David Ansill can tell you some stories. He has been a fixture in the Philly food scene for a long time now, and his path has been rather circuitous, from the ground-shifting impact of Pif, the hit-then-slow-decline of Ansill, a brief stint catering followed by his years at Ladder 15, off to Jamaica and now, finally, at Bar Ferdinand, where he seems to once again have found a venue that allows the full range of his formidable talents to shine through.
What first might seem like a strange match—a chef whose efforts were often influenced by the great culinary traditions of France, now at a tapas-centric Spanish spot—actually makes perfect sense. The inherently soulful flavors of Spanish food throughout the many regions of that country play right into his proverbial wheelhouse, and the tension between authentically rustic flavors and the more avant-garde techniques that have given Spain’s own restaurants such violin-string tension are perfect for the team he’s surrounded himself with, including talented sous chefs Aila DeVowe and Elijah Milligan. The result of all this is a revitalized restaurant that provides Ansill with the perfect space to express and experiment and, as nearly a dozen and a half recent dishes clearly showed, to win over a fickly Philly dining public.
This is on clearest display in his tasting menu, a progression of seven dishes that handily encapsulates so much of the joy of Spanish dining in general and of his food in particular. A recent menu started with a single deep-cupped oyster—the magnificently named Shoregasm—anointed with a spiced apple granita. It worked as an hors d’oeuvre, a warm-up lap and a palate-cleanser all at once, and was swiftly followed by house-cured salmon. Three velvety slices, subtle with the aromas of soft herbs like mint, basil, dill and cilantro, were each wrapped around a spray of pea shoots exploding from their ends like cartoon contrails on an animated comet. The accompanying horseradish crema was a nice traditional touch, if not a terribly necessary one.
The next course, however, was one of the wholly unexpected stars of the tasting menu, a dish that I’ll be thinking about for weeks: A hard-cooked egg that, with its delicate paste of a yolk in the center, the draping of meaty white anchovies (re-marinated in-house with the addition of chili pepper and lemon zest), shaved dried tuna mojama and base of pureed oil-poached tuna, was turned into a two-bite delivery system for umami. The micro-greens on top were attractive, but unnecessary. No matter: The first bite rendered any precious-greens quibbles moot anyway.
Tender duck prosciutto with red-wine-cooked pears tasted of dark spices and game. Oxtail luxuriated in a pearl-onion agrodolce dotted with roasted cloves of garlic and given a Curtis Mayfield sense of soul from Ansill’s magnificent homemade demi-glace. The aptly named “three little pigs” may cause quivers of joy among a certain segment of the city’s more pig-passionate foodies, the rail of meaty pork belly given snap from a scattering of crispy pig ears like beautiful non-kosher Fritos, and even further decadence from the puck of fried diced trotter, all that gorgeous, funky richness cooked down into something that melted on the tongue like swine-butter.
Not everything, of course, looks forward, and even with the more overtly rustic preparations, this is a kitchen that excels. Pan con tomate, sort of a Spanish riff on garlic bread, is a lovely starter: just grilled slices rubbed with tomatoes and garlic, dusted with salt and crowned with grape-tomato confit. With a manzanilla or a fino from the smart, delicious wine list, it’s a great way to ease into evening. Jamon croquetas, a gooey filling of béchamel and ham protected by a shattering fried shell—call out for a beer or a glass of Cava. So, too, do the bacon and date empanadas, the balance between sweet and smoky both delicate and delicious.
Patatas bravas were a workhorse winner, but would have been better had the romesco, devoid of the necessary almonds, actually been a romesco, as opposed to a spicy tomato-y sauce. And as much as I enjoyed the jamon flatbread with its oozing egg yolk and garlic oil, it had a hard time holding a candle to many of the other dishes. Still, with the impending installation of a wood-burning pizza oven, I’m looking forward to seeing how they evolve. (Ansill also told me during our phone interview that the oven will be used for expanding the large-plate offerings, and that the freed-up space at the sauté station will allow his team to expand the paella program.)
Desserts run the gamut from the more outré—excellent, almost honeyed parsnip ice cream with coffee salt—to well-wrought riffs on classics like perfectly fried churros.
The entirety of the experience, really, is a testament to the rejuvenating powers that a great chef can have on a restaurant that’s been around a while, and on the inspiration that an established restaurant’s concept can have on a great chef. Ansill and Bar Ferdinand are a remarkable pairing, the jamon and sherry of downtown dining. I’m happy for both of them, and hungry for another visit.
1030 N. Second St. 215.923.1313. barferdinand.com
Cuisine type: Spanish.
Hours: Daily, 4:30-Close; Brunch, Sat.-Sun., 11am-3pm.
Price range: Tapas, $4-$16; chef’s tasting menu $45, plus an additional $20 with wine pairings.
Atmosphere: Sexy and convivial all at once.
Food: Satisfying, soulful and exciting again.
Service: Knowledgeable, friendly and casual.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014