Avance transforms Le Bec-Fin's old space into brilliant dining magic

Chef Justin Bogle and co. have successfully pulled off what many thought would be impossible: replacing a Philadelphia icon.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 4, 2014

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A single mussel, pickled and meaty, arrived on a white pedestal dainty enough for a little girl’s doll. Impeccably composed and with wit to spare, there was nothing dainty about the flavor, a palate-awakening wave of the sea’s essence lifted with the licorice hints of fennel and Pernod. All of it, ingeniously, was borne on a shell the deep purple of royal robes and crafted from pasta dough colored with squid ink, shaped in the actual casing it was intended to mimic and replete with all the necessary ridges and crenellations.

In the wrong hands, food like this, with its forays into modernist as well as more familiar methods, can all too easily slip over the line dividing creative from overwrought, clever from self-referential and grating. But that’s just not the case at Avance, where Chef Justin Bogle is essentially running an in situ course on how to bridge the gap between occasionally avant-garde technique and the sort of comfort that a great restaurant meal should provide.

This was embodied in the cauliflower chawanmushi, a texturally perfect rendering of the Japanese custard, here studded with thumb-sized Nantucket bay scallops, their seared crowns looking like little umber-toned exclamation points set against the creamy expanse of dashi-rich egg custard. And for all the care of its composition, it remained a dish best scooped up lustily with a spoon: One bite highlighted those sweet scallops, a second the refreshing snap of pickled romanesco, another the crystalline pop of sake-cured trout roe, yet another the bright zip of meyer lemon zest confit.

And it was embodied in the Arctic char, a dice of opalescent pink cubes of the fish framed with preserved elderberries, tarragon and mustard oil, set beneath a thin disk of essentially flash-frozen green apple and fennel juice. It’s whipped up on a machine with a name like a torture device in one of the old James Bond films: The anti-griddle. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a surface not for cooking but for freezing; like a plancha, Bogle pointed out, but in reverse. This apple-cap, which begins as a primarily textural addition to the plating, eventually melts and becomes incorporated into the fish itself, deepening and enlivening it all at once.

But this dish also gave an inkling of where the kitchen tends to err here the few times it does: with overworking a particular plating. The interplay between the char and the apple and the fennel was perfectly pitched, especially with the occasional dot of horse- radish creme fraiche bringing just the right amount of bite to it. But the composed salad on top left me cold: Breakfast and black radish, radish flowers, shaved celery, fennel fronds and tarragon seemed a distraction from the crux of the plating, that wonderful char-and-frozen-disk composition.

This occasional over-conceptualizing, however, is clearly the result of a kitchen working at a very high level indeed and, faced with so many intriguing ideas and possibilities, sometimes struggling to edit a dish down. But that issue, as far as I can tell, is the only one of note. Because even when that happens, the core flavors of each offering are beautifully focused and deeply comforting.

Milky, silky veal sweetbreads are a must-order for offal-lovers, the dusting of cocoa powder and dehydrated-and-powdered hen of the woods mushrooms an umami-rich counterpoint to their creamy, decadent earthiness, all of it amplified by fermented pumpkin jus and a brown butter drizzle, as well as silky ribbons of pickled butternut squash for brightness. Berkshire pork neck, brined for 48 hours and then cooked sous vide for another two days, looks like a shimmering, burnished brick and eats with stunning tenderness. With its side of bacon-dashi-cooked Carolina Gold grits swaddling slices of razor clam and dotted with pickled and roasted kohlrabi, and accompanied by sautéed sea beans, this is down-home comfort raised to the level of haute cuisine.

Duck is dry-aged for 12 days in-house and served as two parallel rails, all pink-centered and crisp-skinned. And while I’d have liked a little more tang from the otherwise excellent fermented persimmon, it all came together seamlessly: Drag a forkful of duck through one of the onyx-toned purees of black garlic and trumpet mushroom, hit a bit of the duck jus on the way and a few grains of the barley finished with a magnificent hazelnut-miso butter, and just try to prevent your toes from curling. You won’t be able to.

What Bogle and Co. have pulled off here can’t have been easy: Stepping into an address as storied as any in the region, reimagining the old Le Bec’s ornate, occasionally baroque touches as a dark, sexy cave with an earth-element-referencing decor, was risky indeed. But there is a warmth to the transformation that was immediately appealing to me.

And there’s plenty of wit, too: Built-in bookshelves anchor the right-side wall of the dining room, and, just in the center, the five-volume set Modernist Cooking is given pride of place. But look closely and there’s more than initially meets the eye. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook is down and to the left. Above it and to the right is the canonical Larousse Gastronomique. And way up top, almost impossible to discern, is a stack of books including an upside-down edition of Emily Post’s guide to etiquette.

It’s a clever move, that inversion of the book, and it sends a subconscious message that Avance doesn’t take itself too deadly seriously. The service smartly reflects that: Helmed by excellent general manager Adam Olland, the front-of-house team is knowledgeable, enthusiastic and very personable. Cocktails are creative yet anchored in well-thought-out flavor profiles (the delicious Johnny Utah, based on bourbon and amontillado with a homemade chile pepper tincture and a delicate mist of Herbsaint, is like a spicy, challenging riff on a sazerac).

The wine program, under the care of sommelier Alex Cherniavsky, offers solid options at several price points, with many bottles under $80 and plenty for several hundred. Like all new wine lists, it’s a work in progress, though I do hope that by-the-glass prices come down to a more approachable level, and that more affordable bright or spicy reds from places like Austria and France’s Beaujolais are added. This is the kind of food that calls out for them, and a deeper selection would be welcome additions to the list alongside the examples that are already present.

But it’s a very good start. In fact, Avance as a whole is so much more than that: Just barely two months into its tenure at that famous address on Walnut Street, it has already done what many thought would be impossible: Staked its own claim on the space and drafted a brand new set of rules. If Avance is this good so early in the game, I can hardly wait to see the heights it eventually achieves. It’s already a standout.

AVANCE
1523 Walnut St., 215.405.0700. avancerestaurant.com

Cuisine: Progressive American.
Hours: Tues. - Sat.: 5pm - 10:30pm.
Price range: Entrees, $25–$45. Five-course tasting menu, $87.
Eight-course chef’s tasting menu, $138. Bar menu downstairs.
Atmosphere: Warm and ensconcing.
Food: Ambitious, adventurous, and remarkably comforting.
Service: Professional and very personal.

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