When you breeze through Parc's oversized oak and glass double doors, you'll be overwhelmed by the aroma of freshly baked bread, an infectious, high-spirited hubbub and by the sheer size of the place (more than 10,000 square feet). But mostly by d�j� vu. The literal French translation for the mental echo is "already seen," and you've definitely seen Stephen Starr's bistro before. When you studied abroad in Paris, perhaps, or visited family in Montreal.
The difference is that at Parc, there are no decades behind the mottled mirrors and scuffed hardwood; the barstools have no salacious stories to tell. From the staff's crisp black-tie attire to the Pernod Ricard blackboard hanging above the bar, Parc is such a contrived reproduction, you'll wonder if the brunch menu features pancakes shaped like Mickey ears.
That said, when the sun dips below the treetops and the globe lights dim to a flattering sepia, it's easy to get lost in the dreamy ambiance and lovely, unearned patina of this baby wolf in vintage clothing. When chef Dominique Filoni's bubbling, brown gruyere-capped onion soup arrives at the table, it is kinda like you've died and gone to Paris.
A native of St. Tropez, Filoni first earned Stateside acclaim at his Bryn Mawr restaurant Bianca. When the man is on, he's on. That onion soup, entwined with be witching threads of red and white wine, ranks among the best in the city. No crock.
At brunch, golden triangles of berry-topped pain perdu and silky polenta cradling two perfect poached eggs were hangover busters of the highest order. The wooden charcuterie board brought whisper-thin slices of speck, Bayonne ham, petit Jesu, bresaola and saucisson sec Basquaise alongside decadent pistachio-studded pate de Campagne and chicken liver mousse fluffy as cappuccino foam. Spread on slices of soft, yielding boule and wonderfully crusty, chewy baguette, few things are as perfectly delicious.
Three full-time bakers fire bread batches twice daily. At breakfast and brunch the patissiers tempt with cloth-lined basketfuls of sinful pain au chocolat, raisin brioche, flaky croissants and moist muffins so loaded with blueberries it looks like an ink pen exploded in the batter.
Sitting at the pewter bar (custom-made by Ateliers Nectoux, France's oldest bar manufacturer) while savoring a buttery croissant and cup of potent cafe Vietnamese, it's hard not to feel like you're in Paris.
During one visit, on the kind of clement September evening made for eating outdoors, the gods of Parc smiled upon me with a coveted table on the restaurant's 18th Street side, where the walls fall away and the apple-crisp breeze rustles by. I could reach out and pet the Oreo-colored shih-tzus frolicking in the park--or chuck a baguette at the sidewalk table poseur who felt the need to loudly greet and air-kiss every acquaintance who happened by.
The scene is Parc's ultimate allure, and the food too often falls into secondary step. If you're here to cheat on your husband or ink a power deal, then you might not care that the nicely crisped duck confit tasted like a salt lick. Mingling with the beau monde, there's no noticing the tender escargots mingling in the too buttery, too salty hazelnut-butter sauce. What's a little lukewarm beef bourguignon between frenemies?
Though I liked the trout amandine for its crisp skin and lemony beurre blanc, you can get a sharper, fresher version of the same dish (with a whole local trout) at Swallow for $18. Parc uses North Carolina fish, fillets it and charges $22.
The vivid fruit tarts--juicy fig-and-blueberry, energizing lemon topped with slender cigarettes of toasted meringue--from pastry chef Frank Urso (Barlcay Prime) ended dinner on a high note boosted by natural, easygoing service. At brunch, the sweet but sluggish staff still seemed to be shaking off morning brain fog.
The good news is that Filoni is too talented and Starr too savvy to let these problems go ignored. Feeding a 300-seat restaurant from 7:30 a.m. to midnight is a Herculean undertaking, one that's bound to be refined as the Rittenhouse flora fade from green to orange and gold.
For now, pull up a sidewalk seat and bask in how urbane you are. On Rittenhouse Square, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Dinner with Luke Palladino