Why, I wondered after my first bite of lasagna at Petruce et al., had I never forked one like this before? That was my first thought. The second, just as it began taking shape in my conscious mind, devolved just as suddenly into an unreadable fog of endorphins and dopamine: This lasagna—tomatoes caramelized and sweet, béchamel perfumed with nutmeg—had apparently ventured north instead of south after I swallowed it, and headed directly for the pleasure center of my brain, which proceeded to light up like a cougar at a Ryan Gosling movie. It had been finished in a cast-iron dish, bathed in the heat of what is fast becoming one of the most famous wood ovens in region, and the resulting smoky-sweet miracle, created as it was at the intersection of fire and metal, caused a deeply primal sense of satisfaction.
That happens a lot at Petruce et al., the much-awaited and buzzed-about restaurant from the insanely talented Justin and Jonathan Petruce and Tim Kweeder, a beverage savant who is best known for his work with natural wines but whose range and depth of knowledge stretch far beyond that.
Indeed, the hardest part of a meal here is likely to be narrowing down what you want to eat and drink: Even at first glance, it all looks pretty damn tasty. Arrive early and start off with one of standout bar-manager George Costa’s excellent cocktails: They have the ability to subtly re-cast the familiar, as with the Man Man-Hattan and its Laphroig-lent smokiness underpinning the more familiar sweet spice of Rittenhouse Rye and Carpano Antica. Other cocktails simply surprise and charm, as with the Donnie Brusco, in which Blue Coat Gin is twisted up with a strawberry-Lambrusco shrub, those perfectly calibrated vinegary notes making it all too easy to swig down an entire one with abandon.
Then take your seat and play the food version of that game you once did as a kid, the one where you spin the globe, close your eyes, and announce that, wherever your finger lands, that’s where you will end up visiting one day.
If you’re lucky, you’ll hit the roasted carrots, some smoked and others pickled, tangled up with wax beans, parts of which will be blistered and pruned from the flame. All of it swirls with the floral-funkiness of bagna cauda, essentially an emulsification of all that’s good in the world: Olive oil, salt-packed anchovies, garlic, lemon juice, butter, cream—if you’re a fan of the savory, then this is your new drug of choice.
Octopus, borne upon a pedestal of congee, arrives cocooned in char from the grill after a leisurely poaching in a bath of olive, lemon, sambal and more. This causes the flesh inside to grow decadently tender and sweet, amazing against that swirling heat. It’s an unexpected, brilliant item and a phenomenal bar snack: That and a beer is a perfect solo dinner.
But I’d personally stick with wine. Because Kweeder’s list, which relies on bottlings that have been crafted with natural, low-intervention methods, are perfect for this style of food. Indeed, despite the diversity of dishes on offer, the theme of fire tying them together is absolutely perfect for pairing with wines that are, on balance, less about the ultra-ripe fruit flavors and alcohol many of us are accustomed to, and more bright fruit-, mineral- and earth-driven. Our bottle of Grange Tiphaine “Rosa, Rosé, Rosam” Pet’Nat—a gently sparkling wine whose fizz is imparted via an all-too-rarely seen process that doesn’t involve secondary fermentation within bottle or a tank as, say, Champagne or Prosecco do—was both a wine-geek’s thrill and a hedonist’s treat. There is a lot like that on this list if you’re open to it. Ask Kweeder, and ye shall receive.
And in practical terms, that pink sparkler was wildly versatile, remarkable with the black bass, itself all decadent and rich against acid-bright peppers and soft-scrambled eggs made even more airy when sent on a jaunt through a whipped-cream charger. It also was just as delicious with the chicken, a roasted Lancaster beauty replete with nearly blackened skin and flesh as tender as a ballad by Richard Marx. (I imagine its feathers combed into a perfect mullet.) The grits accompanying it, all buttery and toothy; the grilled broccoli rabe lending an anchor of bitterness; the pancetta raising the richness ante even more: Those taut bubbles of the wine danced with it all with ease, setting up those other flavors on the pedestal they deserved.
Following fireworks like this cannot be easy, but the desserts made quick work of that potential speed bump. Chocolate torta, all crisp and dense, is a Petruce riff on an ice cream sandwich, minus the need for freezing. Mochi proved to be a perfect homage to the all-too-short blueberry season that we’re right now luxuriating in.
From vegetarian lasagna and phenomenal bagna cauda all the way to chicken with grits and the Japanese influence of mochi: That such a broad range is all done with this elevated a level of balance and exuberance makes it even more remarkable than it clearly already is on its own merits. The cumulative effect of it all, however, is far simpler: A deep sense of pleasure. Which is all we can ever really ask for, especially from a restaurant this early in what I imagine will be a very long run indeed. I cannot wait to follow it over the years.
PETRUCE ET AL.
1121 Walnut St. 267.225.8232. petrucephilly.com
Cuisine: Wood-grilled, fire-licked magic.
Hours: Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 5-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-midnight; Sun., 5-10pm.
Price range: $9-$31 (though the 20-oz. dry-aged strip loin for two is $55).
Atmosphere: Unpretentious, sophisticated comfort.
Food: The primal pleasures of fire and wood and smoke brought to bear on hearty yet well-defined flavors.
Service: Knowledgeable and unselfconsciously helpful.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014