
Recommended ++ - Top local choices
Recommended + - Recommended in its location
Acceptable - The best of the rest
Moderate & Inexpensive Dining
Unique - Unique in its category and worth going out of your way for.
Recommended - Recommended over other restaurants in the category
Acceptable - The best of the rest
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