Monday, May 31, 2010

Philly’s Phinest New Restaurant

Photo credit: M. McClellan

Iron Chef Jose Garces has taken the popular market-café concept and turned it on its head, taking it at least five steps above anything that’s available in Philadelphia. In fact, there may not be a place like this on this side of the Atlantic.

The Garces Trading Company has been the place I’ve been waiting for. I already told Maria that I’m leaving home to move into the restaurant. I’ll admit upon further review I was too gushy on The Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic’s Craig LaBan’s chat (last post). But I still stand by my statement that this restaurant, café, market, whatever you want to call it, is easily the best new restaurant in Philly and may be the best restaurant in the city in terms of concept, quality, execution and value (value isn’t something one normally thinks of when it comes to a Jose Garces establishment).

On the market side of this food concept there’s cheeses and meats from Spain, Italy and France. There’s house made salami and country pâté. Included in the selection is Jamón ibérico, from the black Iberian pigs who roam free and live off a diet of acorns, herbs and roots. It’s the most expensive ham in the U.S. and until 2007, unavailable. Here, they serve it was a fine housemade mustard but it doesn’t need it. It melts in your mouth. There are canisters of infused olive oil, including black and white truffle oil (the real deal). They provide tiny throw-away cups and croutons to taste the selection. There’s nothing like earthiness and richness of truffle oil. You can buy the oil in branded, 12.8-ounce bottles. To go with the oil, there’s a vinegar bar. There are takeout meals, an on-site bakery with bread, pastries and desserts; and they have their own selection of blended coffees.

But what has everyone talking (and in the case of rival restaurateurs, fuming) is the state-leased wine boutique inside the market. The state-controlled wine system in Pennsylvania is as archaic as it is inefficient. It deserves its own story. To try to make it brief most people have to buy wine and spirits at a state controlled liquor store. The result is expensive wine with poor selection, unless you buy volume. Restaurants have a better selection but they pay nearly as much as customers, so, ultimately the customer pays even more. In addition, a liquor license for food and bars businesses is very expensive in Pennsylvania. The one good result out of this is chefs opening their own small BYO restaurants, where you can get great food in a casual atmosphere and pay retail for wine.

While restaurateurs have been complaining about this for years, Garces and his enormous brain figured a way around it where everyone wins. He convinced the state liquor control board to lease a space inside his restaurant. Inside the glass-enclosed boutique is a wonderful selection of 200 wines in a temperature controlled environment, almost all of them unavailable for retail in state liquor stores. You can select a bottle, pay for it at a dedicated cash register and then sit a table in the restaurant and enjoy it in the restaurant with fine stemware with your meal.

We’ve had lunch and dinner inside. We’ve had the Plats du jour twice for two: The bouillabaisse on day and the paella valenciana (with rabbit, gambas (shrimp), chorizo and fava bean salad) another. For lunch we've enjoyed the duck Lyonnaise duck salad (poached egg, duck confit, lardons and a mustard vinaigrette along with an omelet with a perfect custard-like texture. Without getting caught up in adjectives everything was exceptional in ingredients and execution (although I needed a magnifying glass to see the baby artichokes).

If you’re really fortunate, then you will have Brandon as a server, as we did for two of our three trips.

Enjoy it all you want. But you can’t move in. It’s taken.

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